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Silver is known by the mankind since Pre-History, and its discovery is estimated happened to shortly after that of copper and gold. The oldest reference to the element appears in the book of Genesis. The Egyptians considered gold to be a perfect metal, and gave it the symbol of a circle. Since silver was the closest to gold in perfection, it was given the symbol of a semi-circle. Later this semi-circle led to a growing moon symbol, probably due to the likeness between the shining metal and the moon glow. The Romans called silver argentum, keeping this as the international name of the element, from where its chemical symbol derives.
Just as gold, silver was considered by the Ancients an almost sacred metal and consequently, of extremely restricted use. Its malleability and ductility make it ideal for ornamental purposes. It was also used for paying debts, in personal and religious places decoration and in utensils of the wealthiest houses.
Some mineral scums in old mines of the Near-East and in some islands of the Aegean sea seem to reveal that by 5000 b.C. a method was already known to separate silver from lead. The gold and the silver were extracted from its ores and bonded to lead. After oxidation of this mixture, it was possible to obtain the precious metals.
People first mined silver in the Bronze Age, for jewelry. Silver was pretty easy to find all over Europe and West Asia. The big problem was, silver ore (the rocks that had silver in them) generally also had lead in it, so that lead mining and silver mining were the same thing. But lead is very poisonous, so the men who were mining the silver were also being poisoned by the lead. Most lead-and-silver miners died of lead poisoning in two or three years. Because of this, most free men wouldn't work in the mines, and so they forced slaves to work in the mines instead.
One famous silver mine was Laurion, near Athens in Greece. About 500 BC, the Athenians found an enormous silver mine right near Athens, on land that belonged to the government. This mine was what paid to build Athens' first navy, and helped Athens to become a powerful city-state.
Another famous set of mines were in southern Spain. These mines were already being worked in the Bronze Age. After the First Punic War, in the 250's BC, the Carthaginians took over these mines and used the income from them to pay the money the Romans demanded. Then in the Second Punic War the Romans took over these mines and used the money they got from the mines to pay for more conquests.
The main silver mineral is the argentite (Ag2S), which usually occurs associated to other sulfides as copper or lead sulfide. Other silver minerals are cerargirite (AgCl), proustite (3Ag2S.Ag2S3), pirargirite (3Ag2S.Sb2S3), stefanite (5Ag2S.Sb2S3) and native silver. The silver occurs in most of the lead and copper ores, and associated to cobalt and gold arsenide. Most of the produced silver is a by-product of the extraction process of these metals. However there are some mines specially devoted to the extraction of this element.
The largest world producers of silver are the USA, Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, former-USSR, Australia and Germany.
The most important silver inorganic compound is, undoubtfully, the nitrate, because it is used in almost all the processes of production other compounds. Silver nitrate has a wide application in painting, xerography, chemical electroplating, in components for electric batteries and in Medicine as catalyst. Silver chloride is another important compound, due to its ductility and malleability. The organic compounds of the element are used in the coating of several metals and in dynamite or other explosive bars.
The most important alloy of this element is silver-copper, traditionally used in producing coins. Nowadays this alloy was replaced by a cheaper alloy, copper-nickel. There are other silver alloys used in producing radiators for the automobile industry, and in producing musical instruments.
The chemical industry uses metallic silver as catalyst of several oxidation reactions such as those of ethanol and other alcohols. The oil industry also uses silver nitrate as catalyst. For many years, the mirrors were made by deposition of a small silver coat on a glass surface. Nowadays aluminum is used for this purpose.
Silver is a non-toxic element. However, most of its salts are poisonous due to the presence of its anions. These compounds are absorbed by the body and remain in the blood stream until they are deposited in the mucous membranes, forming a greyish film. However, there are some silver compounds, like the nitrate, with an antiseptic effect. Solutions of silver nitrate are used in treating irritations of mucous membranes in the mouth and throat. Some proteins that contain silver are powerful anti-irritating agents of the membranes of the eyes, heard, nose and throat.
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