History of Silver
The history of silver dates back many centuries and it has captured man’s attention in no small way over time. However, today most people are not aware of silver’s colorful history, something we intend to fix in this section of the Silver Bullion website.
Silver during Biblical times
The Bible makes mention of silver. According to the Bible, silver and gold are the oldest forms of currency known to man. These metals have certainly stood the test of time like no other currencies have been able to do.
Silver is mentioned more than 300 times in the Bible while gold is mentioned in excess of 400 times. While money is mentioned around 150 times in the Bible, there is no mention of any kind of paper money. People who owned silver and gold during biblical times were deemed to be extremely wealthy.
Even during that time, silver coins were used in trade.
Silver was found in abundance towards the top of the earth’s surface by ancient civilizations all those years ago. People have used silver for many purposes.
Food vessels, jewelry and religious artifacts are just some of the items that have been made from silver. There have been other uses for silver over the centuries and these uses include being used as a form of currency or bartering and it has also been used to commemorate important milestones in the history of man.
As far back as 700 B.C., merchants from Mesopotamia used silver as a means to barter.
It is interesting to note that copper and gold were discovered before silver, which was discovered around 4000 B.C. It was used in the era of the pre-Hittites of Cappadocia.
Silver is sourced in a combined state mainly from nature, normally in lead and copper mineralization. As far back as 2000 B.C., people were smelting lead ores and mining for the much sought after metal, which was an impure lead-silver alloy.
The most popular ancient mines were in Greece and the Laurium silver lead deposit. Active mining of this precious metal took place during the period 500 B.C – A.D. 100. Spain was another area in which much silver was found at the time.
Silver, the poor man’s gold and its uses
Silver has often been called the “poor man’s gold” and it has been a sought after element for many centuries since it was discovered in what is now known as Turkey. Many people have been fascinated by it. Used to create ornaments and jewelry, kings would use it to trade with others
Silver is a great conduit of electricity and it conducts heat better than any other metal does.
Silver is malleable and ductile and this makes it a metal that can be worked with easily. Nations across the globe consider silver to be of great value due to its many uses.
Silver has unrivaled reflective qualities and is used in medicine as an agent to fight against bacteria and viruses.
Silver as a currency
In 475 B.C. silver was monetized in ancient China. Rome used this incredible metal to build their economy. The wages of Roman troops were often paid in silver coins. It is speculated that at the time, more than 10 000 tons of silver was circulating throughout the Roman Empire.
It was around 1497 that silver coins were circulated throughout other countries. Spain used the “Spanish Pieces of Eight” to form the backbone of their economic system. Right up until 1857, silver was regarded as currency in America.
During the earlier parts of the 1500s, Spain was colonizing the New World. It was during this time that silver deposits were discovered in abundance in the Andes region. For the next 300 years, the empire enjoyed great wealth as a result of this discovery.
By the 1800s, most of the world’s silver was located in China. It was estimated that China held at least 50 percent of all the silver above the ground. Chinese people would use silver to trade with the British for opium. China would also trade silk and tea to get opium and this was instrumental in the opium wars during this era.
Nevada was the place where the massive Comstock Lode was discovered in 1857. Even today, this area remains the site of the single largest discovery of silver in America.
In those times there was a direct link to the value of money and the amount of silver that the money contained.
Copper and bronze also contained a fair amount of silver. Back in A.D. 250 the coins were quite large and this meant that they were quite a tidy sum. This was despite the fact that the metal was often melted down and used for tools or arrowheads.
In earlier days, money was equated with cows and people’s wealth would be measured against how many cows they owned.
Traders and merchants were happy to accept gold and silver coins as money on the condition that they contained a certain amount of the silver too. If the coins did not weigh enough or there was not enough silver in them then they would be valued significantly less than what the government had valued it.
Some merchants would therefore demand 12-15 debased coins for something that was actually worth only 10 coins. This was because the government had cheated the public by loading too much copper in the coins.
Valuing silver in the days of the Roman Empire
Even though science was not then what it is today, traders still had ways of determining the amount of silver in coins. In fact, it might be said that those people had a certain kind of savvy that does not exist today.
Virtually all of the merchants and traders were able to tell whether money was good or bad.
Merchants who were unable to do this would soon find themselves out of business. They could determine the silver content in coins just by tasting, looking at or feeling the coins.
Additionally, they would simply drop the coins. Poor quality coins would make a different sound when landing on the surface.
For the first 220 years of the Roman Empire, the silver coin was called the denarius and it was worth about one day’s wages for a craftsman or a skilled labourer. Soldiers were paid with silver coins and people would pay their taxes with the coins too.
Failing that, they would pay for their taxes with wheat and or cows.
Minor day-to-day trade saw the use of the as and sestertius, and these coins were made from brass or copper.
Conversely, the denarius was about the size of a nickel or a dime. The as was equal in size to the more modern half dollar or quarter and the sestertius, was bigger than the old American silver dollars.
Many of these coins had incredible portraits and designs and were nice to look at in spite of the fact that today, they would be deemed uneven or too thick. Lovers of fine art and scholars deem them to be works of art.
From the republican times through to the reign of Domitian, the denarius was almost entirely made of silver. In occasional times of crisis, debased coins were issued occasionally, but they would soon strike pure silver again. About 5 percent of the coin would be copper so that the coin would be tough enough to handle being circulated and that it could handle the wear and tear associated with being circulated.
By 110 A.D., the Roman government started adding copper to the silver coins. This was because most of the wealth that had been accrued from conquered cities had been exhausted.
Gold and silver was being used to create luxury artifacts such as ornaments, bowls, eating utensils and jewelry. Certain sectors such as members of the imperial household, government officials and wealthy senators would covet these items.
First silver scams
So much silver was used for the purposes described on the previous page that there was very little left for the coins. At the same time there was a massive increase in the demand for silver coins. Leaders of the Roman army such as Septimius Severus, Domitian and Julius Caesar had given the army massive increases in wages and this added additional strain to the system. The only way that the government could deal with this dilemma was to cheat.
During the reign of Trajan, the coin contained about 85-90 percent silver. When Marcus Aurelius was in charge, the silver content was only 75 percent and by the time Septimius Severus (A.D. 193 – 217) came into power the silver content was only sixty percent.
Caracalla, who was the son of Septimius Severus, came up with another way to cheat the system. He brought into being the “double denarius” and this was only one and a half times the weight of the denarius. While the government enjoyed this immensely, the people were unhappy to accept this debased coin as tender.
Although Severus Alexander tried to revert to the denarius, inflation had set in and this coupled with the cheating further exacerbated the situation. Later on the double denarius was a coin with only about 25-35 percent silver.
While it looked really nice and shiny when it just came out of the mint, it soon became a dull gray after it had been circulated.
By A.D. 260 and during the middle part of Gallienus’ reign, the coins hardly had as much as 5 percent silver in them. Most of them were in fact bronze and had a very thin coat of silver around the bronze. Initially, the coins appeared tinny, but they very quickly became black after a short period of circulation.
Mints churned these silver-coated coins out by the millions in a hasty fashion so that there would be millions of them in circulation as per the government’s instructions. Many pictures of 3rd century coins are difficult to see because the quality of the coins was so poor.
By this time, the economy was in a shambles and many wealthy people had their fortunes obliterated.
The money was worthless and trading reverted to the ancient system of bartering. The government went on to declare that only pure silver or gold would be acceptable as a means of paying taxes.
Aurelian (A.D. 270 – 275) and Probus (A.D. 276 – 282) were in charge when the situation began to improve somewhat. By A.D. 293, the coins were almost pure silver once again. Additionally, new bronze coins were introduced into the system on their own. Strangely, the gold coins were not tampered with and they retained their purity while silver coins were ravaged by the greedy Roman Empire. Sadly, most of the citizens of Rome never saw gold coins in circulation on a day-to-day basis.
The first silver mines
Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century developed silver mines in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. Mines in these countries were extremely rich in silver. At the time Central and South America developed into the biggest silver-producing center on earth.
The patio process was used to recover this New World silver. Ore with silver in it was grind and then mixed with mercury, roasted copper ore, and salt. Mules would be made to walk through this concoction on a paved patio and this is how the name patio process came about.
Over time, the silver would then be converted into the elemental state and it would be dissolved with the use of the mercury. Mercury would also be distilled so that the silver could be recovered.
The 19th century saw the patio process being replaced by cyanidation processes. At this time, the Moebius and Thum Balbach electro refining processes were being added into the mix as well.
In the early 1900s, there was an upswing in the production of silver in America and at the time there was around 190 million troy ounces of silver being produced in various countries throughout the world.
Silver and its uses in modern times
The U.S. government fixed its currency on the silver dollar and it is also related to gold in terms of currency. Silver was used as coinage all the way to 1965 when it was then discontinued. In the early part of the 20th century, silver started to be used as a raw material for industrial purposes.
Silver is now much sought after as it is considered to be valuable and a practical commodity that has many industrial uses. Many people consider it very appealing to the eye and it is therefore considered to be a precious metal.
Countries such as Mexico, Canada and America issue silver bullion. Selected mints also issue private silver bullion.
While this metal is deemed to be scarce, it is the cheapest of all the precious metals known to man (at the time this was written). Chile, Australia, America, Peru and Mexico are countries that produce the most amount of silver in the world. Silver can be sourced in a number of ways that include being extracted from materials that have been recycled, zinc and lead mining, silver that is mined directly and it is also sourced as a by product of copper and gold mining.
Much of the silver supply today is made up of bullion stocks. In 1986, the American Eagle Bullion program was launched and gold and silver bullion coins were made available for sale. In 1997, platinum was added to the American bullion organization. Bullion coins are valued by their weight and according to the metal from which they are made (and in some instances collector’s value).
Most ores do not contain silver as their main constituent. Some of them do however contain silver in the largest quantities. Typically, ores will have about 0.085 percent silver and other metals will include smaller percentages of antimony, copper and lead. Once the flotation process has been completed, there would be 6 percent antimony, 10-15 percent copper with lead in the same quantities. The silver content would be about 1.7 percent.
Modern day silver production
Roughly a quarter of the silver that is produced today is as a result of mines being mined for the silver value in the ores. The remaining three quarters of silver is due to zinc, lead and copper containing silver in those metals. These ore minerals are sulfides. Lead is present as galena and zinc is present as sphalerite. Copper is present as chalcopyrite. During the mineralization process there are large amounts of pyrite (FeS2) and arsenopyrite present. Silver mineralization is present as argentite.
Underground and open methods are used when mining silver-bearing ores. Thereafter they are crushed and grind. As most of the ores are sulphides, they are easily separated by flotation methods. This method achieves a forty-fold concentration of the mineral. Zinc contains the least amount of silver and lead contains the highest amount of silver.
It matters what major metal is being used when deciding on what metallurgy processes are used. When copper is smelted, a blister effect is achieved and this results in between 97-99% of silver being available in the primary concentrate. When the copper is refined via electrolytic process, slimes will eventually congregate at the bottom of the refining tank. Silver is then present in much higher concentrations. When there is a 0.2 percent sulphide concentrate, this can mean that that there will be 20 percent silver present in the slime.
All the metals apart from platinum, silver and gold are then oxidized. In terms of the metal that is then recovered, 0.1-1% of this is platinum, 0.5-5 percent is gold and the rest is silver.
The metal is then arranged so that anodes are formed and they are electrolyzed in a mixture of silver and copper nitrate. Using the Moebius system the electrodes are disposed vertically while the Thum Balbach system means that the electrodes will be disposed in a horizontal fashion.
After electrolysis has occurred, the purity will be three-nines fine and it could even be four-nines fine and even ninety nine percent silver.
Lead concentrates involve roasting and smelting so that lead bullion is produced. All impurities should then be removed from this concentrate. It is interesting to note that silver, tin, arsenic and antimony are present.
After electrolysis has occurred, the purity will be three-nines fine and it could even be four-nines fine and even ninety nine percent silver.
The Parkes process is used to extract the silver. Zinc is added to the molten lead bullion. Zinc forms a compound with silver and rises to the top of the bullion rather rapidly. Thereafter, this is skimmed off the top via a process called vacuum retorting. Once this has been completed, the residual lead. A process referred to as cupellation treats the gold, silver mixture. Under a strong oxidizing environment, the substance is heated at 800 1/4 Celsius or 1,450 1/4 Fahrenheit.
During this process, the lead is oxidized and the gold and silver stay in its elemental form. At this stage the oxidized lead is removed. Silver and gold alloys are then produced and then refined thanks to the either the Thum Balbach or Moebius process. Thereafter the Wohlwill process is implemented to refine the gold after it has been parted and treated.
In the case of zinc concentrates, they are roasted and the zinc concentrate is dissolved after the concentrates are leached with sulfuric acid. This process leaves a residual of silver, gold and lead and about 5-10 percent of the zinc contents of the concentrate.
Slag fuming is used to process this and it involves melting a residual to create a slag that coke or powdered coal is blown using air.
As the zinc is then transformed to metal and then vaporized, the lead is transformed to metal and this causes the gold and silver to dissolve. Thereafter, the lead bullion is accumulated and referred to lead refining.
Modern uses and processing of silver
Silver has become the eco friendly metal of choice and is now being used in many green applications. Silver is being used often in the solar energy industry as well as air and water purification apparatus.
Most people are amazed to discover that as much as sixty percent of all the silver that is produced is utilized by the photography industry.
Silver can be recycled from photographic film and used processing solutions. Workers will burn the film and then carefully extract the silver from the ashes of the burned film. Quality scrap jewelry is generally re-alloyed instead of being refined.
The fine dust is then smelted and jewelry sweeps found in the grinding and polishing of the valued metal. This process creates silver that is impure and this is then electro refined.
Due to the fact that gold is valued much higher than silver, it is not economically viable to use the same techniques that are used for scrap gold for silver. It is far better to send scrap silver back to the smelter to be processed.
Fire assaying techniques for silver and gold are the same. In the case of silver, the assay bead is weighted and thereafter boiled with a nitric acid that is 35 percent strength. This process causes the silver content to be dissolved, after which it is weighted once again.
The silver content is defined by the weight loss and the remains will contain gold. The silver content of the bead has to be a minimum of 60 percent before it can be said that the silver has been completely dissolved.
Silver has to be added to the gold ores to make sure that the silver contained in the bead is enough. This process is referred to as inquartation. Leaching the gold and silver with nitric acid is referred to as parting.
Alloy and metal slowly recrystalize even considering that silver has been work hardened by whatever process. When this happens, the metal becomes much softer and this means that marring and scratching can take place.
To avoid this and to keep the metal hard, different metals are added and alloys are formed to make the substance tougher and less likely to endure fatigue.
Sterling is the most common copper-silver alloy. This is made up of 7.5 percent copper and the balance is silver. Sterling from England is identified by a lion passant hallmark. Coins constitute 90% silver and 10% copper. Ornaments and jewelry are between 85-90% silver and the remaining metal is copper.
Sixty to seventy percent of dental alloys are silver, eighteen to twenty five percent are tin, two to fourteen percent are copper and point five to two percent are zinc. These are mixed with mercury to create the mixture mercury that is required to fill cavities in teeth.
A solution of 40 percent palladium is added to this as copper and silver can tarnish when exposed to sulfur. Silver electroplating is done so that silver cannot erode the other metals and to keep the silver’s luster. Baths of cyanide are routinely practiced.
Silver is used for electrical contacts and this is because it has the most electrical conductivity of all the metals. To prevent the metal from oxidizing, nickel and palladium are added and this helps to prevent corrosion.
The most common precious metal fillers are silver brazing fillers. Apart from titanium, magnesium and aluminum silver brazing are ideal for all metals. Typically, a brazen alloy composition is made up of 16 percent zinc, 34 percent copper and 50 percent silver.
As much as 25-40 percent of industrial silver is used to produce silver bromide and silver chloride which are both photosensitive chemicals. Silver salts are created by the addition of sodium bromide or sodium chloride to an extremely pure solution of silver nitrate.
All of this is done in the dark while the insoluble solution of photosensitive chemicals is precipitated from the solution. Silver oxides are the cathodic materials that are used in batteries that can be recharged. Primary batteries have a high energy density and this is used as miniature power cells in watches and cameras.
Modern day silver investment and trading
Much of what mankind uses today contains silver in some way or other. Smart phones, PCs and TVs are just some of the products that contain silver. Brazil, India and China are countries where economic growth is taking place (at the time this was written) and because of this, there is a higher demand for silver and more people are realizing the value of this metal.
In recent years, silver has performed exceptionally well and in 2010, its value increased by 84 percent. Silver is valued higher than it has been valued in the last 30 years. Two years ago, the silver/gold production ratio was 70 whereas today it is just 37. This is a clear indication that silver has certainly increased in value at a faster rate than gold has done in the last 24 months.
As is the case with most commodities, the laws of supply and demand apply and industry and investors have driven the demand for this precious metal. Silver is a commodity that the industrial sector cannot do without.
Investors have a number of ways that they can invest in silver.
Mints issue silver bars in a variety of sizes from 5 grams to 1000 troy oz. Investors who wish to retain silver for an extended period normally buy silver bars that weigh more than 100 oz. Generally speaking, the more silver that an investor buys, the cheaper it becomes. Large silver bars are less valuable due to their rectangular shape.
Many consider silver coins to be the simplest way to invest in precious metals. As mints provide them, they are considered to be legal tender globally. They are extremely liquid as they are pure in weight and content.
The Canadian Silver Maple Leaf and the American Silver Eagle have a weight of 1 troy oz each. These are easy to value as they can be measured against the spot price of silver as it is on any given day.
Silver rounds are also popular with collectors. Silver rounds are produced by private mints and are less valuable than silver bullion coins such as American Silver Eagles, Canadian Silver Maple Leafs, Mexican Silver Libertads, Chinese Silver Pandas, Australian Silver Kookaburras, Australian Silver Kangaroos, British Silver Britannia and Austrian Silver Vienna Philharmonics. These silver bullion coins are considered to be legal tender. Private mints are also able to keep the cost of production low and this is another reason why silver rounds are considered to be of lower value.
Ninety percent silver bags are a common investment vehicle for many investors. Most often these are coins that were minted earlier than 1964.
The silver content of the silver dollars, silver half dollars, silver quarters and silver dimes is 90 percent, which makes the coins significantly more valuable than their face value. Investors like investing in silver bags as they can be broken up into smaller units and this makes it ideal for bartering purposes.
Silver mining stocks that are not physical are also popular with investors. Investors buy stock in silver mining companies and they realize profit when the value of silver increases.
Due to the fact that the process of mining produces much by product silver, investors can benefit when the value of other metals such as tin, nickel, zinc and copper increases. Investors should not only be concerned with commodity prices, but they should also adopt a holistic attitude by looking at the bigger picture when evaluating the share price. Smart investors adopt this attitude by investing in mining funds rather than investing in certain companies
Silver futures (silver futures contracts) presents another form of paper silver that investors can invest in or trade, but it is not recommended. In America, silver futures (derivatives) are traded on the Commodity Exchange. This exchange is a secondary market to the NY Mercantile Exchange.
Investors are also able to speculate on the value of silver without having to take actual ownership of the metal by using silver ETFs (silver exchange-traded funds). Investors should pay attention to the fees and fine print that come with silver ETFs. There are a number silver ETFs and some of the more popular ones include Sprott Physical Silver Trust, ETFS Silver Trust (NYSE: SIVR), ETFS Physical Silver (LSE: PHAG) and iShares Silver Trust (NYSE: SLV).
The price of modern day silver
Many people consider silver to be the runner up to gold as it is not as valuable or as aesthetically pleasing. This trend is starting to change now as silver is increasing in price at twice the rate that gold is increasing in price. It is currently out-performing all other metals (at the time this was written).
Questions are being asked whether silver should be priced even higher. It has gotten so bad that silver trading is under investigation for fear that manipulation of the silver price is being committed.
It is speculated that this is being done so that the price of silver is kept low. It is generally believed that some of the bigger traders control a large portion of the short positions in silver futures (silver futures contracts).
The CFTC reports that 1/3 of the net short position in silver futures were in the control of fewer than 4 traders.
A hearing in Washington DC prompted Bart Chilton, one of the hearing commissioners of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to declare that fraud is definitely suspected.
New rules are being proposed to ensure that prices cannot be fraudulently and devious manipulated to control prices. This is good news for honest players in the various silver markets.
New rules will benefit the honest investors. Aside from this, there are a number of other reasons why investors can expect silver to perform well.
Many experts feel that silver is the investment, which everyone should be looking towards. Supply and demand is the principal reason why experts feel this way.
The industrial sector is using this metal more and the demand for it is ever increasing. In 2009, there was a demand of more than 889 million ounces of silver. In the previous year the demand was 710 million ounces.
Smaller investors have turned to silver as an investment because they cannot yet afford to invest in gold. Even though the silver price is increasing at a more rapid rate than gold, it is still worth only $36 per ounce (at the time this was written). Gold on the other hand, sells for $1530 per ounce (at the time this was written).
As a result of the industrial uses of silver and silver market manipulation, the silver price is more volatile than the gold price. Silver is also associated with more economic activity than other precious metals.
An economic revival is required for silver to really take off as a quality investment. Should the economy continue along its current trend, silver would lose some of its shine. On the other hand, silver is money and will most definitely be used as money again, whether there is industrial demand driven by economic growth for it or not.
The history of silver is a fascinating story and it is clear that technology has had much to do with delivering it to mankind in the form that it is. It will be interesting to monitor silver investments over the next decade or so to see just how it performs in comparison to its rather richer relative, gold. Silver Bullion is of the opinion that silver is going to be on par with gold in terms of pricing within this decade.