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Precious Metals: SILVER

Silver is one of the first metals to be used by humans. It may have been the first metal to have been smelted from ore. The art of silverwork dates back to at least as far as the ancient Byzantine, Phoenician, and Egyptian empires, where it 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 reformed into new items, and much of the ancient and even early European silverwork has been thus lost forever.

The silver tradition was carried over to colonial America, where it co-existed with the centuries-old hand-hammered craft traditions of 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.

Its place in Western society has been a bit more dynamic. Its 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. Silver bullion served as an important reserve metal, backing up the solvency of financial institutions and the U.S. government itself. Prior the Federal Reserve's assumption of control of U.S. monetary policy, American currency was stamped with the words Silver Certificate, meaning it could be traded in for bars, much like British pounds.

Today most (over 90%) silver is used in industrial applications. Compounds of silver are used to make mirrors, electrical contacts, dental fillings, coins, and electroplating. Over 40% of all silver mined in the United States is used as silver nitrate and silver halide in photographic developing. The Kodak company is the single largest consumer of silver in the world.

 In recent years silver has lost much of its value as a reserve metal as well as a traded commodity. However, its low price often means it acts as a leading metal in jewelry fashion--silver craftsmen are free 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 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 often said to have a "patina," a worn-looking finish that is achieved through frequent use and handling, and which is particular to the wearer's skin chemistry.

In its pure form silver is almost as soft as gold, and is therefore 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.

Silver utensils and jewelry do require more maintenance than gold or platinum, however. While silver does not oxidize in pure air, it does react with ozone and sulfides, such as hydrogen sulfide, found in the atmosphere around many industrial cities, forming a black film of silver sulfide -- the "tarnish." This process is aggravated by heat and moisture. Tarnish can be removed by any number of commercially available tarnish-removing solutions, or "dips." However, these chemicals can also damage gemstones set in the silver, especially oil-treated gems like emeralds. Many companies sell special dry cloths that polish silver without endangering gemstones.




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