Skip to content

There’s gold in them thar hills – thanks to Johnson Matthey we know how pure it is.

O.K. your starter for ten. Where does the phrase ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’ come from?

Answer (allegedly): According to some people, in 1849 from the steps of the Lumpkin County Courthouse, a Dahlonega, Georgia Mint assayer, Dr. M. F. Stephenson, yelled to the townspeople “There’s gold in them thar hills!” He wanted to keep those people looking for gold in Georgia rather than leaving for California.

And what has that got to do with Johnson Matthey? Wikipedia tells me that it is ‘a British multi-national speciality chemicals and sustainable technologies company with its headquarters in  London’. Well, they are one of those comparatively few companies still going strong, quoted on the FTSE 250 index, with its origins back in the eighteenth century. There follows a guest blog-post by Joel Foster, who is the Community Manager at –  and describes himself as Media Partner for: Reuters Events: Commodities Trading USA 2022. And yes, being an American he will be excused for his American spelling of words such as ‘lustre’ and jewellery’!

Gold bar bearing stamp of Johnson Matthey & Pauwels, © Chards


Before handing over to Joel, I would explain that the story starts with John Johnson  (1737–1786) who became an assayer of ores and metals, mostly silver, gold and some base metals, at No. 7, Maiden Lane (now part of Gresham Street between Wood Street and Foster Lane, London EC2)   His son, also called John, was born in 1765 and followed his father into the business, becoming a member of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.  He lived until 1831 and was significant because for a time his was the only commercial assay business in London. He married Mary (née Wight) (1766–1863) and they lived at 6–7 Maiden Lane, in the City of London. By the turn of the century John had become involved with the rapidly developing platinum metals industry, using crude ‘platina’ smuggled to Britain via Jamaica from what is now Colombia.

John and his wife had ten children. One of them was Percival Johnson. Percival was apprenticed to his father and obtained the freedom of the goldsmith’s company on 2 March 1814, becoming a liveryman on 24 April 1816. It was Percival who  went on to become a founder of Johnson Matthey in 1817.

Percival Johnson  ©Johnson Matthey

This then is the guest bog, so over to you Joel:

The gold market in England goes back to 1697; however, Percival Johnson’s developments in gold refining would lift gold from ordinary base metal to the precious metal that dazzles us today.

So how did gold go from being one of the most common metals of lesser value to the basis for today’s most stunning jewelry?

Who Was Percival Johnson?

Percival Johnson founded Johnson Matthey, then the largest precious metals business in England. Born in 1792, Johnson got an early start in precious metals by working as a metallurgical assayer for his father. He launched his own business in 1817, graduating from being his father’s apprentice to becoming a business owner.

In 1846, Johnson became a Royal Society fellow due to his knowledge of metallurgy. His fame in the business world rose when he went into a full partnership with a stockbroker named George Matthey. In 1852, Johnson earned an appointment as assayer for the Bank of England.

George Matthey, © Johnson Matthey

The businessman married twice, first to Elizabeth Lydia Smith in 1817 and later in 1858 to Georgina Elizabeth Ellis. Although Johnson was not known to have left children, his legacy changed how people looked at gold’s value. Gold’s status as one of the most important metals used in modern jewelry is mainly due to Johnson’s work in inventing a new way of refining it.

In 1854, Johnson moved to the Devon community of Stoke Fleming because of his silver mining assets. He retired from his business activities in 1860 after having had a long yet fulfilling career. Johnson died in 1866 at the age of 74.

St Peter’s Church, Stoke Fleming, where Percival Johnson is buried. © Derek Harper

What Was Johnson’s Life Like?

Having been trained in his father’s business, Johnson would have had ample opportunity to learn his craft well. When he started his business in the early 1800s, Johnson imported gold from Brazil. These imports would have been lucrative at the time, despite much of the demand having slowed down, and Johnson rose to the challenge.

How Did Johnson Discover His Gold Refining Method?

Gold has been refined for thousands of years, with methods known as far back as ancient Egypt. However, Johnson’s refining methods at that time were focused on alleviating specific issues with the quality of old imported into England from Brazil. Many of these gold bars had impurities that were challenging to remove.

However, as an experienced assayist not easily deterred, Johnson was well-prepared. He knew enough about the chemical makeup of gold to know what would make gold, an otherwise soft metal, more durable for uses beyond coinage. Johnson discovered that refining gold with other metals, including palladium, increased its durability and improved its shine.

Did Percival Johnson’s Life Change After His Discovery?

Being a Royal Society Fellow, business owner, and renowned assayist would have given Johnson a measure of prestige. Earnings from his refining methods made it easier for Johnson to invest in the silver mining trade. Although Johnson continued to be in a line of work that he enjoyed, this discovery made him much more prosperous.

How Does Gold’s Shininess Matter?

Gold’s shininess helps increase its value as a material for jewelry. When gold stays consistently shiny, this is usually a sign of gold with a higher karat amount. Some gold has been mixed with other metals to increase durability because of its softness, but mixing gold with other materials somewhat decreases the shininess.

How Does Palladium Enhance Gold’s Luster?

Palladium is a popular gold alloy in a lot of gold measuring 14 karats and above. In white gold, which is one of the most valuable types of gold used in jewelry, palladium is one of the most common materials. Because white gold is paler than many other gold colors, the appearance is shinier.

The karat rating of a piece of gold jewelry describes the extent of the gold’s purity. One karat equals 1/24th of a part of pure gold. For example, if a ring is made from 14-karat gold, it’s composed of 14 parts gold and 10 parts of other metals. Pure gold mixed with no other alloys is described as 24-karats.

Is There a Psychological Impact With Improving Gold’s Luster?

Gold appears to glow from the inside, which is behind gold appearing on many illuminated manuscripts. Because gold is highly reflective, it has been associated with the sun in many sun-worshiping cultures. As gold started to become associated with luxury during the Middle Ages, the metal and its color became associated with success.

Are Investors More Likely to Buy Gold With a Better Luster?

Whether investors are likely to buy gold with a better luster depends on whether they invest in gold as jewelry or decorative items. Gold with a better shine has more value on the resale market, with 18-karat or 24-karat gold having the highest value. However, most investors who invest in gold do so on the precious metals market, which has different considerations.

For example, gold is one of the most effective hedges against inflation because gold’s value tends to move independently versus the US dollar. During times of economic uncertainty, gold can be one of the safer investments. Diverse investment portfolios usually include gold.

Is Gold With a Better Luster More Popular as Jewelry?

Although gold has a higher luster than other metals, higher-karat gold has a better overall glow among gold products. The shinier the gold is, the more it symbolizes prosperity for some. Wearing a piece of gold jewelry with a high luster makes many feel wealthy and important, as well as being stylish.

Did Ordinary People Have Better Access to Gold After Johnson’s Discovery?

Better access to gold by ordinary people roughly coincided with Johnson’s discovery, with glass gemstones becoming popular substitutes for more expensive precious stones. During the following Victorian era, Queen Victoria’s style included Romantic-inspired designs and her fashion sense influenced jewelry styles for women of all economic classes. One of the top ways Johnson’s discovery gave people better access to gold was by refining the metal in a way that increased its luster.


Percival Johnson played a role in increasing the value of gold, particularly as an investment. At a time when the demand for gold had decreased, his efforts gave new life to this metal. The modern world owes gold’s value as an investment and a material for jewelry to Johnson’s efforts.


Thanks, Joel. I would stress that I am not advocating that we all go out and buy gold bars – you must back your own judgment and rely on proper advice, but I thought it was interesting to read about precious metals – even if Johnson Matthey pulled out of the gold assaying market in 2015. Having been a world leader in the refining, marketing, and fabrication of precious metals and raw materials for 200 years it now specialises in  the manufacture of catalytic converters and I believe that I am right in saying that one in every three such catalysts is made by Johnson Matthey, worldwide. From shiny gold to pure clean air in two centuries – it’s been an interesting journey!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *