Controls on gold endowments of porphyry deposits

 Massimo, Chiaradia1

1Department of Earth Sciences, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

Porphyry deposits are natural suppliers of ~75% copper and ~20% gold to our society. Nonetheless, gold endowments of porphyry deposits are characterized by a wide range going from a few tons to >2500 tons of gold. Here, I propose a model to explain the reasons of the large variations in metal endowments of porphyry Cu-Au deposits.

Porphyry Cu-Au deposits define two distinct trends in Au versus Cu tonnage plots: Cu-rich (Au/Cu ~4*10-6) or Au-rich (Au/Cu ~80*10-6). Cu-rich porphyry deposits are related to Andean-type subduction and typical calc-alkaline magmatism in thick continental arcs. In contrast, Au-rich porphyry deposits are associated with high-K calc-alkaline to alkaline magmatism in late to post-subduction or post-collision and extensional settings, and also with calc-alkaline magmatism. The largest Au-rich porphyry deposits are associated with high-K calc-alkaline to alkaline magmatism. Geochronological data at individual porphyry deposits suggest that gold endowments for both trends grow larger the longer the mineralization process is. However, Au is precipitated at much higher rates in Au-rich (~4500 tons Au/Ma) than in Cu-rich porphyry deposits (~100 tons Au/Ma).

Monte Carlo modelling of petrologic processes suggests that the different rates of gold precipitation in Cu-rich and Au-rich porphyry deposits most likely result from a 5-12 times better efficiency of gold precipitation in Au-rich than in Cu-rich deposits. The reason of the different efficiencies of gold precipitation is the different depths of formation of Cu-rich and Au-rich porphyry deposits which favour (deep level) or not (shallow level) a decoupling of Au and Cu precipitated from the magmatic-hydrothermal fluids. Interestingly, Au-rich porphyry deposits formed at shallower levels are also associated with magmatic rocks that have evolved at average shallower levels than Cu-rich deposits, as suggested by systematically lower Sr/Y values of the former (Au-rich systems) with respect to the latter (Cu-rich systems). Monte Carlo modelling shows that the higher gold endowments of Au-rich porphyry deposits associated with alkaline magmas require higher gold contents in the parental magmas such as those that are typical of alkaline magmas but not of calc-alkaline ones. This suggests an additional petrogenetic control in the formation of the Au-richest porphyry deposits associated with variably alkaline magmas.

Whereas depth of porphyry formation and chemistry of magmas (alkaline versus typical calc-alkaline) seem to control the Au-rich versus Cu-rich nature of porphyry Cu-Au deposits, the correlation of the Cu and Au endowments with ore deposition duration suggests that the final Cu and Au endowments of these deposits are determined by the cumulative number of mineralizing steps that are ultimately controlled by magma volume and ore process duration. The difference is that variably alkaline systems and shallow crustal calc-alkaline systems are inherently associated with magmas, whose fluids are tectonically (i.e., shallow emplacement) and chemically (alkaline magmas) optimized for high gold precipitation efficiency. In contrast, typical calc-alkaline (high Sr/Y) magmas form in a geodynamic context that favours enormous magma accumulations, which are necessary to produce behemothian Cu-rich deposits, but are emplaced at depths at which the exsolved fluids are less efficient for gold precipitation.


Massimo Chiaradia obtained a MSc at Padova University (Italy) and a PhD at Fribourg University (Switzerland). After post-docs in Sydney (CSIRO), Geneva and Leeds he became Senior Lecturer at Geneva University. His main research focus is the petrogenesis of convergent margin magmas and their association with porphyry Cu-Au deposits.

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