Silver is a metallic element with atomic number 47 and the symbol Ag, which comes from the Latin argentum – meaning ‘grey’ or ‘shining’. It is considered a precious metal and is far more abundant than gold. Silver is also a transition metal and has the highest electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity and reflectivity of any metal. It occurs naturally in its pure form as well as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals such as argentine.
Silver is ductile and malleable. It has a white metal lustre that can be polished to a brilliant finish, making it highly popular for use in jewellery making. It is also cheaper and therefore far more economical than other precious metals such as gold or platinum. It is also the most electrically conductive of all metals, including copper. The reason it is not used widely for electrical purposes is due to the higher cost than other materials. Despite this, it is used often in radio-frequency engineering, where silver plating is used to improve electrical conductivity of parts and wires.
The most well-known uses of silver are in currency, jewellery and decorative items. It was used as a form of currency from approximately 700 BC, in the form of electrum, and after that in its pure form although in the 20th century most countries moved away from this in favour of a flat currency system. Interestingly, the name ‘pound sterling’ comes from the fact that originally the name represented one pound Tower weight of sterling silver. Silver coins are still minted in some countries, usually as a commemorative or collectible item.
Silver jewellery and silverware are usually made from sterling silver, an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. Sterling silver is harder than pure silver, making it more durable for everyday use, and has a lower melting point. It is often plated with a very thin coat of .999 fine silver to give the item a brilliant, shiny finish, in a process known as flashing. It can also be plated with rhodium and gold, depending on the desired finish.
Other lesser known uses of silver include water purification, air conditioning, dentistry, photography and electronics.
The principal sources of silver are the ores of copper, copper-nickel and lead. These are mainly found in Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, China, Australia, Chile, Poland and Serbia. Today the price of silver is far less than gold. In the past silver has been much more expensive with prices during the 15th century estimated to have been equivalent to approximately US$1,200 per ounce. With the discovery of more silver deposits throughout the world, however, the price of silver has gradually diminished to reflect its current value today.