Silver is a metallic element with the atomic number 47. Its symbol is Ag, from the Latin argentum. It is a soft, white, lustrous transition metal possessing the highest electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and reflectivity of any metal. The metal occurs naturally in its pure, free form [native silver], as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals such as argentite and chlorargyrite. Most silver is produced as a by-product of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining.
Silver has long been valued as a precious metal. More abundant than gold, silver metal has functioned in many premodern monetary systems as coin, sometimes even alongside gold. Its purity is typically measured on a per-mille basis; for example, a 90%-pure alloy is described by metallurgists as “0.900 fine”. In addition, silver has numerous applications beyond currency, such in the manufacture of jewellery and ornaments, high-value tableware and utensils (hence the term silverware), and also as an investment in the forms of bullion, coins and antiques.
In Victorian times, virtually right through the 19th Century, silver was as highly regarded as gold, especially in the crafting of both every day and “special occasion” ornaments, household goods and utensils. This love of silver gave rise to a number of sayings that are still with us to-day; sayings like:
“Born with a silver spoon in his mouth”
“Every cloud has a silver lining”
“Handed to him on a silver platter”
And it may be the residual of these sayings and the Victorians’ love of silver that leads people to comments like “My grand-parents brought this solid silver tea-set all the way from Russia – it’s worth a fortune!’ Is it? More about that in a later article.
The price of silver, like that of all commodities, has its ups and downs. As I write, early in March 2016, “fine silver” bullion at a purity of 0,999 is fetching $15,59/ounce, or, as it would be valued in its wrought form, R7-65½/gram. But that’s on the day of writing. Over the past ten years, the fluctuation has been quite considerable, as the chart below clearly illustrates:
In Parts 2 and 3, we’ll look at the different types of silver, and even value a few pieces of “antique silver”. We’ll also examine the comment about the old Russian tea-set being “worth a fortune”.