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History of Precious Metals

The History of Silver

Silver has made a huge impact on cultures throughout time, and shown how silversmithing is a true art form.

Early History & Impact of Silver

ancient grecian silver plate
An ancient Grecian silver plate.

Silver has been used for thousands of years for jewelry, coins, religious objects, food vessels and utensils. The first major centers of silver mining and craftsmanship were in Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece.

In these areas, skilled silversmiths were producing beautiful objects over 5,000 years ago. From 800 B.C., silver was traded throughout Asia Minor and North Africa and as early as 700 B.C., merchants in Mesopotamia were using silver as a form of exchange.

Silver tetradrachm Athens reverse
The reverse of a silver tetradrachm from ancient Athens, Greece.

The famous Laurium mines, located near ancient Athens, were a primary source of silver for over a thousand years. It is estimated that the mines yielded about 1 million troy ounces per year during the years of peak production (~600–300 B.C.).

Ionian silver plated bull
This silver plated bull from the 6th century B.C. was found in Ionia, Greece. It is the largest precious metal statue ever found. Image from

The Romans too had a penchant for silver for jewelry, coins, and housewares. Their far-flung empire and the European cultures of the Middle Ages relied on silver mined from several localities, particularly Spain and Germany, although these sources were seriously depleted by the end of the 15th century.

Julius Caesar silver Denarius
A silver Denarius coin printed during the reign of Julius Caesar, circa 48 or 49 B.C.

The Roman silver Denarius is one of the most recognizable types of ancient coins. Minted from 211 B.C. to roughly the 3rd century A.D., this coin served as the foundation of the Roman economy and was an example for later developed coins during the Middle Ages throughout Europe. While the designs would vary widely, the weights and fineness were quite standard.

A silver and gilt cup from the Tang Dynasty
A silver and gilt cup from the Tang Dynasty.

In England, the silver craft and hallmarking systems were well established by the end of the 14th century. Silver also gained popularity in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.).

silver ring cross
A medieval silver seal ring from the 14th or 15th century.

When the Spanish conquistadores invaded the New World, they discovered vast silver deposits and indigenous cultures that had mined and worked silver for over 2,000 years. The great Aztec Emperor Montezuma wore a cuirass, collars, bracelets, earrings, and a helmet made of silver adorned with exotic feathers.

The Aztec Emperor Montezuma adorned himself with silver.

New World silver was especially abundant in Mexico, Peru, and the famous Potosí district in the mountains of Bolivia. These new silver deposits, coupled with technical advances in the mining and refining processes, greatly expanded the world’s silver supplies in the 16th century.

piece of eight
A “Piece of Eight” coin.

Over the three hundred years that span the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th century, Bolivia, Mexico, and Peru accounted for 85 percent of the world’s production of silver. During this period, it is estimated that 1 billion troy ounces of silver were produced from Bolivian mines and 1.5 billion from mines in Mexico. Production in Peru averaged about 3 million troy ounces of silver per year. Much of the New World silver was used to mint “Pieces of Eight,” the nearly universal “dollar” of the day.

turkish ottoman niello silver ring
An Ottoman niello ring. Niello is an alloy of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead that was used as an inlay on engraved metal. The Egyptians are credited with developing the niello technique.

Over the centuries, there was an unfortunate, but nearly universal tendency to melt down old silver objects to make new coin and decorative pieces. This has led to the destruction of countless early masterpieces, and their subsequent rarity  today. In 1646, Charles I, King of England, opted to pay his troops with his dinner plates, which were cut up to make crude coin.

mughal helmet
A Mughal helmet inlaid with silver. Photo from Esford Pty Ltd.

In the 17th century, North American tribes, including the Seneca, Iroquois, and Onondaga, began using silver coins obtained from European traders to make ornaments and jewelry. Many of the North American indigenous peoples have continued their silversmithing traditions to the present day.

silver inlay on khaniar daggers
Silver inlay on Khanjar daggers. Photo from Esford Pty Ltd.

By the mid 18th century, the North American cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had become important centers for silversmithing.

Perhaps the most famous American silversmith was Paul Revere. In England, a process for silver plating, called Sheffield plate, was developed in 1742.

sheffield plate tea set
A Sheffield plate tea set.

In the 19th century, silver jewelry became more affordable because of advances in technology, including the invention of electroplating. The latter part of the 19th century saw a number of silver rushes, particularly in the North American frontier where major discoveries were found in Nevada, Colorado, and Utah.

mining for silver
Mining for silver in the United States frontier.

With the turn of the 20th century, silver became an important raw material for industrial processes and significant improvements were made in the techniques used to extract and refine silver ores.

Archibald Knox rose bowl
A silver, enamel, and turquoise Art Nouveau bowl by silversmith Archibald Knox, hallmarked Birmingham, 1902. Image from

Silver jewelry and housewares also experienced a revival during the Arts and Crafts movement (1894 – 1923) when many artisans rebelled against industrialization and mass production by producing beautiful hand fabricated pieces.

Throughout history, gold and silver have been the foundation for currency the world over.  With time however, many countries experienced practical difficulties maintaining the concurrent circulation of both metals.  

silver dollar paper
Silver certificates were used for a time as U.S. paper currency.

One by one, nations began to adapt systems that favored gold as the basic unit of exchange.  In the 20th century, both metals lost their former importance within monetary systems, and even the gold standard was abandoned.  Nevertheless, silver is still actively traded in world commodity markets where its price fluctuates daily.

Now that we’ve completed outlining the important history of precious metals, let’s move into a discussion to explain A Guide to Precious Metal Alloys, Fineness, and Karatage.

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