Precious Metal

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Silver coins

Silver is a brilliant white, lustrous metal that is extremely ductile and malleable. Together with gold, iridium, palladium and platinum, it is one of the so-called "precious metals." Usually found combined with copper or lead, silver has long been used in the manufacture of coins, ornaments and jewelry.

Ancient Silver's History

Silver ornaments and decorations found in royal tombs dating to about 6000 years ago place its discovery soon after the discovery of gold and copper. Slag dumps in Asia Minor and on islands in the Aegean Sea indicate that after humans learned to separate silver from lead by about 2000 BC, it has been used regularly in jewelry and as a medium of exchange ever since.

The earliest known large mines were those of Cappadocia in eastern Anatolia. The best-known of the ancient mines were located at the Laurium silver-lead deposit in Greece and were actively mined from 500 BC to AD 100. Roman envy of the silver mines worked by the Carthaginians in Spain helped cause the Punic Wars.

By the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors had discovered and developed silver mines in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. Much richer in silver, these New World mines resulted in the rise of South and Central America as the largest silver-producing areas in the world.

In 1859, an extremely large silver deposit -- the Comstock Lode -- was discovered near Virginia City, Nevada. It yielded over 225 million dollars in silver during its productive years and resulted in the United States becoming the world's largest silver producer until the 20th century, when it was surpassed by Mexico and Peru.

Medium of Exchange

Historically, silver was minted into coins, which led to its use as the standard for the monetary systems of ancient Greece and Rome. It is likely that both gold and silver were used as money by 800 BC in all countries between the Indus and the Nile. Silver continued to be the standard for most currencies until the 19th century, when most changed to a gold standard.

In late 19th-century America, the Free Silver Movement advocated unlimited coinage of silver, which became the symbol of economic justice for the mass of the American people. But in 1900 a Republican majority in Congress passed the Gold Standard Act, which made gold the sole standard for all currency thereafter.

Expanding industrial use of silver led to its depletion in the U.S., and in 1965 the U.S. Treasury reduced the silver content of a half-dollar and introduced silverless dimes and quarters. Finally, in 1967, when the demand for industrial silver use exceeded the total annual world production, the Treasury withdrew all silver coins from circulation.

Industrial Uses

Because silver does not react readily with organic acids and bases, it is used for lining vats, tanks and other containers in the chemical and food industries. Because of the metal's high electrical conductivity, it is used for making printed electrical circuits and as a coating for electronic conductors; it is often alloyed with such elements as nickel or palladium for use in electrical contacts. In the photography industry, silver compounded with bromine or chlorine forms light-sensitive coatings that register images on films.

  • Silver acetate serves as an industrial oxidizing agent and laboratory reagent.
  • Silver nitrate is used in silver plating, hair dyeing, and manufacturing ink, glass, and mirrors, and as a strong antiseptic.
  • Silver oxide, a dark-brown powder, is used in medicines, in coloring glass, and in purifying drinking water.
  • Silver iodide, a pale-yellow powder, is used chiefly in medicines, in photography, and in cloud seeding to produce rain artificially during drought conditions.

Decorative & Ornamental Uses

The use of silver for silverware, ornaments and jewelry remains significant into modern times. Alloys of silver with copper are harder, tougher and more fusible than pure silver and are used for jewelry and coinage. Sterling silver contains 92.5 percent of silver and 7.5 percent of copper. Jewelry silver is an alloy containing 80 percent silver and 20 percent copper or lead.

Physical Properties

Pure silver has a brilliant white metallic luster. It does not react with moist air or dry oxygen but is easily tarnished at room temperature by sulfur or hydrogen sulfide. Silver dissolves readily in nitric acid and in hot concentrated sulfuric acid. It is extremely malleable, ductile, and has the highest electrical and thermal conductivities of all metals.

Unlike gold, silver is present in many naturally occurring minerals. The most abundant include argentite and tetrahedrite. While silver is widely distributed in nature, the total amount is quite small when compared with other metals; the metal constitutes 0.05 parts per million of the Earth's crust.

  • Atomic number: 47
  • Atomic weight: 107.868
  • Melting point: 1234 degrees K
  • Boiling point: 2436 degrees K
  • Tensile strength: approx. 19,000 psi


Crystal System
Specific Gravity
Color, Transparency,
Luster & Streak
Color: Bright white
Transparency: --
Luster: Metallic
: --
  • Argentite
  • Tetrahedrite

Desert Minerals & Geology Index
Things To Do: Rockhounding
Virginia City, Nevada

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