Throughout history, precious metals and gems have always held value and can be exchanged for goods. However, what future developments could lead to a bleak future in which these items cannot be traded for anything of substantial value?
The metal is no longer precious. So for example humanity could discover deposits of them on Mars or comets.
Or we could produce everything in Star Trek manner. So Faberge eggs would be valued for they artisan being rather than materials used.
Which is already happening as jewelry is worth more than it's source material in their crude form.
On the other hand golden marriage rings are bought as gold scrap.
In XIX century aluminium was worth more than gold because it was hard to obtain it.
So if everything is easily accessible and easy to manufacure.
Metals are useful
Various metals are used for blades, armor, containers, etc. Gold may be less useful than steel for swords, but it would make a nice cup, or an effective sling projectile for that matter. Gold is also useful for corrosion-proof electrical contacts in any technological society.
Would it be enough for your purposes to make gold and silver less valuable than lead or tin? It is quite improbable that precious metals will have no value whatsoever.
Gemstones are somewhat useful
Consider diamond-tipped drills. You won't get a situation where gemstones are completely useless. I doubt you will get a situation where a gem is worth less than the same weight of bread, unless a famine is about to wipe out your dystopia anyway.
What can be done?
- Flood the market with dirt-cheap metals and gems, so that nobody is going to pay for them. Sounds not very dystopian.
- Run a strictly controlled economy where each transaction must be authorized by the powers that be. Their five-year economic plan has no place for pretty baubles, so trading in them is punishable. The surveillance is tight enough that nobody dares to trade for "baubles" either.
A social breakdown and starvation level of society. Gold, diamonds and sapphires will not feed your children, you will not trade a pound of your beans for a pound of gold, if nobody you know would sell you a pound of their beans for a pound of gold.
This is not about "intrinsic value" at all, it is about faith in the utility of something to buy you something else you want or need. A paper \$100 bill has no more inherent value than any other piece of paper, but I can get my house painted for a handful of them. Why? Because painters have faith, bordering on certainty, that the grocer and pharmacist and landlord will take these pieces of paper in trade for what they need to keep their children alive. Trading value is not about rarity, either, although it is about an inability to easily counterfeit, create or just find naturally.
Beans have intrinsic value. Injectable insulin has intrinsic value. Even Water has intrinsic value. These things can keep you or your kids alive another day. Various tools (knives, drills, scalpels, pulleys, ropes, saws, magnifying lenses, pipes ... ) have indirect intrinsic value, they can help you acquire or create something of intrinsic value.
Gold and gems do not. In a survival situation (without any magic or zombies) gold is a worthless paper weight and a sapphire is a pretty piece of glass that cannot be used for anything. They are indulgences, you cannot afford to give up a tool or food for them when you have three days of food left and are hunting for more.
What can bring about such an apocalypse?
The most probable one on Earth, IRL (and to my awareness), is a large coronal mass ejection from the Sun that intercepts Earth. There is about a 1% chance per year of such an event. In the modern world, this could create massive currents in all grounded wires, effectively vaporizing all power lines (literally boiling the conducting metal so they are all gone, destroying generators and all other electrical devices, making them useless; also incidentally setting houses on fire everywhere. The electrical grid and devices would have to be rebuilt from scratch. Communications are gone, there are no telephones, cellphones or satellite phones, the landlines are gone (although undersea and underground cables probably survive).
Without electricity, the cities are unlivable and starve. Cars and trucks and trains don't work, their electrical systems are gone. Refrigeration is gone. Most manufacturing processes are gone, they depend on electricity and computers (all gone). So medicines are no longer made. Food rots in the fields, there is no way to get it into the cities or to the towns.
All of that stuff could be rebuilt, but it would take years, and in the first six months more than half of people die, in a few years, 90% are dead. The only survivors live off the land hunting animals (and fish) for food, and of course, each other for territory that produces food.
I would likely be dead in the first months, but if I survive, I won't trade my machete or knives or even my sling for all the gold or gems you can muster. And certainly not a rabbit leg.
(There are other apocalypses that could have a similar effect; CME is the one I consider most likely to cause civilization collapse; the others like super volcanoes or asteroid collisions are (IMO) much much longer shots.)
Added to address commentary
Earth's Greatest Threat: CMEs This link describes the magnitude of the threat of Coronal Mass Ejections. In particular, these excerpts:
It is the immense coronal mass ejection that hits Earth head-on that would spell major trouble for modern society’s way of life. Even today, the smaller CME events shut down satellites and global communications systems, as well as interrupt airline control and electric power grids. A massive CME that hits Earth directly would be exponentially more dangerous. [..snip..] A direct hit from a very large CME is a one-in-100-year event according to solar research at NASA and the European Space Agency. [..snip..] Not only could the costs of such a direct hit by a massive CME range into the trillions of dollars, but it would set back the progress of society many years. The entire technology infrastructure on which human life has become totally dependent – from electricity and power generation to communications, business transactions, health care, commerce, agriculture and other critical infrastructures of modern society – would be decimated and take many years to recover. General electricity throughout the world would all of sudden be widely wiped out and it would take years to restore.
The ramifications for civilization go far beyond that. No communications, no TV, no telephone. All satellites are fried. Pacemakers explode. Hospitals are disfunctional; as are houses. The government collapses. Before electricity, towns were small and organized at the center of farms and ranches, people were not far from food and trading what they made for food. Modern cities get food from afar, by trucks, trains, and boats. Basically every one of these, since 1930 or so, has electrical components central to their operation, and won't work. The cities starve. Without electricity, high rises (need elevators) and most city buildings stop being livable. Water and sewage systems depend on electric pumps, HVAC systems generally require electricity, Even most natural gas heaters rely on computer control and electrical components at the supply side.
A little research shows a powerful CME (and we were hit by one in 1859 that vaporized telegraph wires) can disrupt modern civilization, worldwide.
The OP asked for a dystopia: I presume it is understood by most people that no dystopia lasts forever; it will end in extinction or it will get better, as people work and adapt to be less miserable. A 'dystopia' is an imagined scenario in which everything is bad; for virtually everybody. (i.e. perhaps not the brutal psychopathic dictator, but everybody else). The CME, as I described, could create such a dystopia for generations.
Countries and armies would break down, we would be thrust into a pre-industrial age, but we'd be worse off than any citizen of 1800: They were raised to know how to survive such times, build a campfire or shelter in the wilderness and find food there. They knew what plants were edible, how to trap small game, clean it and eat it. Their infrastructure and society were designed for functionality without refrigeration or long distance communication. The vast majority lived lives of labor that made them reasonably fit, and since minor health problems just killed a lot of them (infection, pneumonia, viruses), what was left was relatively healthy people.
None of that is true for us. We are on average coddled, obese, and sedentary, we live with diseases (like diabetes and heart disease) that require constant medicine and/or treatment to keep us alive: The resources for that will vanish with the electricity, for years, which will end a large number of people.
It is often said no country is more than a week without food from revolution. Large cities in the USA typically have 3 weeks worth of calories for their population, on the shelves. After that, they are out, for years. The water isn't running, the toilets don't flush, the roads are clogged with stalled vehicles. Violent revolution begins out of survival. There are not enough police to control the populace; there are barely enough to control the bad guys. We can expect the police to quickly become their own gang, taking what they need by force and the hell with public service. I don't expect anybody, in fact, to just lay down and die without a fight, especially not young parents of young children. A week without food, law or order, and I expect the young bull fathers to start killing to feed their kids they love.
It is not implausible that society breaks down into hunter-gathering tribes. Even us, the professorial mathematicians and scientists: We have to eat too.
The point is not that this dystopia lasts forever, but it is not as simple as rebuilding the electrical grid, generators, motors and equipment. That would take years, and we cannot wait years or stop eating for years. Those years are plenty of time to starve, and plenty of time to become so disorganized politically that rebuilding is impossible, we don't have the resources, too many die for lack of skills and knowledge about living in a pre-industrial age, and we are just too isolated by the lack of communications (other than letters and perhaps some telegraphs being set up). We won't have the horses that powered much of their society; we have less than 1% of the horse population they had back then.
The dystopia may not last forever, we might work our way out of it, and we might go extinct instead. From genetic studies of a wide sample of humans throughout the world, we can infer that humanity went through a severe population bottleneck in the previous ice age, with a global population of about 10,000 individuals. A little bad luck at that low point (an asteroid strike, a super volcano) might have ended the human race then.
That said, the dystopia of living hand to mouth, a subsistence existence, could easily last for generations; our ancestors (like Heidelbergensis that likely gave rise to both Neandertals and Homo Sapiens) certainly lived that way for thousands of generations, and even Homo Sapiens, modern humans in every respect including brain power, lived that way for tens of thousands of years before inventing farming.
Have No Value: I interpret this, from the OP, as "no special value", i.e. even an unshaped stone has some uses as a weapon, projectile or hammer, but it has "no value" because you can find one for free. I interpret "gold has no value" as "gold has no more value than any other metal, such as aluminum or iron." That "gems have no value" means no more value than colored glass, which would still be free for the taking in my dystopic suggestion.
Further, in general what I interpret as "value" is use as a general medium of exchange, meaning these subsistence-oriented people after the CME apocalypse would be willing to take "something of value" in exchange for, say, half their supply of food. I believe there would be things of value, like knives, weapons, ropes, other kinds of food. But gold and gems have no intrinsic value as food, tools or weapons. They only have aesthetic appeal; and that in turn is an indulgence for people that have more resources than they can use, so they are willing to trade some of those resources for a beautiful thing. Sure it might be sold later to another such person; but for a person on a subsistence level they may not know anybody like that, and they don't have spare resources to tie up in a beautiful thing that has no real use, so they would not trade anything they see as valuable to get it.
Thus this is not a tautology: It is not that they don't value gold because they don't value it: They don't value gold because they have no faith they will be able to trade it for something they need, so they won't give up anything they expect to need soon in order to get it. And it isn't a tool or weapon they might use to acquire resources (like food animals). There are plenty of things they do value, but gold and gems are not amongst them.
The vast majority of goods are valued based on their intrinsic worth. It is unlikely that gems and so-called 'precious' metals value will ever drop below what can be done efficiently with them. We could see a situation where, say, diamonds become super cheap because synthetic diamonds can be created out of sand and a fancy machine - so diamonds are mostly the power plus the capital cost of the machine.
But traditionally the value of these resources have been inflated because we use them to represent some other value. To understand why, you have to understand why they are used as currency/representative value. Let's examine what makes a good currency:
- Durable: it has to stick around in the same form a long time.
- Divisible or Fungible: it needs to be fine-grained enough to represent most common values.
- Convenient: a person needs to be able to easily possess and trade currency.
- Consistent: one penny must be much like another penny.
- Scarcity: if money grows on trees, then it becomes meaningless.
- Acceptability: everyone has to agree on the meaning of the currency.
Now, the traditional precious resources are going to maintain their durability and divisibility. But they may not be as durable or as fungible as new things (such as the dollar bill, which can be replaced if damaged, and is almost infinitely divisible because there is a backing authority).
Convenience has already degraded heavily: most people won't accept a gold coin today for a burger. The most convenient thing tends to be cash, but in a lot of places that is less convenient than some form of electronic currency (credit or debit cards, or at the fringe, cryptocurrencies), if only because those things weigh less and are less likely to be lost or stolen. Similarly, no matter how similar two precious metal coins, they can't be more similar than an integer is to itself, which is how most money is counted these days.
Scarcity has long been a sticky point on whether to use a 'gold backed' economy or not: if the government can control the scarcity, the economic stability of the currency is called into question at the a degree proportional to the trust in the government/authorizing authority. This exact phenomenon is also visible in bitcoin, given that it is artificially scarce, harvesting bitcoin is a strong attractor for cheating, and there is 'no' governing body.
Finally, acceptability: in the future it can be easy to see where few people have even the idea of how much 'precious' resources are worth. For instance, if you see a diamond ring on someone, would you know what that was worth? Likely not: you'd need an appraiser. It's hard to use these things in actual trade for that reason. Well, that and the fact that translating it to a currency you can use for your needs is increasingly difficult. Where goes the society you probably go, too, on this front, because you're dependent on trade with that society to survive, and that requires some common ground.
So, we are very nearly at the future you envision already. I'd say the three biggest things you'd need are:
- Some other form of currency that is the clear winner in terms of convenience and similar infrastructure. (Except for some holdouts, this already exists.)
- Readily available alternatives to the 'precious' things. Other materials more easily made, or more available, to do the same things, or the ability to make said resources on demand. (Remember: energy is the most fungible thing in existence, though not 'durable' in the same way that solids are.)
- A lack of knowledge over how to compare values between one precious resource and another, or a precious resource and something else you want to buy. Is this massage worth a pound of latinum or three milligrams of tin?
Societies generally find stable ways to store value. Gems and precious metals have a history of being incredibly good at storing value.
One obvious answer to your situation is to have a world where the holding of gems or precious metals is illegal. In such a case, they cease to be a stable store of value because they may be siezed at any time by the government.
In 1934, the United States of America enacted something similar with the Gold Reserve Act, which made it illegal to hold onto gold as a private individual.
You don't have to make more gold and jewels, you just need less people.
An abrupt and dramatic decrease in population would create a surplus of nonperishable luxuries. No one person could hoard enough to make it valuable.
This works in the scenario you're suggesting, a dystopia as the result of future developments. It isn't the flashiest solution, but it is easy to implement and depending on the setting, this might already fit your story.
(One clarification, to differentiate from post-apocalyptic answers. You don't necessarily have to end the world, or host mass executions.
Sterility or cults of people who choose not to reproduce could result in smaller and smaller populations.
When a million people inherit all the junk that the other 7.346 billion left behind, there's going to be a lot of shiny stuff that nobody wants.)
You would need a world where there were things much more important than pretty crowns or jewelry. For example, if drinkable water was more rare, then it would be traded more often than gems.
An example that comes to mind right away is the movie, Waterworld. Since there is no land masses available due to oceans rising, dirt is traded as currency in floating towns.
So to answer your question more clearly, you would need events that directly impact the survival of a civilization such as drought, famine, forced migration, etc.
You don't need a dystopia as they had little more than utility value in Utopia!
EDIT: The term "dystopia" derives from the name of the book "Utopia" written by Thomas More in 1516. He proposes a near perfect society on the fictional island of Utopia. In it he describes the life of the inhabitants, the systems of government and methods of commerce. As all the inhabitants have what they need by virtue of the good government they don't have a need to accumulate portable wealth. Gold and jewels are held in common purely for trade with other societies. Gold is in fact, used for shackling prisoners and wrongdoers. His society is described in some detail and was imagined entirely without the help of Minecraft. The point is that to create this effect in a dystopia, the best way would be to make the dystopia as undystopian as possible.
The rarity of gems or precious metals is a supply side issue - if the supply increases the value will fall but it will not fall to zero.
However, the reason that gems and precious metals are valuable is a demand side issue.
Some gems and precious metals have industrial uses but this has little to no influence on demand.
Consider gold, only 12% is used industrially while 52% is used in jewelry and 24% is used for investment (leaving 2% lost).
Or diamonds, only 30% of mined diamonds are used in jewelry, the remainder are used by industry. However, mined industrial diamonds are a by-product of mining: 97% of industrial diamonds are manufactured! Some algebra will tell you that aesthetic diamonds represent less than 1.5% of all diamonds and industrial diamonds are cheap.
Notwithstanding, usefulness in absolute terms is irrelevant to price - what matters is marginal utility or the so-called water-diamond paradox. Objectively water is more valuable than diamonds, without the former, you die. However, the marginal utility of water decreases much more rapidly than that of diamonds: once you have enough water, more water is less useful and, beyond a certain point, harmful (e.g. floods). However, you can never have enough diamonds!
Gems and precious metals are demanded is because of the aesthetic tastes of human beings. This is party innate: all humans are photophilic (we like shiny things) and partly learned: gems and gold are coveted because gems and gold are coveted. In addition, they represent conspicuous consumption: they are a way of demonstrating our social status by showing that we can afford expensive, non-utilitarian things.
Changing this would require a fundamental shift in both our biology and culture.
Gems aside (as above, they can be made), a future development could be to bring a metallic asteroid such as 16 Psyche into earth orbit, and mine it for metals, Along with nickel and Iron, rare metals such as Gold, Platinium, Palladium, rare earths, etc. This could dramatically increase the supply of these metals and therefore collapse the price. Hardly a dystopia, though.
Perhaps in they future people don't much like each other, don't trust each other, and certainly don't meet face to face.
All purchases are done though an "e-buy" service. Scammers automatically generate sockpuppets to market obvious high value items such as gold, gems and premium storage cubes. Legitimate sellers wouldn't even try selling them, because they'd be undercut by scammers, and the buyer would probably try to claim the item didn't arrive.
Any offer to trade high value items would be treated liked Nigerian prince emails today. If you order a ruby, you may as well order colored glass, since that is what you are going to get (unless colored plastic is cheaper this year).
Trade, such as it is, occurs only on obscure or low-value items that scammers don't bother targeting.
I wouldn't call it a dystopia. Because it has happened already in the past. Salt was used as money, clamshells or beads also. They used to be valuable but aren't fit as currency anymore.
Why not? Technology. Getting to and from the sea because of easier transportation made obtaining salt a lot easier. The ability to mass produce beads cheaply made them not fit as currency.
What could happen to precious metals? What if someone found out how to do deep-deep core mining. Our planets core has enough precious metals to cover the surface with a 4 meter thick layer of metals.
Gems could be made cheap is someone invented a cheap super-high-pressure machine.
What impact would it have on society? Nothing much I think.
Demand and supply
Supply: They can be mass produced easily and cheap, so they're not as precious anymore. Finding a new, rich, deposit does not always mean they lose their worth, unless the deposit is accessible by "all" people interested. Imagine if someone has Hand of Midas, and convert bricks everywhere into gold.
Demand: Make it so that people lose interest altogether in gems and precious metals. Prolonged worldwide famine can cause this effect. Notice the italicization. The process needs time, and localized famine will only cause people not affected to gain profit by buying the gems and metals with cheap price.
Supply and demand.
Either you need to eliminate the demand or make the supply so plentiful they have no value.
Eliminating the demand for gems stone might be doable, but precious metals will always be in demand in the computer field.
This means a societal change is necessary.
Take for example Star Trek. Each crewman gets so many energy credit per day,week,month, or etc. They have replicators which can replicate almost and substance on demand. Gems, gold, or etc no problem walk up to the replicator give me a 10,000 carat diamond.
<<random noises>> and it is built in front of you.
there it is, and its indistinguishable from the real thing.
So now only energy credit have value.
Several answers mention things like supply and demand, or scarcity. However, they do not suggest specific dystopias.
Automated Dystopia: Where automated worker robots, or even nanites, keep themselves and their surroundings maintained. Buildings, monuments, and perhaps even mercantile stocks might in some cases be “magically” restored. If this happened in areas where precious metals were used, whatever was automatically replaced would have little to no value within that location. Variation on this: Automated space mining vessels regularly offload massive amounts of raw/natural resources on a scale that the capital of an intergalactic empire would consume. To the sparse population of a few thousands, this is more of a hindrance than a help.
Something else has become more valuable and is smaller/easier to carry.
Sliders Option: A disease ravaged the male population. There are now only a few dozen left in even the largest countries. They must be used efficiently for repopulation. The wealthiest women have taken to sealing semen inside glass beads and displaying them proudly as a sign of their wealth and power.
Chrono Trigger Option: automated booths treat every medical need and provide your body with the bare minimum of nutrients it needs. Nothing however can grow on the planet any more. The population is plagued by constant ravenous hunger. Finding something, anything, edible has become the most pressing need. It is now the only thing of value.
Spiritual Curse: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” The Christian end of days has come. In addition to demons and devils walking the earth, all precious metals and jewels have become cursed. Carrying them for any amount of time draws demons towards you, and may also make you mad.
Blindness of the valuing species. Disease-driven blindness, or a catastrophic event that induced blindness. Gold is a useless metal if all are blind, it's soft. Diamonds might still carry value for drilling and such, but other gemstones would devalue. Unless they trade heavily with other non-blind entities, most gems would decrease in value.
The most obvious answer is when they can make them at will. Matter can be transformed to energy and theoretically energy into matter.
Gold and jewels would have no value if matter could be transformed into any other type of matter by breaking it down into sub atomic particles and reassembling.
A planet composed mostly of gems and precious metals
Given the right composition this could effectively be a harsh "desert planet" very difficult to survive.
Astronomers have theorized about planets made largely of diamond. To explain observations of some planets oceans of liquid diamond have been proposed. An exoplanet whose clouds are composed of corundum has been observed (sapphire and ruby are variants of corundum).
Scenario: A spacefaring civilization is dying. They identify a distant planet as their only hope. It contains the elements for life in extremely scarce quantities. The natural composition is high in gems: solid, liquid, and atmospheric. Several asteroid collisions in the past have brought massive amounts of precious metals to the surface. They dispatch a fleet of lifeboats in a last ditch effort to survive.
The travelers arrive centuries later. Their home planet is long dead. They land and establish colonies. Life is a struggle every day due to bleak natural conditions. The gems and metals that dominate their terrain have virtually no value; they're as common as dirt on the planet they left behind. No one wants them in trade because they can simply walk out their door and pick them up.
Bleak. Dystopian. Gems and precious metals cannot be traded for anything of substantial value.
All of these answers are ignoring the basic principle behind why gold ever had any value in the first place:
Originally, if your neighbor had sheep, and you wanted his sheep, but he didn't want any of your bull, then you were just out of luck. But if he wanted some of your other neighbors goats, and that neighbor had some cows and needed some of your bull, then you could trade your bull to the other neighbor, get some goats, and go trade those for sheep.
Eventually we realized that it was kind of stupid to do all of this trading, because everyone kind of had different ideas about what their stuff was worth, plus you had to go work things out among everyone. It became a lot easier if we could just say, "Look, my bull is worth 75 to me. If you want it, you're going to have to give me 75 ."
That's why gold was such a popular form of currency - it was durable, it wouldn't rot or dissolve, it was easy to divide - you could do it with a knife or sharp rock, and you could even melt it and mix it back together. It was also useful for decoration, and easy to work with. And it was rare enough that you couldn't just walk along and pick it up off the ground, and it didn't grow on trees.
It's also why gems were less popular as a form of currency. Though they were still rare, they were fairly hard to divide, but you could carry a big handful of them pretty easily.
So to make gems and precious metals no longer valuable you need to make it so they have no use as either currency or raw materials.
From the currency aspect, your dystopia will have to have some other currency that is vastly more worthwhile than gold.
Some interesting ideas:
- Cryptocurrency (assuming you have a level of tech where digital bits are worthwhile)
If you can make a currency that is:
- infinitely divisible
- permanently durable
- impossible to steal - either through brute force or other methods of coercion
Then you'll have something that will easily beat out other currencies. Even if the latter is just more difficult to steal than gold, you might have a solid option.
The thing is, most gems and "precious metals" are only "precious" because there are rich people who will pay for them, to display their wealth and preserve it. If all "wealth" (of the excessive variety) were somehow eliminated then there would be no market for these things.