Alchemy and the Transmutation of Gold

Alchemist's Laboratory

Detail from _The Explosion in the Alchemist’s Laboratory_ by Justus van Bentum (1670–1727)

Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption.

~H. J. Sheppard (1986)

For centuries alchemists were obsessed with the idea of changing base metals into gold. The idea had a certain logic based on widely held beliefs. It was commonly thought that minerals, including gemstones, matured in the ground, gradually becoming ever more precious. Over time, soil was thought to change into lead, lead into silver, and silver into gold. Metals transmuted into gemstones as they approached the perfection of the stars. Alchemists believed it was possible to reproduce this natural process in the laboratory.


If metals remain buried long enough in the earth, not only are they consumed by rust, but by long continuance they are even transmuted into natural stones, and there are a great many of these; but this is known to few.

~Paracelsus (1493-1541)
Coelum Philosophorum or Book of Vexations

Not all alchemists were created equal. At one end of the spectrum were the posers and swindlers interested in money and fame. At the other extreme were the followers of spiritual or metaphysical alchemy. And in the middle were the nascent scientists, who were genuinely interested in exploring the nature of matter.

alchemy sir francis bacon

Sir Francis Bacon

That did not mean that great scientific minds were averse to making gold. One of the greatest thinkers of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, put it succinctly: “The chief function of the alchemist is to transmute metals, that is to say, the imperfect ones, in a true manner and not fraudulent.”

Francis Bacon, the 16th century father of scientific method, put it thus: “The world hath been much abused by the opinion of making of gold: The worke it selfe I judge to be possible; But the meanes (hitherto propounded) to effect it, are, in the practice, full of errour and imposture; and in the theory, full of unsound imaginations.”



Many made the attempt. Bolos of Mendes, in his treatise Physica et Mystica (c. 200 BC), has given us his recipe for making gold: “Treat pyrites until they become incombustible, after having lost the black color. Treat with brine, with seawater, or with oxymel (honey and vinegar), or what you will, and heat until they become like particles of gold, which have not been submitted to the action of fire. This done, mix in native sulphur, yellow alum, Attic ochre, or what you will.”

Paracelsus speaks of 14 gradations, or gradual steps, to be executed in the laboratory “of such a kind that a metal dissolved or digested in them can be promoted to the degree of Sol [gold] and transmuted…in a cineritium [hot sand bath], by transmutation of graduation, the lesser metals may be brought to the perfection of the greater ones—a perfection which answers any suitable tests.”

Pope John XII

Pope John XXII

We know that alchemical “gold” successfully found its way into the marketplace because both Diocletian (AD 3rd century) and Pope John XXII (AD 14th century) explicitly outlawed the practice. Although separated by centuries, both knew that the artificial manufacture of gold could undermine official currency.

Many alchemical recipes focused on the “doubling” of gold. In other words, a pinch of gold would be added to other materials in order to create more gold. In this kind of recipe, gold might be mixed with copper and silver or other metallic ingredients. The result, to the early alchemist, who was not capable of precise chemical analysis, was the creation of more gold. What was “gold” anyway?

Brugel's The Alchemist

Detail from Pieter Brueghel’s _The Alchemist_ (1558)

Francis Bacon spoke of the ambiguity: “Gold hath these natures: greatnesse of weight; closeness of parts; fixation; pliantnesse, or softnesse; immunitie from rust; colour or tincture of yellow. Therefore the sure way to make gold, is to know the causes of the severall natures before rehearsed, and the axiomes concerning the same. For if a man can make a metall, that hath all these properties, let men dispute, whether it be gold, or no?”

To scientists of old, gold was something shiny, heavy, yellow, and resistant to fire and tarnish. If the metal they created had these characteristics, who was to say it wasn’t gold? Recipes for the “doubling” of gold have become standard procedure in the jewelry industry today. The ancient process has evolved into a closely regulated system for creating gold alloys.

Do not hold as gold all that shines as gold.
~Alain de Lille (12th century)

So why did alchemy and its practitioners develop such a shady reputation? According to Francis Bacon, it was because “The alchymists call in likewise many vanities, out of astrology, naturall magicke; superstitious interpretations of scriptures; auricular traditions ; faigned testimonies of ancient authors; and the like.”

Or perhaps it was because the field drew charlatans and tricksters like a magnet.

Alchemist's workshopMost alchemical texts were dubiously attributed to a few well-known, often long-deceased or mythical authors who frequently wrote in code. This made attribution of ideas and duplication of recipes and experiments impossible—key flaws from a scientific perspective. It is doubtful if many of the purported authors practiced alchemy at all, and among those who did, new works mysteriously popped up long after their death. Examples include alchemical works attributed to Raymond Llull, George Ripley, Nicholas Flamel, and Bernard Trevesan among others.

Alchemy Digby

Extract and Symbol Key from Kenelm Digby’s “A Choice Collection of Rare Secrets” (1682)

Alchemical texts are frequently unintelligible, seemingly written in code. According to Morienas the Greek: “The ancients, did not refer to the matters pertaining to this science by their proper names, speaking instead as we truly know, in circumlocutions, in order to confute fools.” Nevertheless the obfuscation, whether intentional or not, makes it impossible to test the ideas and recipes included in ancient texts.

J J Becher

Johann Becher

Due to the intellectual fog surrounding alchemy, it was easy for swindlers to get the upper hand. One example of this kind of deception took place in the 1670s, when the Dutch government employed Johann Joachim Becher to change sand into gold. Becher was allotted just enough money to construct a waterwheel and furnace for a small-scale trial run—which was apparently conducted with some success in front of a single witness. After the Dutch government awarded Becher a substantial sum to develop the process on a grand scale, he apparently vanished.

alchemy Edward Kelley

Edward Kelley

Edward Kelley is famous for being John Dee’s skryer—due to his ability to summon spirits in a “shew stone”—but many are unaware that he also had alchemical talents. As a result of his claims, he was employed by Emperor Rudolf II to transmute base metals into gold. When his experiments were not successful, Kelley was thrown in prison, where he subsequently died.

There is also the cautionary tale of Denis Zachaire, a 16th century noble who was impoverished by his obsession with alchemy. Introduced to the art by his tutor, Zachaire squandered his inheritance in his futile quest for the Philosopher’s stone.


1960s High-Voltage Accelerator

But alchemists may have the last laugh after all. Physicists can now make gold from lead and mercury in giant electrical devices called particle accelerators, although it is a very expensive and inefficient attribution