The Fascinating History of Silver

The Fascinating History of Silver

Since time immemorial, silver has been used for myriad uses, including warding off bad luck. Silver is an excellent metal for affordable jewellery, and it is versatile enough to be fashioned into creative pieces. Silver has a high demand and a market to match.

Silver was discovered around 4000BCE after copper and gold. It was predominantly used as a medium of exchange and in making jewellery. The pre-Hittites created the earliest works of silver from Cappadocia in Anatolia (present-day Turkey).


Silver ore is found as a mixture of copper or lead. In 2000BCE, silver was already being mined and smelted to retrieve an impure alloy of lead and silver. This lead alloy combination was refined using cupellation. The most famous mines were in Greece, actively mined between 500 BCE to 100 CE. In the 16th century, Spain was also a significant source of silver, with Spanish conquistadores having discovered silver mines in Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico.

In the mid-19th century, a massive deposit of silver was discovered. The US became the largest producer of silver till the 20th century when South America (Peru) and Mexico took over. In the 21st century, China, Peru, Mexico, Russia, and Australia have gone on to become the leading producers of silver used around the world to make designer silver jewellery.

Silver and Photography

Early photography was mainly made possible by the use of silver. Silver, when combined with oxygen molecules and nitrogen, gives rise to silver nitrate, which was used in the old cameras. Silver nitrate’s reaction to light is to turn black and enabling the capture of an instant of light. The advent of digital photography saw the use of silver go down, but the silver-based film is used in X-Rays, mostly in developing countries. This is mainly because the images are very crisp, and the process is economical. Some commercial motion pictures prefer to use silver-based film for their detail and color vibrancy.

Properties of Silver

Silver is undeniably attractive, but it still begs the question of why the ancients took so much trouble to extract it. It was not the best metal to use for tools and weapons, and neither was it as rare as gold, yet its demand was always high. Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper, and easier to make than silver, and harder to wear out. The ancient Greeks used bronze plow shears for plowing, and when they attacked Troy, they were armed with bronze swords. All the same, silver was used for over 6,000 years for jewellery and domestic use because of its many qualities such as:

  • Silver is ductile and malleable. It can be beaten into thin sheets or pulled to make a wire, hence its appeal to jewelers.
  • Of all metals, it is the most reflective due to its white color, used in mirrors.
  • In medicine, silver has been used for killing bacteria, thus its use in jewellery for people who are allergic to metals.

Sterling Silver Standard

In the year 1300, a statute was enacted by King Edward 1, ordering that every silver article must be of Sterling silver standard, which 92.5% was pure silver. It had to be assayed by craft guardians and marked with a stamp bearing a leopard head.

Some debates exist about the origins of the ‘sterling’ term. It is suspected to have been from the popular name for the English silver penny, also called a Starling because it shone a lot. Starling silver was, therefore, 925 parts per thousand.

More Silver History

In Chinese history, silver led to the Opium war, a time when the British for exchange with silk, porcelain could not use silver, and tea brought from China.

The Muslim religion allows their men to don a silver ring on the pinky finger. The Prophet Muhammad is known to have worn a silver stamp ring.

In 60-120 AD, the Incas developed a high-temperature electric furnace technology, demonstrating the vast knowledge the ancients had of silver extraction.


Silver has a long history that cannot be told in one short sitting. There have been wars because of it and in spite of it. It is not the most precious metal, but it still takes the top place in demand due to its attractiveness and high versatility.

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