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What Are the World's Most Famous Awards Made Of?

“Not all that glitters is gold” is a very true quote when it comes to the awards industry. Although many awards are gold-plated for extra shine and sparkle, very few awards are actually solid gold. In fact, some of the world’s most famous awards are just a basic bronze shape underneath a shiny golden patina.

Olympic Medals

The last Olympic gold medal that was actually made from gold was awarded in 1912. The specific composition and unique design of the Olympic medals are determined by the host city’s organizing committee. For instance, if you look at the design for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and compare it to those awarded in Salt Lake City, Turin, and Vancouver you’ll notice stark design differences. However, certain standards must be maintained:

  • Gold and silver medals are 92.5% silver.
  • Gold medals must be plated with at least 6 grams of gold.
  • All Olympic medals must be at least 3 mm thick and at least 60 mm in diameter.

The bronze medals are cast from bronze, which is an alloy of copper and usually contains some amount of tin.

Pulitzer Prize

The iconic Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal is about two and three-quarter inches in diameter and a quarter-inch thick. Unlike the Nobel medal it is not solid gold. It is actually silver with 24-carat gold plating. The name of the winning newspaper is inscribed on one side of the medal and the year of the award is memorialized on the other side.

Nobel Prize Medals

Nobel Prize medals, unlike Olympic medals, actually are made of real gold. Before 1980 the Nobel Prize medal was made from 23 carat gold. Newer Nobel Prize medals are now made from 18 carat green gold plated with 24 carat gold.

In 1940, when the Nazis invaded Copenhagen, physicist Niels Bohr was in the custody of two Nobel awards sent to him for safekeeping from two German Nobel laureates, one of Jewish descent, the other an opponent of the National Socialists. Gold was forbidden to leave Germany at the time and to be found with the awards would have been evidence of a serious crime.

The day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy  was working in Bohr’s lab. He initially suggested that Bohr bury the medals but Bohr thought the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, and search everywhere in the building. So what did de Hevesy do? “I decided to dissolve it.”

In his book, “The Disappearing Spoon” Sam Kean says;

…When the Nazis ransacked Bohr’s institute, they scoured the building for loot or evidence of wrongdoing but left the beaker of orange aqua regia untouched. Hevesy was forced to flee to Stockholm in 1943, but when he returned to his battered laboratory after V-E Day, he found the innocuous beaker undisturbed on a shelf.

Back in Denmark, de Hevesy reversed the chemistry, precipitated out the gold and then sent the raw metal back to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The Nobel Foundation recast the prizes using the original gold and re-presented them to the laureates.

Academy Awards

Currently, the Academy Award statuettes, known as Oscar, are made of gold-plated britannium, an alloy that’s mostly made of tin. The very first Oscar statuettes, which have been handed our since 1929, were made of gold-plated solid bronze. Due to a metal shortage during World War II Oscars were actually made of painted plaster for three years. It takes 3–4 weeks for 50 statuettes to be produced by artisans each year.