Silver may be of less value than its cousins gold and platinum, but it is a precious metal with significant applications in the world of economics, medicine, and design. Silver has long had the role of backing currency and remains valuable even when the economy tanks. But silver’s most conspicuous uses are the ones easiest on the eyes. Here’s a brief history of silver and its aesthetic applications in the field of design.
History of Silver Mining
Silver has been prized for many millennia. The first mines sprang up around 3,000 B.C. in the region that would become present-day Turkey. They were an important part of the rich flourishing of the Greek empire, and others, in the region.
A new age of silver production was born when European conquerors first came to the New World with Christopher Columbus in 1492. The empires were able to mine silver on an incredible scale in the regions that are now Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico. These areas, along with Australia, China, and Russia, continue to be some of the biggest producers of silver today.
Sterling Silver Authenticity
Silversmiths in England and France began stamping sterling silver objects with a purity indicator “925” in the 14th century. This stamp on sterling silver indicates that a piece is 92.5 percent pure silver. The mark became a requirement in the United States in 1906.
The most obvious use of silver is in making jewelry, and here the material almost always takes the form of sterling silver. Pure silver is highly malleable, and thus can’t survive as a sturdy piece of jewelry on its own. That’s why silversmiths created the alloy we call sterling silver—a mix of silver and other metals, often copper.
Cheaper jewelry sometimes makes use of a silver-plating method, where a non-precious metal is coated in sterling silver or pure silver. Such jewelry is not nearly as valuable. If you’re in the market for silver jewelry you’ll want to look for a stamp of authenticity reading “925” or “SS” (for sterling silver) to make sure you’re getting the real thing.
Silver in the Home
Jewelry isn’t the only historical use of silver in design. The precious metal is also the most effective material for use in making mirrors. Whereas the cheaper aluminum reflects about 90 percent of light, silver reflects 95 percent, so high-quality mirrors typically contain it.
Kitchenware and implements are also classic applications of the element. As early as 2,500 B.C., humans were using silver to make various types of plates and dinnerware, and the tradition has continued through to the present day.
Silver’s role in kitchenware is somewhat paradoxical. Although most of what we call “silverware” these days is made of stainless steel, no elegant home is complete without a quality set of fine actual silver. That rule of thumb is by no means only applicable to the elite. In modern times, cutlery accounts for 8-9 percent of world production of the material. A bona-fide set of silver makes a great wedding gift for any couple, and, even if it’s not used on a daily basis, it really dresses things up on special occasions.
One major figure in the history of the metal as a material for making household goods is Georg Jensen, the Danish silversmith who drew on Art Nouveau influences to marry utility and elegance. His carafes, vases, and cutlery are some classic examples of classy silver homeware.
Silver has come a long way since it was first pulled from the mines of ancient Anatolia, and there’s no sign that the metal will lose any of its allure anytime soon.
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