Iron fertilization is explored by tracking dissolved iron (DFe) through its life cycle from injection by aeolian, sedimentary, and hydrothermal sources (birth) to burial in the sediments (death). We develop new diagnostic equations that count iron and phosphate regenerations with each passage through the biological pump and partition the ocean’s DFe concentration according to the number of its past or future regenerations. We apply these diagnostics to a family of data-constrained estimates of the iron cycle with sources σtot in the range 1.9–41 Gmol yr−1. We find that for states with σtot > 7 Gmol yr−1, 50% or more of the DFe inventory has not been regenerated in the past and 85% or more will not be regenerated in the future. The globally averaged mean number of past or future regenerations scales with the bulk iron lifetime τ ∼ 1 / σtot and has a range of 0.05–2.2 for past and 0.01–1.4 for future regenerations. Memory of birth location fades rapidly with each regeneration, and DFe regenerated more than approximately five times is found in a pattern shaped by Southern Ocean nutrient trapping. We quantify the intrinsic fertilization efficiency of the unperturbed system at any point r in the ocean as the global export production resulting from the DFe at r per iron molecule. We show that this efficiency is closely related to the mean number of future regenerations that the iron will experience. At the surface, the intrinsic fertilization efficiency has a global mean in the range 0.7–7 mol P (mmol Fe)-1 across our family of state estimates and is largest in the central tropical Pacific, with the Southern Ocean having comparable importance only for high-iron-source scenarios.