The importance of silver coins and bullion as trade instruments consistently allowed entities with access to silver mines to gain predominance over their neighbors. Silver was the engine propelling history’s empires, and even in today’s jewelry industry the importance of silver can’t be understated as a plurality of jewelers say that silver jewelry provides their best-maintained margins (from this survey of jewelry stores conducted for The Silver Institute.)
The Significance of Silver
Ancient Athenian Silver
Silver played a critical role in the existence of the world’s first democracy: the ancient Athenian state. The silver mines in Laurium were critical to the Athenian economy, funding the famous trireme navies of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, and the construction of great architectural monuments like the Parthenon, the main example of classic Greek architecture. The first institute of higher learning in the western world was founded during this time, the Platonic Academy, where Plato instructed Aristotle. Athens’ influence extended not only through out the Mediterranean but resonates even today as its legacy of democratic governance and classic architectural styling persists. It is unlikely that the ancient Athenians would have thrived like they did but for the wealth provided by the silver mines at Laurium.
New World Silver
Similar to the ancient Athenian empire; the Spanish empire of the 16th through 18th centuries was a naval power built upon silver mines, this time located in Mexico and Bolivia. The original “empire on which the sun never sets” Spain flourished with vast quantities of silver, and maintained a presence on every continent but Antarctica. Sunken Spanish treasure galleons from this period are still being searched for and recovered today, laden with silver coins and other ancient treasures. While gold mined and minted by the Spanish during this period is romanticized and receives the attention in popular culture, the silver acquired by the Spanish during this period outweighed the gold nearly a hundredfold (receipts from the House of Trade in Seville report 91 grams of silver for every 1 gram of gold.) The Spanish empire was the first nation to engage in global trade, establishing permanent trade routes that spanned the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
As the Spanish empire was overflowing with silver from the new world the largest silver mine in Japanese history, Iwami Ginzan, was funding the Tokugawa Shogunate’s unification of Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan from 1603 CE to 1868 CE, known as the “Edo Period.” Mining operations at Iwami Ginzan continued until 1929, outlasting the Tokugawa Shogunate by over seventy years. Estimated to have accounted for one third of the silver mined annually at peak production Iwami Ginzan contributed to the economic development of Japan and Southeast Asia during the 16th and 17th century. Despite Japan’s self-imposed seclusion during this time period, a significant amount of trade occurred, resulting in the exchange of cultural values and scientific knowledge between Japan and the west through their sole European trading partner the United East Indian Company (also known as the Dutch East India Company.)
With the affordability of silver, the shift in consumer tastes towards hand made and personalized products, and more casual attire in the workplace, the popularity of silver jewelry has surged. This increase in popularity for silver jewelry has been met with an increase in innovative jewelry designs in both traditional silver alloys and newer silver alloys like argentium®.
.925 Sterling Silver
The most widely known silver alloy is sterling silver. Sterling silver is any silver alloy containing 92.5% pure silver, with the remaining 7.5% being other metals, most frequently entirely copper. Most sterling silver pieces will be hallmarked or stamped with “Sterling” or “925” to indicate that they’re sterling silver, and any piece presented as sterling silver that is not stamped should fall under heavy scrutiny. By US law, any piece marked “sterling” or any abbreviation or imitation of “sterling” can not overstate the actual fineness of the piece by more than 4 one thousandths in portions of jewelry that are free of solder or base metals, and can not have a divergence of greater than 10 one thousandths fineness for the entire quantity of silver, including any solder and alloy of inferior fineness. G&S Metals and Refiners sells a wide variety of sterling silver findings, mill products including sheet, round wire, square wire, half round wire, seamless round tubing, and sterling silver casting grain.
.935 and .960 Argentium® Silver
With modern metallurgical techniques new silver alloys have been introduced to the market. These new silver alloys address issues encountered with sterling silver, like firescale and poor tarnish resistance. One of the most exciting new silver alloys is argentium® silver, a proprietary silver and germanium alloy. The inclusion of germanium into a silver alloy has provided many tangible benefits to jewelers using Argentium® especially higher tarnish and firescale resistance due to a self-replenishing layer of germanium oxide that forms on the outside of Argentium® alloys. If argentium® silver is ever overpolished or overworked by a jeweler this layer of germanium oxide can be replenished by heating the jewelry in a 300°F(149°C) oven for three hours. Another benefit of argentium® is the ability to fuse it to other argentium® as well as high karat (18K or higher) gold, as you can see in the video clip from our argentium® Workshop. G&S Metals carries mill products, findings, and casting grain in the argentium® 935 pro alloy, and G&S Metals also carries argentium® 960 pro casting grain.
.999 Fine Silver
Fine silver is not as common as sterling silver in jewelry, but is still available from G&S Metals in round wire, sheet, and bezel strip. Fine silver is also often referred to as “three nines” pure and can be represented by a 999 stamp. For investment purposes it is common to see “four nines” purity on silver bars, coins, and other forms of bullion. The term “fine silver” is not a protected term in the United States, unlike “sterling silver,” but all marks, stamps, etchings, brands or printed words or numbers on a product that are intended to represent the fineness of silver are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, and cannot deviate by more than four one-thousandths of the actual fineness of the silver. While “fine silver” is not a protected term in the United States it’s always best to accurately report the metal purity of your pieces to your customers. G&S Metals carries fine silver round wire, fine silver flat sheet, fine silver bezel strip, fine silver casting grain, and fine silver 1 troy ounce bars stamped with the G&S Metals logo.
Silver-Filled material is another metal resulting from an increase in metallurgical knowledge. Consisting of sterling silver bonded onto a base metal core through heat and pressure, silver filled metal is an inexpensive metal that provides the look, and working characteristics of sterling silver but at a more inexpensive price. Silver filled is also more durable than standard plated silver pieces, as the outer layer of sterling silver is either 5% (for silver filled marked 1/20) or 10% (for silver filled marked 1/10) of the total weight of the product, where as silver plated material is typically anywhere between 5 and 25 microns thick (a micron is 1/1000 of a millimeter.) There are currently no stamping or purity requirements for silver filled unlike there are for gold filled. However for consistency it is probably best to maintain the same nomenclature in use for gold filled if you work in both. G&S Metals carries silver filled mill products and findings that are 1/10 (10% by weight) .925 sterling silver.