Precious Metal Guide: Silver

Silver History

Silver is one of the first metals to be used by humans. It may have been the first metal smelted from ore. The art of silver working dates back to the ancient Byzantine, Phoenician and Egyptian empires, where silver was forged into domestic utensils, jewelry, buttons, weapons, horse trappings, boxes, and other articles.

Unfortunately, silver’s high utility meant that items were often melted down and re-forged into new items. Consequently, much ancient and early European silverwork has been lost forever. The silver tradition was carried over to colonial America, where it co-existed with the centuries-old hand-hammered craft traditions of the North and South American natives.

The mines in Mexico and Peru are still the highest-producing ones in the world, and the methods of silver jewelry making among native peoples remains largely unchanged today. The niche of silver making in Western society has been a bit more dynamic. Silver’s value as a jewelry and utensil metal made it an early target for ambitious miners, and the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859 created a silver rush that rivaled the Gold Rush.

In recent years, silver has lost much of its value as a reserve metal and a traded commodity. However, its low price often means it acts as a leading metal in jewelry fashion – allowing silver craftsmen freedom to experiment with new and innovative designs, which are later duplicated in more expensive gold and platinum, once the “style” is safely established.

Silver is popular among younger people attempting a less-formal look in their accessorizing, and among those who simply find gold and platinum too old-world and ostentatious.

Silver Finish

Silver is also the brightest reflector of any metal (except for liquid mercury) and can be polished to a high sheen that even platinum can’t achieve. In fact, the chemical symbol for silver, Ag, is derived from the Latin, argentum, meaning “white and shining.”

The finish on silver can be high polished, matte or brushed (rubbed with an abrasive), satin (a smoother matte), sandblasted (rough matte), oxidized (chemically blackened), or antiqued (chemically “aged”). Silver is said to have a “patina,” a worn- looking finish that is achieved through frequent use and handling, and is particular to the wearer’s skin chemistry.

Silver Purity

In its pure form silver is almost as soft as gold, and therefore is usually alloyed with copper for strength. Karatage is not marked because, legally, anything called “silver” or “sterling silver” is 92.5% pure.

Sometimes silver from south of the border is designated “Mexican silver,” which runs anywhere from 90% to 99% pure. Purity is really not something to worry about with silver.


Fine Silver in its natural state, 999/1000 pure, is too soft an element for practical jewelry. To make it workable, an alloy such as copper is added. Here are the main silver alloys:

Sterling Silver: A mixture of 92.5 % pure silver (925 parts) and 7.5 % metal alloy.

Silver Plating: Also known as silver plated or silver coated. A base metal, usually nickel silver or brass, is coated with a layer of pure silver by a process called electroplating.

Vermeil: Sterling silver electroplated with at least 100 millionths of an inch of karat gold

German Silver or Nickel Silver: A silver-white alloy consisting of copper, zinc and nickel.

Coin Silver: 90% (900 parts) pure silver and 10% (100 parts) metal alloy. A process of melting down coins done in the 19th century, and mostly discarded today.

Buying Silver Jewelry

Silver is the queen of metals: gleaming and elegant, cool to the eye, sensuous to the touch. Silver jewelry is a classic gift that remains close to a woman’s heart. More than merely decorative, it often carries with it the appeal of a tender sentiment or a lovely memory. And it possesses a sophistication that every woman understands.

However, in selecting silver jewelry for herself, a woman should not forget that men place a high value on silver themselves. For that special man the perfect gift in silver might be a handsome pair of sterling silver cuff links, a tie bar, an I.D. bracelet, or even a signet ring. For a man, silver is a gift of distinction.

Make sure there are no visible blemishes or imperfections on the piece. Check to make certain that fasteners, clasps and catches work properly and are secure. Check pin backs and earring posts for strength and durability. Lay silver chains flat to make certain their links don’t kink or bend.

Silver Care

Acquiring fine silver is one thing. Keeping it bright and beautiful is another. However, there’s no mystery to caring for your fine silver jewelry. Just follow these tips:

Store your silver in a cool, dry place that is preferably airtight, to avoid oxidation. Avoid direct overexposure to artificial light or sunlight for long periods. Don’t store directly on wood, which often contains acids that can affect silver’s surface.

Store items in a tarnish-proof cloth, or in drawers with tarnish-resistant strips. Store each item individually, either in its own soft pouch or in a separate compartment of your jewelry box. Do not store silver loose in drawers; scratches will occur if you toss your jewelry into a compartment or allow pieces to rub against each other.

If a piece of silver jewelry becomes tarnished, use a paste, liquid polish or a treated polishing cloth to restore its original luster. Never put rubber bands or plastic directly against the surface of your silver.

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