The Fascinating History of Silver: From Early Civilizations to Modern Times

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Throughout most of civilization’s history, silver has played a big role.

Prized for its sheen and luster, silver has been used for everything from coinage and body jewelry to tableware and even modern electronics.

Our fascination with this metal has not diminished over the millennia either. In fact, our demand for silver seems to be only growing, with the silver industry estimated to grow by $137 billion over the next few years.

But how did it all start, and how did we end up here?

Below, we’ll take a brief look at the history of silver, from its use in early civilization to powering our smartphones today. Also, be sure to check out Salamander Jewelry’s large collection of wholesale body jewelry when you’re done reading to take part in silver’s story for yourself.

Early silver mining (3000 BC)

The earliest silver artifacts we have data back over 5,000 years to around 3000 BC.

At this time, we see the first signs of large-scale silver mining in the countries we now call Turkey and Greece. It was during this period — known as the bronze age — that prehistoric miners discovered silver veins alongside copper deposits.

Silver was prized by our ancestors for its unique appearance and shine, which must have enamored people then as it does now.

It was during this time that we see silver coins, jewelry, and statues made by skilled metalsmiths being created. These were traded all over Asia-minor and kicked off the world’s love story with silver.

Greek and Roman silver mining (1200 BC – 200 AD)

Over the next couple of thousand years, silver found itself at the heart of trade, luxury, and status.

The Laurium mines of ancient Athens were one of the world’s most productive sources of silver during this time. Earliest signs show that silver mining began in Laurium around 1200 BC, with peak production happening around 600-300 BC.

During this period, the Laurium mines produced an estimated 31 tons of silver per year!

This silver was especially lucrative for the ancient Greeks, who used their natural resource to fund their navy and army, wrestling back control of its borders from the Persian empire. They also used silver to create enduring works of art, such as the imposing Silver-Plated Bull of Delphi.

Along come the Romans…

The ancient Romans made good use of silver too. Roman culture used silver for everything from brooches and houseware to currency all throughout the empire. The most famous Roman coin, the silver Denarius was used for over 500 years and was created using silver from continental mines.

Spain was the main supplier of silver for the Romans and proved a boon to Mediterranean economies well beyond the fall of the empire. Like those of Turkey and Greece, the ancient Spanish people had been mining silver for thousands of years, with the Romans taking full advantage.

Spanish silver helped Rome stretch as far as the misty dells of ancient Scotland, with an estimated 200 tons of silver extracted every year. For a long period, this was the most ambitious and productive silver operation in history.

South American silver discovered (mid-1500s)

Throughout the next 1200-1300 years, Asia-minor, Ionia, and continental Europe were the main sources of silver for the world. These had strong trade routes and plenty of silver-bearing lands.

This changed, however, when the world (re)discovered the continent of America. While plenty of riches were exploited there, Spanish conquistadors found enormous silver deposits in areas of modern-day Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico.

Until the 1800s, these accounted for most of the world’s silver supply.

Silver rush in Nevada (1859)

It wasn’t until 1859 that a large silver deposit was discovered in the United States. It was in Nevada under the eastern slope of Mount Davidson that property owner Henry Comstock’s prospecting paid off.

With an abundance of silver found beneath the mountain, prospectors flooded the area looking to find their fortune beneath the surface. Mining continued here until the early 1920s, with several huge bonanzas being discovered, including a large amount of gold.

Silver de-monetized (1870s)

During the 1870s, silver saw a great upheaval in value and use.

This was largely down to France losing the Franco-Prussian war and being forced to surrender 5 billion francs worth of gold to Prussia. This was used by the Prussian forces to form a united Germany and adopt the gold standard for its currency.

Unfortunately, this meant more than 3 million tons of silver was dumped onto the market in just six years. Compounding things, silver production was also extremely high during this period, affecting prices enormously.

To avoid inflated currencies, nations around the world began to adopt the gold standard and demonetize silver coins.

To keep things afloat, the US had to introduce the Bland-Allison Act in 1878. This saw the US government buy $2-4 million dollars of silver a month and acted as a subsidy for the silver mining industry. With production more than tripling over the next 25 years, this became especially important.

It’s also during this point we see silver crystals used within film photography, something that still exists today.

Silver demand soars (1934-1979)

Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, governments around the world were forced to take drastic measures.

By 1934, the US had nationalized silver mines under the Silver Purchase Act and forced privately-held silver (and gold) to be handed over. Citizens were allowed to own a maximum of 500 ounces of silver, not in coin form.

In 1946, the US Treasury was forced once again to buy silver above market value. This created a large national stockpile of silver in the US, and the silver industry boomed to take advantage of the guaranteed profits.

This lasted until 1959 when — for the first time — demand outstripped supply, and there was a shortage of silver. This led to a price breakout of silver for twenty years and the price of the metal soaring.

Supply catches up with demand (1980s)

By the 1980s, a change in regulations and some failed attempts at cornering the market meant silver supply was able to catch up with demand. With improved trade networks by sea, freight, and plane, silver was now a multi-national commodity, with most countries able to buy and sell from each other.

Demand for silver at the commercial and institutional level was still high, however. Nations like the US began to create silver investment programs such as the American Silver Eagle (ASE) Bullion. These coins contain one troy ounce of silver, guaranteed to be 99.9% pure by the US government.

Modern use of silver (2000s+)

Nowadays, silver is still in high demand. Global financial crises and inflation make the precious metal a good store of value through tough economic times.

It’s also still highly popular as a body jewelry material, with the market expected to be worth over $137 billion by 2027.

But silver is now used for far more. Most silver is now used to facilitate conductivity in electronics. Silver paste is an essential component to a lot of components, including modern solar panels allowing current to flow from photovoltaic cells.

Silver is also essential to many modern medicines and ointments. Silver has unique antibacterial properties that can help treat and prevent infections. Small amounts of silver are still used in surgical and medical equipment to protect patients and kill bacteria.

Silver’s story continues…

While silver’s history has been tumultuous and fascinating, it’s not over. Now in demand more than ever, silver is still at the forefront of history and very much part of our daily lives.

Whether you’re a collector or a reseller, take part in this history yourself and check out Salamander Jewelry’s range of silver jewelry for yourself.

With a unique selection of wholesale sterling silver jewelry on offer, Salamander Jewelry is proud to help continue this timeless story.