Back in the day as a fledgling magpie I wore lots of silver, and now as a full grown magpie I have managed to up my game to lots of gold (very lucky me!) but it must be said that I do still love silver, and not just in jewellery but as a metal from which so much can be made beautifully, and just as importantly, affordably. More about this later. Occasionally we have to grit our teeth and check the price of metal and even though gold and silver fluctuate together, silver costs sooo much less than gold – but it hasn’t always been so.
Silver has been mined around the world for millennia but unlike gold it is very seldom found in its pure form – native silver – but is smelted from copper, iron, zinc and even gold ore. Amazingly, there’s evidence of silver produced in this manner more than 3000 years ago in Turkey and Greece where they figured out that blowing air over molten ore would separate the silver from the iron, a process called cupellation. In Egypt where gold was mined extensively, silver was rare and precious and the privilege of Royalty and the wealthy, and while it didn’t take them long to learn to separate the silver from the gold, until they did silver was more precious.
But silver is not only beautiful, it’s incredibly useful too. It’s safe to say that throughout history silver has been known for its medicinal properties; a potent antimicrobial and healing agent particularly, of which the Greeks and Romans and even the Egyptians were well aware. I can remember Mum telling us that when Roman soldiers were on the march they would put silver coins on the stream bed and drink the water downstream. It was used for treating burns and wounds and ulcers, and actually it only really fell out of favour with the discovery of penicillin in
1929. Well, having said it fell out of use, it seems that even today some dressings have a silver compound in them to prevent infection in wounds and burns, and some people swear by the medicinal properties of colloidal silver – nanoparticles of silver suspended in a liquid – but as prolonged use will turn you blue and probably make you even more ill, I wouldn’t reccommend it…
And did you know that silver has the highest electrical conductivity of all metals, and if it wasn’t so much more expensive than copper it would probably be used in everyday electrical wiring, but these days in smaller and more affordable amounts silver is used extensively in electronics. It also has the highest thermal conductivity of all metals (I learned quickly not to leave my silver teaspoon in my hot tea…) and can be polished to such a high shine that it is commonly used in mirrors, solar panels and of course has been used in photography since the camera was invented. Very often people hesitate about buying 22ct gold jewellery because, they believe, it’s too ‘soft’. Well interestingly silver is also too ‘soft’ then, because just like 22ct gold it must be alloyed with another metal, often copper, to make it stronger and easier to work.
Because silver was mined extensively in the ancient world it quickly became the most used form of currency, mostly as ingots and artifacts but also as rough cut pieces known as hacksilver, which was pieces of silver cut from existing objects like jewellery and ingots. As it was weighed each time a transaction was made it often had to be cut again to meet the weight requirement and this was the common form of payment until about the 4th Century when silver coinage mostly took over. But hacksilver remained the common currency in Spain until the 1st Century BC, and once the Roman empire fell and coin production dropped, hacksilver came into its own again. The amount of chopped silver found in Viking hoards illustrates clearly it was their preferred form of currency as well. Recently we bought some silver Roman coins from a dealer to make a pair of earrings. The coins weren’t round and it was clearly evident that they have been ‘clipped’ around the outer edge. According to our dealer, clipping coins was a way to steal silver but it was punishable by death!
In China silver replaced silk as currency in trade and in Japan silver was used to trade with the Portuguese who quickly spent it in their trade with China. The Incas had access to huge amounts of silver and produced artefacts and jewellery of the highest standard. To the Inca, as gold was ‘the sweat of the sun’, so silver was ‘the tears of the moon’. What a lovely idea.
These days the most silver is mined in Mexico, closely followed by Peru, but in fact every continent (except Antarctica) produces silver even if only in small amounts, like Morocco.
But probably the most common use for silver throughout history has been for coinage, and the oldest coins found were minted in Lydia (ancient Turkey) and were made of electrum which is a mix of silver and gold. They were stamped by the state with a design as a mark of their authenticity and weight, and were surprisingly beautiful. In ancient Greece coinage was more a matter of necessity than anything because mercenary soldiers had to be paid and they not only needed a convenient way to carry their wages but they had to be paid equally, so coinage began to be standardised. This meant that the purity of the coins had to be monitored and Roman smelters managed to get 98% silver purity. But as the Emperors became more frivolous and wars drained the coffers, the purity of the coinage started to drop and at one point some silver coins contained only 2% silver. Ancient inflation! The first British coins were struck over 2000 years ago, long before Caesar visited us, and this coinage was greatly influenced by the Celts who didn’t invade Britain but just filtered into society, bringing cultrual changes and influences with them including stamped coinage, but it would be many decades before coinage transitioned from being made of potin – an alloy of bronze and tin – to being made of silver, but that’s a whole other history lesson!
Back to the subject of making lovely things from silver. In this country we are blessed with an impressive number of extremely skilled silversmiths, – many of whom come from other countries – because Britain embraces and appreciates and supports these incredibly talented crafspeople like no other country. Collectively not only do they give us access to beautiful, wonderful pieces, but they keep alive the anicient skills of this historic trade. Lucky us!
And now we have some more and probably less well known little known factoids about silver…
UK currency, aka the Pound Sterling, was originally equal in value to one pound of silver; silver is so maleable that an ounce of it can be worked into an 8000′ wire, and keeping the best till last, there is no word in the English language that rhymes with silver!