Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silver

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Podcast Transcript

For thousands of years, one of the most valuable elements on the periodic table has been silver. 

Silver has been valued for its use in coins and jewelry and has several unique properties that no other metal has. 

Today silver is still as treasured as it was thousands of years ago, but it is being used in ways that the ancients could never have imagined.

Learn more about silver, its history, and its uses on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To start our discussion of this precious metal, we should probably start with the physical properties of silver. 

Silver has an atomic number of 47, which means that it has 47 protons in its nucleus. 

It sits immediately below copper on the periodic table and immediately above gold, and it shares physical properties with both of those elements. 

What makes a silver atom special, and it is a property shared with copper and gold, is that its highest electron shell has only one electron in it. This is a big reason why silver is so special, the reasons for which I’ll get to in a bit.

The chemical abbreviation for silver is Ag, which comes from the Latin name for silver, argentum.

Silver has two naturally occurring isotopes, Ag107 and Ag109. What is odd is that they are almost equal in abundance, which is something you almost never see for elements. Usually, if there is more than one natural isotope of an element, there is one that is overwhelmingly abundant, with the others being very scarce. 

Silver, like gold, is not very reactive, although not as much as gold. If you have silver items in your house and they tarnish over time, it is actually the non-silver metal in the alloy, usually copper, which is responsible for the tarnishing, not the silver per se. 

That being said, silver can react with sulfur that is in the air, and that can tarnish silver directly.

The history of humans using silver goes back thousands of years. It was one of the seven metals which were identified and used by the ancients, the others being copper, gold, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. 

One of the reasons silver was known to the ancients is that it can be found in its elemental form. Other metals like aluminum are usually found as oxides or in some other chemical compound, making them difficult to extract. 

Unlike gold which usually never reacts with anything, silver can be found in some chemical compounds and alloys, in addition to being found in its elemental form. 

For very early people, silver was actually rarer than gold for this reason. It wasn’t until the 15th century BC that gold became more valuable in silver in Egypt. This was the result of metallurgy techniques such as ??cupellation, which could separate the so-called “noble metals” of silver and gold from ores under high heat.

There is evidence of silver mining around the Mediterranean going back 5,000-6,000 years, which we know from the slag heaps which have been found. 

While silver was found as early as copper, silver was seldom used for tools like copper because silver is simply too soft of a metal to be of any use. A silver sword or hammer might look cool, but it wouldn’t be very practical.

This led to silver being primarily used for ornamental purposes and for coins. 

Silver is odd in that someone who lived 2,000 years ago probably had more day-to-day interaction with silver than people today. This is mainly due to silver being the primary metal for coins. 

While there were gold coins, they were too rare and valuable to be used on the regular basis. Common coins such as the Roman denarius and sestertius were silver coins that were the primary currency in the empire.

Because it was primarily used for money, the mining of silver became very lucrative and in high demand. Silver could be used to pay soldiers, grain, or whatever. 

The most productive silver mines in the Mediterranean were probably in Spain. Roman silver production was done almost wholely with slave labor, and it was truly one of the worst jobs possible. Slaves who worked in mines had a very short life expectancy.

An estimated 10,000 tons of silver were in circulation during the heyday of the Roman Empire. 

After the fall of the western empire, silver production came to a halt. Medieval Europeans and Muslims under the Abbasid Caliphate around the year 800 were believed to have five to ten times less silver in circulation than they did in Rome. 

Ancient China certainly had silver. However, it was never as central to the economy there as it was in Europe or the Middle East simply because there wasn’t as much of it. This was just one of the reasons why China adopted paper money before the rest of the world did. 

Silver production shifted from Spain to Central Europe in the middle ages, particularly in Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. However, there was never anything like the level of production which occurred under Rome. 

The discovery of the New World really changed the global silver market. In particular, the Spanish had an enormous appetite for silver. The mining of silver was the backbone of the Spanish economic system.

The amount of silver in the world exploded, with most of it coming from mines in Peru. 

Spanish silver drove the first real economic globalization. In addition to sending ships back to Europe with silver, they also had a regular galleon trade between Acapulco and the Philippines

The Chinese at this time had no real desire to trade with Europeans for any of their goods. The one exception to this was silver. A shockingly large amount of silver produced in the New World eventually ended up in China. 

Much of this was due to the demand for silver from Chinese merchants and common folk who had come not to trust the paper money issued by the government.

The production of silver eventually hurt the Spanish economy. More silver meant more money in circulation, which naturally led to inflation. 

In the late 18th century, silver was still the dominant metal used for money. If you remember back to my episode about the origin of the dollar, it was initially a unit of silver, and when the United States became independent, it defined the dollar in 1792 as 371 4/16 grains of fine silver.

In the 19th century, silver was still used in coins even though the world moved more and more to a gold standard.

The primary location of silver mining also moved from South America to North America. 

The Comstock Lode in Nevada was announced to the public in 1859, and in the first five years the mine was running, they had six bonanzas. A bonanza is a term for a particularly rich silver vein. 

North American silver mining also led to developments in mining technology. One of the changes in the late 19th century was the development of techniques to extract silver in the refining process of other ores, in particular copper, zinc, and lead.

In fact, today, that is how the majority of the world’s silver is produced. It doesn’t come from dedicated silver mines, it is a byproduct of mining something else.

Demand for silver in coinage dropped dramatically in the 20th century. However, it also saw increased demand for industrial use.

One of the most interesting developments in the silver commodity trade occurred in the late 70s and early 80s when the billionaire brothers Herbert, Lamar, and Nelson Hunt tried to corner the market in silver. 

At one point, they owned half the world’s deliverable stock of silver and the price rose from $6.08 per troy ounce to $49.45 per ounce.

Changes to US commodity trading policies in January of 1980 led to a silver price crash on March 27, 1980, which became known as Silver Thursday.

The Hunts lost an estimated 80% of their net worth in the aftermath of the crash. 

Outside its use as money, the biggest historical use of silver has been in jewelry and ornamentation. 

Silver used in housewares, such as serving platters, silverware, and bowls, is usually made from sterling silver. 

Pure silver, known as fine silver, is too soft to be any real purpose beyond bouillon. To make it stronger, an alloy is created, usually with copper, of 92.5% silver to make what is known as sterling silver. 

Beyond the rarity of silver, there are several properties of silver that make it unique among all metals. 

For starters, silver is the best electrical conductor of any metal. Better than copper, aluminum, or gold. You can find at least some silver in most electronics that are sold today. Circuit boards usually use silver-based paint. It usually isn’t used for larger things like electrical wiring simply due to cost. 

Silver also has the highest thermal conductivity of any metal. There are pastes made from silver that are used on heatsinks for computers, and there are even some very high-end heatsinks made entirely out of silver, although they are only marginally better than copper at a significantly higher price. 

Silver also has the highest optical reflectivity of any metal. Centuries ago, you could afford a mirror if you were wealthy enough. You needed to be wealthy because it would be made out of silver. 

One important industrial use of silver, which isn’t as big of a deal anymore, was in photography. Silver nitrate and silver halides were probably the biggest industrial use of silver prior to the advent of digital photography. 

Another interesting prosperity of silver is that it is antimicrobial. There are many metals that are antimicrobial to one degree or another via a process known as the Oligodynamic effect. The Oligodynamic effect involves a reaction between the metal and proteins. 

Silver is the most antimicrobial metal, and this property had been known for centuries, even if people didn’t know what microbes were.  

The ancient Phonecians would often line jars with silver to store water or wine. People used to put a silver dollar in milk to prevent it from spoiling. 

Ships will often have their water storage tanks lined with silver to keep their water safe to drink. 

Even a small amount of silver in a compound can kill bacteria. 

There are many medical products that contain silver for this reason, including dressings, creams, and tubes. 

You might have also seen some high-end clothing products which embed small amounts of silver into the fabric for antimicrobial purposes. You can find t-shirts, underwear, and bed sheets with silver, all designed to kill the microbes that make you stink. 

For the most part, silver is not toxic. If you swallowed something made of silver, it probably wouldn’t do you harm (please note I am not a doctor).

However, silver can accumulate in your body if you were to ingest enough of it. 

There are rare cases of a condition known as argyria. People with argyria have skin that turns blueish-grey. It can literally make you look like a smurf, and if you don’t believe me, just do a quick search on “blue skin silver.”. 

The number of cases of argyria is pretty small, and it mostly comes from people who have consumed colloidal silver, which is an unproven medical treatment. 

Argyria comes from silver collecting in the skin and eyes, and it is irreversible. There is no cure for it, although it is not fatal. 

So, silver is a pretty cool metal. 

It is more than something you use for fancy dining or medals given to runners-up at the Olympics. 

Its unique electrical, thermal, optical, and medical properties means that of all the elements on the periodic table, maybe silver should be given the gold medal.