Silver as a Precious Metal
So, exactly what is a “precious metal”? Most sources agree that a precious metal is a rare, naturally occurring metallic element with high economic value. Precious metals are generally less reactive and more stable than most elements. They share the qualities of ductility (the ability to be drawn into thin wire), malleability (the ability to be easily worked into various shapes) and have a high luster. From ancient times, precious metals, particularly silver and gold, were used as currency, but are now considered primarily as investment and industrial commodities.
The list of precious metals is short: silver, gold, and the platinum group of metals: platinum, palladium, rhodium, osmium and ruthenium. Historically, precious metals have commanded much higher prices than other more common metals. The demand for precious metals is driven by several factors. They have a multitude of practical uses in the industrial sector, are much sought after for making jewelry and other decorative ornaments, and play a major role as investments acting as a concentrated store of value.
In more general terms, think of a precious metal as being beautiful, rare, workable and durable. Silver possesses a unique and intrinsic beauty that is unrivaled by any other material on earth. Silver is in limited supply and difficult to extract, and its growing popularity, both in jewelry and industry, continues to outmatch production. Silver’s unique combination of physical characteristics allows it to be shaped and crafted into almost and design imaginable. Silver is eternal, and maintains its beauty and luster with very little maintenance. To really appreciate the lasting qualities of silver, visit the nearest museum where you will most likely discover stunning silver jewelry dating back hundreds to thousands of years.
Attributes of Silver
Silver is the most reflective of all jewelry metals and has a brilliant white luster. Newly polished silver will reflect 95% of all light that falls on it – compared with gold at 92% and rhodium at 62%. In fact, mirrors dating from the 1600s to present day are backed with a thin layer of silver film to make them reflective.
Because of its malleability and ductility, silver is easily shaped and excellent to work with. Silver actually has a greater tensile strength than gold, and can be bent, stretched and shaped without cracking. Its relative lightness and affordability make it the perfect choice for all shapes and sizes of jewelry, especially large, bold pieces.
Pure silver, often marked 999 or “fine”, is 99.9% pure. Because it is a relatively soft metal, about the same hardness as gold, pure silver is rarely used to make jewelry. Its primary uses are for silver plating (called flashing) and bullion coins and ingots used as investments. Silver that is used to make jewelry is almost always alloyed with other metals, primarily copper, to increase its strength and durability. An alloy is a combination of different metals that have a greater strength, harness, and workability than the individual component metals. The properties of an alloy are determined by the ratio of its component metals, and different silver alloys will have slightly different “recipes”.
The most popular silver alloy used in jewelry is called “sterling silver”, a mix of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper.This small amount of copper makes the alloy more than twice as hard as pure silver and doubles its tensile strength.Items made from sterling silver will be stamped “sterling”, “ster” or “925”. Sterling silver is also used to manufacture silverware and flatware.
Other Popular Silver Alloys
- Britannia Silver contains 95.8% pure silver and is used to make tableware. Also, silver coins issued by the U.K.’s Royal Mint are minted in 95.8% silver. The most common stamp on Britannia is “958”.
- Mexican Silver is a term that should only be used to describe silver made in Mexico that is 95% pure silver and 5% copper. Other silver alloys made in Mexico that are not 95% pure should not be referred to as Mexican Silver. Look for the mark “Mexican Silver” or “950”.
- Argentium Silver is a patented alloy where the metal germanium replaces some of the copper for added tarnish resistance. Argentium products are stamped with a “flying unicorn” logo and contain between 93.5% and 96% pure silver
- Coin silver is an alloy common in silver coinage. It is an alloy of 90% silver and 10% copper. You may see some vintage or antique silver jewelry made from coin silver, but it is rarely used to make silver jewelry today. Coin silver is the lowest percentage of silver than can be legally marketed and sold in the United States as silver.
A Multitude of Uses
About 47% of silver used annually is in industrial applications. These include water purification, medicine, preventing illness, photography, electrical and electronic applications, and soldering.
To learn more about silver’s industrial uses, visit the Silver Institute website: http://www.silverinstitute.org