A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare. The discovery of new sources of ore or improvements in mining or refining processes may cause the value of a precious metal to diminish. The status of a “precious” metal can also be determined by high demand or market value. Precious metals in bulk form are known as bullion, and are traded on commodity markets. Bullion metals may be cast into ingots, or minted into coins. The defining attribute of bullion is that it is valued by its mass and purity rather than by a face value as money.
Many nations mint bullion coins. Although nominally issued as legal tender, these coins’ face value as currency is far below that of their value as bullion. For instance, Canada mints a gold bullion coin (the Gold Maple Leaf) at a face value of $50 containing one troy ounce (31.1035 g) of gold—as of July 2009, this coin is worth about $1,075 CAD as bullion. Bullion coins’ minting by national governments gives them some numismatic value in addition to their bullion value, as well as certifying their purity.
The level of purity varies from issue to issue. 99.9% purity is common. The purest mass-produced bullion coins are in the Canadian Gold Maple Leaf series, which go up to 99.999% purity. Note that a 100% pure bullion is impossible, as absolute purity in extracted and refined metals can not be asymptotically approached. Many bullion coins contain a stated quantity (such as one troy ounce) of the marginally-impure alloy. In contrast, the Krugerrand is one of many historic and modern bullion coins of 22 Kt Crown gold, with a stated content (usually one troy ounce) of “fine gold”[clarification needed (define)], with the other component(s) of the alloy making the coin heavier than one ounce in total. Still more bullion coins (for example: British Sovereign) state neither the purity nor the fine-gold weight on the coin, but are recognized and consistent in their composition, and many historically stated a denomination in currency (example: American Double Eagle).
One of the largest bullion coins in the world is the 10,000 dollar Australian Gold Nugget coin minted in Australia which consists of a full kilogram of 99.9% pure gold. There have been a small number of larger bullion coins, but they are impractical to handle and not produced in mass quantities. China has produced coins in very limited quantities (less than 20 pieces minted) that exceed 260 troy ounces (8 kg) of gold. Austria has minted a coin containing 31 kg of gold (the Vienna Philharmonic Coin minted in 2004 with a face value of 100,000 euro). As a stunt to publicise the 99.999% pure one-ounce Canadian Gold Maple Leaf series, in 2007 the Royal Canadian Mint made a 100 kg 99.999% gold coin, with a face value of $1 million, and now manufactures them to order, but at a substantial premium over the market value of the gold.
Gold and silver are often seen as hedges against both inflation and economic downturn. Silver coins have become popular with collectors due to their relative affordability, and unlike most gold and platinum issues which are valued based upon the markets, silver issues are more often valued as collectables, far higher than their actual bullion value.