The Origins and History of Silver

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The development of civilisation owes a great deal to the discovery and use of silver. It has found application in many places – from the ornamental to the highly practical. Silver is an excellent conductor of both heat and electricity – in fact, it conducts the former better than any metal and the latter better than any other element on the periodic table – and so remains valuable to modern electronic manufacturers who use it extensively in electrical contacts and circuit boards. But for most of human history, silver along with gold served as a signifier of wealth.

What Do we Use Silver for?

Coins

For most of civilisation, silver was most often used in coinage. For thousands of years, it was the standard among systems of currency. Silver coins were used by civilisations in ancient Greece, Rome and Persia, (in the form of the Drachma, Denaraius and Dirham respectively), as well as in China.

But why did all of these peoples independently conclude that silver was a suitable material for money? The answer lies in the value of the metal. Like gold, the value of silver allowed merchants to easily transport large quantities of wealth and currency from place to place, in a way that iron currency would not be able to do.

Silver has a number of other qualities which make it a suitable form of currency. The value of silver is both stable and intrinsic. It does not decay and can be easily divided into smaller pieces and reformed again into larger ones. For these reasons, among others, silver remained a standard until the 20th century, when it was supplanted by centrally-issued currencies with negligible intrinsic value.

Silverware/Jewellery

Angel necklace made out of silver

Silver has also long been used in the creation of plates, cutlery and tableware – so much so, in fact, that such objects made from silver have their own special name – silverware. Silverware is, more often than not, made from Sterling Silver, which is an alloy comprised of over 90% silver, with the remainder made from copper.

This alloy will typically be covered with a fine coating of pure silver, which endows it with the shining lustre which typifies silverware. For this reason, silverware must be carefully polished by hand – too much abrasion will wear away this top layer, to reveal the comparatively dull material beneath.

The care of silverware would in large Victorian households, be entrusted to a specialist, such as a butler, who would ensure that each item was properly cared-for and displayed on the table. Today, this duty is typically only carried out on very special occasions hosted by organisations like the military.

As it is both expensive and difficult to properly maintain, silverware is not widely-used today. Instead, it is often presented as a gift. It has long been a tradition that a newly-christened baby, for example, be presented with a silver Quaich or another container. There exist a few artisan companies who are capable of providing specially-crafted silverware for such occasions; their work often comes engraved with initials or other markers in order to make it perfectly suited to a particular gift. Silver is also suited to jewellery. Not only does it look attractive, but it becomes easily malleable at relatively low temperatures and so can be spun into a variety of shapes by a skilled metalworker.

Coating glass

The surfaces of glass objects are also sometimes treated with silver. This is done for several reasons. In windows, it serves as an insulator. A layer of silver, only a few nanometres thick, can be applied to the surface of the window in order to create a glazing effect. As this coating is so thin, the cost of the silver itself is miniscule.

In mirrors, particularly those in telescopes – silver serves as a reflecting agent. In this application, it is preferable to aluminium, as it is better suited to reflect certain sorts of infrared radiation. It also emits a great deal less of this radiation itself – thereby reducing the amount of noise present on the image. In creating high-precision infrared images of the night sky, silver is therefore of enormous value.

Photography

In photography, silver – in the form of silver nitrate and halides – was used as a means of developing images. Since the introduction of the digital camera and its incorporation into the mobile phone, the use of silver in this environment has plunged – though this change has also heralded in an increase in the use of silver for batteries and electronics.

Batteries

Silver is rarely used in normal batteries, as other materials are far more economical. In certain applications, however, silver-oxide batteries are favoured. These might include smaller devices which require their own power source, such as hearing aids, where a silver-oxide battery’s longer life and superior energy-to-weight ratio lend it an advantage over other sorts of batteries.

How is Silver Made?

Now that we’ve seen what silver might be used for, let’s take a look at how it is created. Silver is typically found in the ore that contains other valuable metals, among them lead, copper, gold and zinc. These metals must first be extracted from one another if they are to have any application and value. The method through which this is done varies according to the metal; silver is rarely sought for its own sake and comes rather as a by-product of attempts to refine other precious metals.  Throughout history, there have been a myriad of ways in which silver has been extracted from its ore. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.

Smelting

smelting in action

As these metals have different properties, they can be extracted from one another by exposure to certain conditions. As some, for instance, have different weights and melting points, silver can be extracted by exposing the ore to varying levels of heat.

The earliest forms of extractive metallurgy involved smelting. Contrary to popular belief, smelting does not involve simply melting the metals of an ore and splitting them apart from one another. In an ore, many metals are fused together in a chemical compound, which can only be broken down into its constituent parts by performing a certain chemical reaction.

Parkes Process

In the case of zinc-bearing ores, the metals can be extracted by melting the ore and then allowing the liquid metal to solidify. At the top will form a crust of zinc and silver, which can then be extracted and separated into its constituent parts using a process of distillation.

Electrolysis

In the case of copper-containing ores, electrolysis can be employed. The ore is placed in a cell containing two conversely-charged electrodes: an anode and a cathode. As current passes through the ore, copper will be drawn to the cathode, while the remainder will be drawn to the anode. The remainder can then be smelted to remove any impurities and then subjected to another round of electrolysis, through which the silver can be extracted.

Heap Leach

Mercury amalgamation came to be widely-used in the sixteenth century, when the ‘patio process’ was invented in Mexico. It involves the use of mercury to draw the silver from an ore and comes in many different forms – the most widespread of these is the heap leach.

The heap leach is a way of processing low-grade ores cheaply and for this reason it is used extensively today. It employs a series of chemical reactions designed to draw the silver from the ore, and its principle ingredient is cyanide.

And that is how you make silver!

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Silver Cleaning & Silver Care

At CHRISTENINGsilver, we are regularly asked the best way to look after silver. How to clean it, care for it and store it.

Cleaning silver and restoring a dull piece of tarnished metal to its former glory can be very satisfying. You end up with a gleaming piece of silver that catches the light like no other metal.

Over time, with each polish, silver develops a patina – this is the mellow finish common to all antique silver, created by the millions of microscopic scratches from the cloth that build up on the surface. Like great wines, silver improves and matures with age.

When caring for silver, your biggest enemy is tarnish.

What is Tarnish?

Tarnish is a dull film that forms on the surface of your silver. It is usually a dull grey or light brown colour, but, in really severe cases, it can be a matt black – very unattractive and difficult to shift.

Discolouration is caused by a variety of agents, the most common of which is simply … air. Silver reacts with hydrogen sulphide in the air – the higher the concentration of hydrogen sulphide and the higher the humidity, the faster the tarnish accumulates. Tarnish is not like rust, it doesn’t continue eating away at the metal, it seals the surface and eventually the tarnish layer becomes stable. The more often you clean and polish your silver, the less likely it is tarnish will build up.

There are many other substances that can mark or discolour your silver. If it is a piece of tableware, food stuffs like wine or salt can cause damage if left in contact with the piece. Salty or acidic foods should be cleaned off as soon as possible – a quick wipe now will save polishing later and avoid the corrosive effect of contact over time. Moisture and oil from finger prints and handling should be wiped off as soon as possible – it’s amazing how tenacious a thumb print on the side of a photo frame can be if you leave it for a few days. Other things to avoid include anything made of latex (don’t make the mistake of bundling up your silver cutlery and holding them together with a rubber band, the staining from the rubber/latex can be quite severe and difficult to remove). If wrapping or storing silver, avoid newspaper, wool, felt and even cling film – it’s best to wrap in acid free paper or an anti-tarnish tissue.

If your silver is tarnished or stained, here are a few thoughts about cleaning:

CLEANING

The best policy is to clean a little and often. If you wipe or wash your silver often you will avoid the need to use silver polishes which can be abrasive.

Detergent in warm water is good for washing off marks, but make sure the detergent is phosphate free … If you are cleaning hollow items with warm water and detergent, don’t dunk them under water, just use a damp cloth. If you dunk the silver, the tell-tale sight of bubbles rising to the surface is a sure sign that water is filling a hollow handle or a hollow stem – it will be there for years.

After washing, dry immediately with a cotton cloth to avoid the water evaporating on the surface and causing spots.

and finally …. NEVER put your silver in a dishwasher.

USING POLISHES & DIPS

If you have left your silver so long that a tarnish starts to be visible (initially a light yellow tint, later brown and then, finally, black), then you will probably need to use a polish or an impregnated cloth. Where possible we recommend using a cloth like a Goddard’s Long Term Silver Polish Cloth. These are very soft, will lift light tarnishing and offer some protection. One word of warning – a silver cloth may start out soft and non-abrasive, but be careful where you put it down or where you store it. Any bits of grit, dirt and dust they pick up will but rubbed over the surface of the silver the next time you use the cloth … sometimes to disastrous effect.

Some polishes are a lot more abrasive than others. We really don’t recommend using wadding polishes like Silvo, because the wadding and polish is so abrasive. It’s best to use a clean soft cloth or cotton along side a liquid polish like Goddards or Town Talk. Never use polishes that are drying out – the crusty surface will scratch the silver. Similarly, be careful when cleaning old silver that has dried cleaning residue on it, bits that crumble off will combine with your cloth to scratch the silver.

As far as Silver Dips are concerned, the best advice is to avoid theme where possible. Whilst initially you will get a stunning result, dips can cause pitting which encourages tarnishing later, they can leave a “milky” finish after a few uses and some are indiscriminate – that patina of shading that was so carefully added by the silversmith in his workshop can easily be eaten away by a silver dip to the detriment of the character of your silver.

SHORT CUTS & BASIC ERRORS

If you search online, you may come across what seems like a cheap, makeshift cleaning technique using aluminium foil and baking soda (some recipes suggest adding vinegar) … the simple advice is “Don’t try it”. The chemistry makes sense and the silver will appear cleaner and shinier, but you may cause pitting and scratching that will get worse the more often you use the technique and it makes the surface more prone to tarnish because of the damage to the surface.

If someone advises you to use toothpaste, they obviously don’t like silver. Toothpaste is highly abrasive – if you want to ruin your silver, use toothpaste.

SILVER PLATE

You need to be pretty cautious and sparing when cleaning your silver plate. Remember the layer of silver is only a few microns thick, so aggressive cleaning can remove the plating over time exposing the base metal underneath … as before, clean a little and often.

Enjoy your silver … it will bring pleasure for many, many years.

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