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Silver is one of the first metals to be used by humans. It may have been the first metal smelted from ore. The art of silver working dates back to the ancient Byzantine, Phoenician and Egyptian empires, where silver was forged into domestic utensils, jewellery, buttons, weapons, horse trappings, boxes, and other articles.

Unfortunately, silver's high utility meant that items were often melted down and re-forged into new items. Consequently, much ancient and early European silverwork has been lost forever. The silver tradition was carried over to colonial America, where it co-existed with the centuries-old hand-hammered craft traditions of the 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 jewellery making among native peoples remains largely unchanged today. The niche of silver making in Western society has been a bit more dynamic. Silver's value as a jewelelry 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.

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

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

Fine Silver in its natural state, 999/1000 pure, is too soft an element for practical jewelry. To make it workable, an alloy such as copper is added. Here are the main silver alloys:

Sterling Silver: A mixture of 92.5 % pure silver (925 parts) and 7.5 % metal alloy.

Silver Plating: Also known as silver plated or silver coated. A base metal, usually nickel silver or brass, is coated with a layer of pure silver by a process called electroplating.

Vermeil: Sterling silver electroplated with at least 100 millionths of an inch of karat gold

German Silver or Nickel Silver: A silver-white alloy consisting of copper, zinc and nickel.

Coin Silver: 90% (900 parts) pure silver and 10% (100 parts) metal alloy. A process of melting down coins done in the 19th century, and mostly discarded today.


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