Imagine yourself sitting in a stream swirling water in a metal pan, desperately hoping to see a small yellow glint. That flash would be light reflecting off gold, the metal that you might have traveled across a continent to find in the early 1850s. But why? What's so special about gold that people were willing to uproot their lives in the hopes of finding this precious metal? And, more important, why does gold still hold such a prominent place in our global economy? Here's the introduction to gold you need before you start investing in it, including a look at your choices -- jewelry, coins, bullion, gold certificates, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, futures contracts, gold mining stocks, and gold streaming and royalty companies -- and a discussion of the best gold investing strategy for beginners.

What is gold?

Gold is an element categorized in the metal group; its chemical symbol is Au. It's incredibly soft and malleable. In fact, a single ounce of gold can be beaten into a thin metal sheet as big as 5 square meters. The thickness of such a sheet, which is called gold leaf, would be less than the thickness of a human hair. Gold's malleability is one of the key reasons it's used to make jewelry. It's so soft that it needs to be mixed with other metals to increase its strength so it can stand up to daily use. Gold is also a good conductor, a trait that has been important in more recent human history following the harnessing of electricity. 

Every ounce of gold is basically the same as every other ounce. There is no way for a company to create unique value in the gold it produces. And, as such, gold is a commodity that trades based on supply and demand. Physical gold is usually traded in the form of bullion, which is simply a gold bar or coin stamped with the amount of gold it contains and the gold's purity. (Bullion is different than numismatic coins, which are collectibles that often trade based on demand for the specific type of coin and not on their gold content.)    

How much gold is there?

Gold is actually quite plentiful in nature but is difficult to extract. For example, seawater contains gold -- but in such small quantities it would cost more to extract than the gold would be worth. So there is a big difference between the availability of gold and how much gold there is in the world. The World Gold Council estimates that there are about 190,000 metric tons of gold above ground being used today and roughly 54,000 metric tons of gold that can be economically extracted from the Earth based on current extraction technology. But advances in extraction methods or materially higher gold prices could shift that number. For example, gold has been discovered near undersea thermal vents in quantities that suggest it might be worth extracting if gold prices rose high enough.    

A person wearing a yellow reflective vest and work gloves, holding a rock containing gold

Image source: Getty Images.

How do we get gold?

How exactly does gold get from the ground to the point where you can hold it in your hand? Although panning for gold -- swirling muddy water from streams around in a pan in the hopes of finding gold flakes -- was a common practice during the California Gold Rush, nowadays the precious metal is generally mined from the ground. While gold can be found by itself, it's far more common to find it with other metals, including silver and copper. Thus, a miner may actually produce gold as a by-product of its other mining efforts, or be focused exclusively on gold but produce copper and silver as by-products.

Miners begin by finding a place where they believe gold is located in large enough quantities that it can be economically obtained. Then local governments and agencies have to grant the company permission to build and operate a mine. Developing a mine is a dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming process with little to no economic return until the mine is finally operational -- which often takes a decade or more from start to finish. 

The biggest initial risks after a mine is up and running are that the gold isn't as plentiful as hoped or that it's harder to extract than expected. While mining is in progress, there are all sorts of operational issues to deal with, from labor relations to the risk of disasters like a mine collapse or deadly gas leaks. And once all of the gold that can be economically extracted has been, miners generally have to close the mine and return the site back to its pre-mined state.

Mining isn't a simple business. But if you want a new ounce of gold, that's basically the only way to get it.

Where does gold demand come from?

The gold that miners dig up goes into a number of different industries today. The largest by far is jewelry, which accounts for around 50% of gold demand. Another 40% comes from direct physical investment in gold, including gold used to create coins, bullion, medals, and gold bars. This broad demand category includes individuals, central banks, and, more recently, exchange-traded funds that purchase gold on behalf of others. The remaining demand for gold comes from industry, for use in things such as dentistry, heat shields, and tech gadgets. 

Why is gold valuable?

So why is the yellow metal so expensive and sought after? In ancient times, gold's malleability and luster led to its use in jewelry and early coins. It was also a lot harder to dig gold out of the ground before modern mining methods were created, so gold hasn't always been as "easy" to get as it is today -- and the more difficult something is to obtain, the higher it is valued. 

This is an obvious simplification of a far more complex history. However, in some ways, it was only natural that early humans would begin using the precious metal as a way to facilitate trade and accumulate and store wealth.  In fact, early paper currencies were generally backed by gold, with every printed bill corresponding to an amount of gold held in a vault somewhere for which it could, technically, be exchanged (this rarely happened). This approach to paper money lasted well into the 20th century. That said, modern currencies are largely fiat currencies, so the link between gold and paper money has long been broken. 

However, people still love the yellow metal. Clearly, a big part of demand comes from the jewelry industry -- we all like nice baubles and trinkets. But a notable amount of demand comes from entities that want to own gold in its physical form via coins, bullion, and bars. That stems largely from the economic history of gold and the resulting view of the metal as a safe-haven investment. If paper money were to suddenly become worthless, the world would have to fall back on something of value to facilitate trade. One of the most logical options is gold, since that was the role it played before fiat currencies ruled the day. This is one of the reasons that investors tend to push up the price of gold when financial markets are volatile.

How do we figure out the price of gold?

The metal, despite its illustrious history, is still just a commodity, like iron ore or copper. So it's the interplay between supply and demand that ultimately determines what the spot price of gold is at any given time.

The demand for jewelry is fairly constant, though economic downturns do, obviously, lead to some temporary reductions in demand from this industry. The demand from investors, including central banks, however, tends to ebb and flow with the economy and investor sentiment. So, when investors are worried about the economy, they often buy gold, and based on the increase in demand, push its price higher. If you want to keep track of gold's ups and downs, you can easily do so at the website of the World Gold Council, an industry trade group backed by some of the largest gold miners in the world. 

How well does gold hold its value in a downturn?

You might wonder just how well gold actually holds its value when times are tough. The answer depends partly on how you chose to get your gold exposure, but a quick look at gold prices relative to stock prices during the bear market associated with the 2007 to 2009 recession provides a telling example.

Between Nov. 30, 2007, and June 1, 2009, the S&P 500 index fell 36%. The price of gold, on the other hand, rose 25%. Do the quick math and you'll see that gold outperformed stocks by more than 60 percentage points. This was the most recent example of a material and prolonged stock downturn, but it's also a particularly dramatic one because, at the time, there were very real concerns about the viability of the global financial system.

When capital markets are in turmoil, gold often performs relatively well as investors seek out safe-haven investments.

How to invest in gold

Investment Option Pros Cons Examples
Jewelry - Easy to acquire - High markups
- Questionable resale value
- Just about any piece of gold jewelry with sufficient gold content (generally 14k or higher)
Physical gold - Direct exposure
- Tangible ownership
- Markups
- No upside beyond gold price changes
- Storage
- Can be difficult to liquidate
- Collectible coins
- Bullion (noncollectible gold bars and coins)
Gold certificates - Direct exposure
- No need to own physical gold
- Only as good as the company that backs them
- Only a few companies issue them
- Largely illiquid
- Perth Mint Certificates
Gold ETFs - Direct exposure
- Highly liquid
- Fees
- No upside beyond gold price changes
- SPDR Gold Shares (NYSEMKT: GLD)
Futures contracts - Little up-front capital required to control a large amount of gold
- Highly liquid
- Indirect gold exposure
- Highly leveraged
- Contracts are time-limited
- Futures contracts from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (constantly updating as old contracts expire)
Gold mining stocks - Upside from mine development
- Usually tracks gold prices
- Indirect gold exposure
- Mine operating risks
- Exposure to other commodities
- Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX)
- Goldcorp (NYSE: GG)
- Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM)
Gold mining-focused mutual funds and ETFs - Diversification
- Upside from mine development
- Usually tracks gold prices
- Indirect gold exposure
- Mine operating risks
- Exposure to other commodities
- Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio (NASDAQMUTFUND: FSAGX)
- VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT: GDX)
- VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT: GDXJ)
Streaming and royalty
companies
- Diversification
- Upside from mine development
- Usually tracks gold prices
- Consistent wide margins
- Indirect gold exposure
- Mine operating risks
- Exposure to other commodities
- Wheaton Precious Metals Corp. (NYSE: WPM)
- Royal Gold, Inc. (NASDAQ: RGLD)
- Franco-Nevada Corp. (NYSE: FNV)

Jewelry. While calling your gold jewelry an "investment" would give your jewelry drawer something of a dual purpose, the markups in the jewelry industry make this a bad option if you are looking to invest in gold. Once you've bought it, its resale value would be likely to fall materially. This also assumes you are talking about gold jewelry of sufficient quality: say, something that is 10, 14 or 18 karat. (A karat is a measure of gold purity. Pure gold is 24 karat, but since gold is so soft, it has to be mixed with other metals, with the karat effectively denoting the ratio of gold to other metals.) If you buy gold jewelry, buy because you like the way it looks -- not because of its investment value. That said, if you pay for gold jewelry based only on its gold content, it could act as a form of bullion. But most people don't buy gold in this manner. Extremely expensive jewelry, meanwhile, may hold its value, but more because it is a collector's item.

Coins, bullion, and bars. If you're looking to own physical gold for its investment value, then coins, bullion, and bars are the best option. However, there are markups to consider here, as well. It costs money to take raw gold and turn it into a coin, and that's often passed on to the end customer. Also, most coin dealers will add a markup to their prices to compensate them for acting as middlemen. Think of it like a commission for a stock trade; coin dealers have to make a living, too. Perhaps the best option for most investors is to buy gold bullion directly from the U.S. Mint, so you know you are dealing with a reputable dealer.  

Then you have to do something with the gold you've purchased. That could mean tossing it in a drawer, buying a safe, or renting a safe deposit box from the local bank. Depending on your selection, you could end up paying an ongoing cost for storing your gold. Selling, meanwhile, can be difficult since you have to retrieve your gold and bring it to a dealer, who may offer you a price that's below the current spot price -- effectively a markup in the opposite direction.

There's also a difference between gold bullion and collectible coins. Numismatic coins, as they are called, aren't sold based on their gold content but on supply and demand for each specific coin. They are collectibles, like art, and are not a particularly good way to invest in gold.

Gold certificates. Gold certificates are another option for "owning" gold that is best placed in the bullion category but merits a little explanation. Gold certificates are notes issued by a company that owns gold. Effectively, the note provides the buyer with direct exposure to the metal, but it doesn't require the physical ownership of the metal, which the note issuer keeps safely under lock and key.

Gold certificates are usually for unallocated gold, which means there's no specific gold associated with the certificate even though the company says it has enough gold to back all outstanding certificates. You can buy allocated gold certificates, where the certificates represent specific gold bullion, but the costs are higher. The big problem here is that the certificates are really only as good as the company backing them, sort of like banks before FDIC insurance was created. This is why one of the most desirable options for gold certificates is the Perth Mint, which is backed by the government of Western Australia. That said, if you are going to simply buy a paper representation of gold, you might want to consider exchange-traded funds instead. 

Exchange-traded funds. If you don't particularly care about holding the gold you own but want direct exposure to the physical metal, then an exchange-traded fund like SPDR Gold Shares is probably the way to go. This fund directly purchases gold on behalf of its shareholders. You'll likely have to pay a commission to trade an ETF, and there will be a management fee (SPDR Gold Share's expense ratio is 0.40%), but you'll benefit from a liquid investment that invests directly in gold coins, bullion, and bars. That said, not all gold-related ETFs invest directly in gold, as I'll discuss below. 

Futures contracts. Futures contracts are another way to own gold without directly taking possession of it, but it's a highly leveraged and risky choice that is inappropriate for beginners. Even experienced investors should think twice here. Essentially, a futures contract is an agreement between a buyer and a seller to exchange a specified amount of gold at a specified future date and at a specified price. As gold prices move up and down, the value of the contract fluctuates, with the accounts of the seller and buyer adjusted accordingly. Futures contracts are generally standardized and traded on exchanges, so you'd need to talk to your broker to see if it supports them. 

The real problem: Futures contracts are usually bought with only a small fraction of the total contract cost. For example, an investor might only have to put down 20% of the full cost of the gold controlled by the contract. This creates leverage, which increases an investor's potential gains -- and losses. And since contracts have specific end dates, you can't simply hold on to a losing position and hope it rebounds. Futures contracts are a complex and time-consuming way to invest in gold that can materially amplify gains and losses. Although it's good to know that futures contracts exist, they are high-risk and not recommended for beginners.  

Gold mining stocks. One major issue with a direct investment in gold is that there's no growth potential. An ounce of gold today will be the same ounce of gold 100 years from now. That's one of the key reasons famed investor Warren Buffett doesn't like gold -- it is, essentially, an unproductive asset. He prefers to own investments that are "procreative," meaning they produce an income stream of some sort.

This is why some investors like to buy gold in a more indirect fashion, via mining stocks. The prices of mining stocks tend to follow the prices of the commodities on which they focus, so there's a logic to this approach. However, because miners are running businesses that can expand over time, investors can benefit from increasing gold production. This can provide upside that owning gold coins never will.

However, there's a downside as well. Because a miner is running an operating business, you are also facing the risk that things might not work out as planned. As noted above, mines don't always produce as much gold as expected, workers sometimes go on strike, and, unfortunately, mining is risky and disasters can take place that halt production and cost lives. All in all, gold miners can perform better or worse than gold -- depending on what's going on at the specific miner you're looking at.

In addition, most gold miners produce more than just gold. That's a function of the way gold is found in nature, as well as diversification decisions on the part of the mining company's management. If you are looking for a diversified investment in precious and semiprecious metals, then a miner that produces more than just gold could be seen as a net positive. However, if what you really want is pure gold exposure, every ounce of a different metal that a miner pulls from the ground simply dilutes your direct gold exposure.

Gold mining stocks have their benefits and their drawbacks, and aren't the purest way to own gold. If you choose to take this route, you'll want to pay close attention to a company's mining costs, existing mine portfolio, and expansion opportunities at both existing and new assets. All of these will play a role in determining what an investor is willing to pay for a gold miner's stock (in addition to the spot price of the metal itself, of course).

Mutual funds. Another option for investors who prefer the idea of owning mining stocks over direct gold exposure is to buy a portfolio of miners all at once via a pooled investment. This saves investors the legwork of researching the various mining options and is a simple way to create a diversified portfolio of mining stocks with a single investment. There are a lot of options here, with most major mutual fund houses offering open-end funds that invest in gold miners. Two examples are the Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio and Vanguard Precious Metals Fund

As the Vanguard fund's name implies, however, in a fund's portfolio you are likely to find exposure to miners that deal with other precious, semiprecious, and base metals. That's not materially different than owning mining stocks directly, but you should keep this factor in mind, because not all fund names make this clear. The name of the Fidelity fund, for example, might make you believe that it invests only in companies that mine gold, which isn't the case.

Fees for actively managed funds, meanwhile, can be materially higher than those of index-based products. You'll want to read a fund's prospectus to get a better handle on how it invests (its approach and whether it is actively managed or a passive index fund) and its cost structure. Note that costs can vary greatly between funds. For instance, Vanguard Precious Metals Fund has an expense ratio of 0.43%, while Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio's expense ratio is 0.84%. Costs can range quite a bit, and these are two relatively low-cost fund sponsors. 

Also, when you buy shares of an actively managed mutual fund, you are, in the end, hoping that the fund managers to whom you have entrusted your hard-earned savings can invest profitably on your behalf. That doesn't always work out as planned.

Mining-focused ETFs. That's why you might prefer to own an index-based product, like a mining-focused ETF. Some options here include VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF and VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF. Both invest in gold miners (with the same caveats about exposure to other metals), but as you can tell from their names, they do slightly different things: The latter focuses on smaller gold miners. The expense ratios here are 0.53% and 0.54%, respectively. If you're looking for a single investment that provides broadly diversified exposure to gold miners, then low-cost index-based ETFs like these are a good option.  

As you look into ETFs, however, a word of warning: Make sure that you fully understand what the ETF is intended to do. The difference between the SPDR Gold Shares ETF and the two gold miner-focused VanEck ETFs is only the tip of the iceberg, as the more subtle difference between the two VanEck ETFs makes very clear. When you do your research, look closely at the index being tracked, paying particular attention to how it is constructed, the weighting approach, and when and how it gets rebalanced. All are important pieces of information that are easy to overlook when you assume that a simple ETF name will translate into a simple investment approach.

Streaming and royalty companies. The last option for investing in gold is to buy stock in a streaming and royalty company. For most investors, this is probably the best all-around option for investing in gold, as long as you don't want direct physical exposure to the metal. Streaming and royalty companies like Wheaton Precious Metals Corp. and Royal Gold, Inc. provide miners cash up front for the right to buy gold and other metals from specific mines at reduced rates in the future. They are like specialty finance companies that get paid in gold, allowing them to avoid many of the headaches and risks associated with running a mine.

Clearly, there's more to understand about streaming companies, but a short list of benefits includes widely diversified portfolios, contractually built-in low prices that lead to wide margins in good years and bad, and exposure to gold price changes (since streaming companies make money by selling the gold they buy from the miners). That said, none of the major streaming companies has a pure gold portfolio, with silver the most common added exposure. Franco-Nevada Corp., the largest streaming and royalty company, also has exposure to oil and gas drilling. So you'll need to do a little homework here to fully understand what commodity exposures you'll get from your investment. And while streaming companies avoid many of the risks of running a mine, they don't completely sidestep them: If a mine isn't producing any gold, there's nothing for a streaming company to buy.

That said, the built-in wide margins that result from the streaming approach provide an important buffer for these businesses. That has allowed the profitability of streamers to hold up better than miners' when gold prices are falling. This is the key factor that gives streaming companies an edge as an investment. They provide exposure to gold, they offer growth potential via the investment in new mines, and their wide margins through the cycle provide some downside protection when gold prices fall. That combination is hard to beat. 

What's the best way for a beginner to invest in gold?

There's no perfect way to own gold: Each option comes with trade-offs. That said, the best all-around choice is probably investing in streaming and royalty companies. However, that's just one piece of the puzzle. There are other factors that you need to consider.

For example, gold can be a volatile investment, so you shouldn't put 100% of your assets into a gold investment. The real benefit, for new and experienced investors alike, comes from the diversification that gold can offer; investors often buy gold when stock prices are falling in an attempt to protect their assets. Adding a small amount of gold to your portfolio can materially increase diversification. Although that percentage is up to you, going above 10% would probably be too much exposure unless you have a very strong conviction about the market's future direction.

The timing on your gold purchase is a bit more complicated, since you will pay more for gold and gold-related stocks when gold prices are high. That doesn't diminish the diversification benefit over the long term, but high gold prices can mean lackluster returns over the near term. Trying to time your entry point, however, leads to market timing judgment calls that are best avoided by most, if not all, investors.

If you wish to invest in gold, it probably makes the most sense to pick a percentage of your portfolio that you want to allocate to gold and then dollar-cost average into the position by buying small amounts over time. There's no harm in leaving the money that you plan to invest in cash while you are building the position, either, since cash is a safe-haven investment, too. Yes, you'll miss the opportunity from rising gold prices, but you'll still get the protection of holding cash. And it will stop you from investing the money in other assets while you wait to build out your gold position. 

Once you've built your gold position, you should strongly consider keeping it a core portion of your portfolio. That, of course, comes with a caveat: If you target a 10% allocation to gold, then once a year or so you'll want to revisit that allocation to make sure it's still roughly where you want it. If gold is having a good year and your position has increased to 12% or more of your portfolio, it's wise to sell some of the position to bring it back to 10%, and put the resulting cash into other investments. Conversely, if your gold position falls to 8% or so, then you may want to add to it to bring it back to your 10% target. This is really just simple portfolio rebalancing, but it's an important maintenance issue that you shouldn't forget about.   

Reuben Gregg Brewer has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.