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Silver - A short introduction
Similar to gold, silver always played an important role in human history. Many cultures associated silver with the moon and gold with the sun with both stellar objects having similar colours. For the longest part, silver's value was only second to gold and in Ancient Egypt it even exceeded the price of gold due to its scarcity. Only in the last few hundred years silver lost its position in second place with the discovery of the other noble metals like platinum, rhodium, palladium amongst others.
It is thought that silver as a main contributor to the stability of the Roman Empire and the availability of silver surpassed that in Medieval times by a big margin. Roman mining activities of silver reached a peak of 200 tonnes a year with an estimated 10,000 tonnes of silver in circulation.
Starting already in Roman times, the Chinese Empire accepted silver as a means of exchange for goods like porcelaine, silk and tea until the times of the British Empire. Both the Romans and the British were worried about the imbalance of payments and it ultimately led to the Opium wars.
During World War 2, silver was used to replace other strategic metals such as copper, which is an important metal in industry, and nickel that was used in steel alloys. Around 14,700 tonnes of silver was utilised in the Manhattan project that developed the first atomic bomb.
Production and Mining
Silver can be found in its pure form in nature but it is more commonly found to be alloyed with gold (an alloy called electrum) or other ores like sulphur, arsenic, antimony or chlorine. Often, silver is a byproduct of refining other metals such as copper, gold, nickel, lead and zinc.
Mexico, Peru and Bolivia are mining silver since the 16th century with production continuing to the present day. The Central Asian country Tajikistan has one of the largest known silver reserves in the world. Today, the three largest silver producers are Mexico, China and Peru.
Silver's value fluctuated greatly over the course of history. In Medieval times, the value of silver reached around $1,200 per ounce in nowadays money before it fell sharply due to a large influx of silver from the colonies in the Americas. In the last hundred years, the price of silver has always been below that of gold by a factor of 15-100.
Uses of Silver
Obvious uses of silver are for articles of jewellery, currencies and investment. However, silver is also playing an important role in industry with many applications. Since silver is the most reflective material known, it makes for the perfect material to be used in mirrors and other items that require a high reflectivity. Outside the jewellery sector, a well-known use of silver is in photography were an estimated one-third of global silver production is used.
Due to its antibacterial and sanitising properties, silver finds its uses in water treatment plants and incorporated in some items of clothing and shoes to prevent odor and it inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi. Fridges are also increasingly equipped with silver coated surfaces to keep the inside hygienic. For the same antibacterial properties silver is also used in medicine and unlike antibiotics, bacteria can not develop a resistance to it.
Other uses of silver include electronics, glass coatings and as an agent to "vaccinate" clouds to artificially induce rain.
Silver in Jewellery
Due to silver's low prices in the past and gold being rather affordable, jewellery made of silver was often synonymous with fashion jewellery. After the gold price went to heights that were unseen in modern history, silver regained its popularity in the fine jewellery industry and is also seen in combination with diamonds which usually are being set in the most expensive metals. It certainly deserves its position amongst the other precious metals and is in fact the brightest and most reflective, i.e. shiny, metal used in jewellery. Its great malleability and ductility also makes it a good metal to work with.
Just like gold, pure silver is a rather soft metal and is normally alloyed to increase its hardness and durability. Copper is the common choice in the silver alloy as it does not interfere with silver's brightness. For setting gemstones it should be noted that silver is less well suited than gold, platinum or palladium as it does not hold stones as secure as the other three noble metals.
Nowadays, most silver used in jewellery is Sterling Silver that consists of 92.5% silver and the remaining 7.5% being copper. It was adopted as a standard alloy in England dating back to the 12th century.
Britannia silver replaced Sterling Silver as the standard for a short term in history and is in use again for silver bullion coins issued by the Royal Mint. Britannia Silver has a higher silver content than Sterling Silver with 95.84% silver. It should not be mixed up with Britannia metal which is an alloy that contains no silver.
Other silver alloys are in circulation too. The United States used a silver for minting coins in the past that contained 80% to 90% silver, the remainder being copper. In the Far East, a popular alloy is 90% silver and 10% zinc. Probably the second most common silver alloy in jewellery is European or Continental Silver, an alloy containing 80% silver.
Coming back to the usage of silver in jewellery and investment, the purity – or fineness – of silver is an important factor. In jewellery, the most common alloy of silver worldwide is Sterling Silver which consists of a minimum of 92.5% silver and the rest being made up of copper. The World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) defines a silver piece as one that contains a minimum of 80% silver. However, some countries developed their own silver standards and laws which makes it legal in those countries to classify an object as silver if it meets the local criteria. Some common silver finenesses are summarised in the following table:
|Fine Silver||99.5%||999 or 1000||Pure Silver|
|Britannia Silver||95.84%||958||Historic British silver standard. Also used in silver bullion coins minted by the Royal Mint|
|French First Standard||95.0%||950||Popular in Peru and Thailand. Previous French standard|
|Sterling Silver||92.5%||925||Most common standard in the world. The standard in the UK, US, Canada and other countries|
|Coin Silver||90.0%||900||Former standard for coins in the US|
|83.5%||835||Used in some European countries and Israel|
|European Silver||80.0%||800||Used in many European countries and Saudi Arabia|
One disadvantage of common silver alloys is that they are prone to tarnishing. Sulphur in the air is the main culprit but other compounds can cause discolouration too. The tarnishing comes from the copper in the alloy and when no copper is present or parts of it are replaced with other metals the problem can be avoided or the tarnish resistance can be improved at least. Argentium™ and Sterlium Plus are two tradenames for Germanium-based silver alloys that resist tarnishing. Other copper replacements include platinum, palladium, silicon, zinc or nickel. The downside with other alloying metals is that the resulting silver is usually softer than one that uses copper as the alloying agent.
Often, tarnish-resistant silver is marketed as tarnish-free which is misleading as any silver product can tarnish over time, it may just take longer.
An other option to avoid tarnishing is to plate the article with rhodium, platinum or palladium or to coat it with a non-metallic material. This shields the silver from the compounds that would otherwise attack it. The downside is that platings will wear off over time or when the article is worked on and need to be repaired.
Chemical solutions are available that can help the build-up of tarnish on silver. Usually, the item is placed into the bath containing the anti-tarnish solution and fine pores present in the item are filled and give tarnish protection for some time.
Storing non-tarnish resistant silver is best done in bags, boxes or pouches that contain sulfur absorption strips.
If your item became tarnished already, the former glory can be restored by removing the tarnish. This can either be achieved by removing the tarnish mechanically, for example buffing the item. This method will however also remove a tiny amount of silver.
The other option is to reverse the chemical reaction and turn silver sulphide back into its components silver and sulphur, usually done by dipping the piece into a chemical solution. Unlike buffing, this leaves the silver in place.
If you want to remove existing silver tarnish or want to guard against it in the future, you should have a look at our Range of Connoisseurs Care Products.
Coincidentally, silver may be intentionally oxidised to create dark coloured areas that provide an interesting contrast to the bright silver and allows for outstanding designs. It also eliminates the worry about tarnishing. One disadvantage with this technique is that scratches on oxidised areas show up more prominent.
Silver is a great metal when it comes to jewellery and it fits to virtually any outfit, be it casual or at a fine dinner party. Not only does it look great it is also affordable making it a truly versatile metal in the world of jewellery.