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All About Silver

While silver is often considered “second” to gold, silver has unique properties that make it attractive as both a precious and industrial metal. Edge Exploration compiled this article chocked-full of facts all about silver to give you a glimpse into this often sought-after metal.

Together with gold and the platinum-group metals, silver is considered one of the precious metals. Its precious status is due to its comparative scarcity, brilliant white colour, malleability, ductility, and resistance to atmospheric oxidation. The origin of name Silver comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “siolfur” meaning “silver“.

Silver exhibits the highest electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and reflectivity of any metal. Silver is stable in pure air and water, though it tarnishes quickly when exposed to air that contains elevated levels of ozone, hydrogen sulfide or sulfur. (In the past 200 years, the amount of sulfur in the atmosphere has increased, so silver tarnishes more quickly than it did in pre-Industrial times.) Tarnish can easily be removed, however, and does not destroy the metal the way oxidation process known as rust destroys iron. The fact that silver is otherwise impervious to the elements helps define it as a precious metal.

Silver (Ag) is located in Group 11 (Ib) and Period 5 on the periodic table, between copper and gold, with its physical and chemical properties are intermediate between those two metals. The origin of the periodic symbol Ag comes from the Latin word “argentum” meaning “silver“. Silver atoms have 47 electrons and the shell structure is The ground state electronic configuration of neutral silver is [Kr].4d10.5s1 and the term symbol of silver is 2S1/2.Unlike gold, silver is present in many naturally occurring minerals. Silver occurs uncombined, and in ores such as argentite and chlorargyrite.

Silver is found generally in lead ores, copper ores, and cobalt arsenide ores and is also frequently associated with gold in nature. Most silver is derived as a by-product from ores that are mined and processed to obtain these other metals. Silver is generally produced as a byproduct of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining. The metal is recovered either from the ore, or during the electrolytic refining of copper. World production is about 20,000 tonnes per year.

Uses of Silver

For centuries, silver has been used in variety of luxury goods such as jewelry, tableware, and fine art. Today, over 40% of silver’s consumption comes from this precious metals segment.

Silver is a significant material for industrial uses as well, because of its thermo-electro conductivity, ductility, malleability, and high sensitivity to light. The metal is used extensively in a variety of faster-growing electronics segments such as solar panels, LED lighting, flexible displays, touch screens, RFID tags, cellular technology, and water purification. Silver’s unique properties and the relatively small quantities of the metal required in many applications often make it an irreplaceable input, even if the price of silver rises.

Sterling silver contains 92.5% silver. The rest is copper or some other metal. It is used for jewellery and silver tableware, where appearance is important.

Silver is used to make mirrors, as it is the best reflector of visible light known, although it does tarnish with time. It is also used in dental alloys, solder and brazing alloys, electrical contacts and batteries. Silver paints are used for making printed circuits.

Silver bromide and iodide were important in the history of photography, because of their sensitivity to light. Even with the rise of digital photography, silver salts are still important in producing high-quality images and protecting against illegal copying. Light-sensitive glass (such as photochromic lenses) works on similar principles. It darkens in bright sunlight and becomes transparent in low sunlight.

Silver has antibacterial properties and silver nanoparticles are used in clothing to prevent bacteria from digesting sweat and forming unpleasant odours. Silver threads are woven into the fingertips of gloves so that they can be used with touchscreen phones.

Brief History of Silver

Silver is a rare metal that has long been valued for its versatility throughout the world since ancient times. Silver was one of the seven metals of antiquity that were known to prehistoric humans. It is even mentioned in the book Genesis in the . Copper, silver, and gold, occur in elemental form in nature and are thought to be used as the first primitive forms of money, as opposed to simple bartering. Unlike copper, silver did not lead to the growth of metallurgy on account of its low structural strength, and was more often used ornamentally or as money.

Slag dumps in Asia Minor and on islands in the Aegean Sea indicate that man learned to separate silver from lead as early as 3000 B.C. Other slag heaps near ancient mine workings in Turkey and Greece prove that silver mining also started around that time period.

But when good Saturn, banish’d from above,
Was driv’n to Hell, the world was under Jove.
Succeeding times a silver age behold,
Excelling brass, but more excell’d by gold.

 Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I, trans. John Dryden

The Egyptians are thought to have separated gold from silver by heating the metals with salt, and then reducing the silver chloride produced to the metal. The process changed with the discovery of cupellation, a technique that allowed silver metal to be extracted from its ores, as early as the 4th millennium BC. The process, invented by the Chaldeans (who lived in what is now southern Iraq), consisted of heating the molten metal in a shallow cup over which blew a strong draft of air. This process oxidized the other metals (such as lead and copper) leaving only the silver unaffected.

Silver ornaments and decorations have been found in royal tombs dating back as far as 4000 BC. It is probable that both gold and silver were used as money by 800 BC in all countries between the Indus and the Nile.

Roman bust of Serapis; 2nd century; 15.6 x 9.5 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ancient Greek tetradrachm; 315–308 BC; diameter: 2.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
French Neoclassical ewer; 1784–1785; height: 32.9 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art

The rise of the city-state of Athens was made possible in-part by the exploitation of local silver mines at Laurium. These mines operated from 600 BC and right through the Roman era. The stability of the Roman currency relied to a high degree on the supply of silver bullion, mostly from Spain, which Roman miners produced on a scale unparalleled before the discovery of the Americas.

Silver mining reached a peak production of 200 tonnes per year, an estimated silver stock of 10,000 tonnes circulated in the Roman economy around 2 AD. The Romans also recorded the extraction of silver in central and northern Europe in the same time period. This production came to a nearly complete halt with the fall of the Roman Empire. It did not resume until the time of Charlemagne: by then, tens of thousands of tonnes of silver had already been extracted.

Silver was also mined by the ancient civilizations of Central and South America there being rich deposits in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. In Medieval times, mines based in Germany became the main source of silver for Europe.

With the discovery of America and the plundering of silver by the Spanish conquistadors, Central and South America became the dominant producers of silver until around the beginning of the 18th century, particularly Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina: the last of these countries later took its name from that of the metal that composed so much of its mineral wealth.

The silver trade gave way to a global network of exchange. As one historian put it, silver “went round the world and made the world go round.” Much of this silver ended up in the hands of the Chinese. A Portuguese merchant in 1621 noted that silver “wanders throughout all the world… before flocking to China, where it remains as if at its natural center.

In the 19th century, the primary production of silver moved to North America, particularly in Canada, Mexico, and Nevada (in the US). Secondary production from lead and zinc ores also took place in Europe, Australia and deposits in Siberia and the Russian Far East were mined.

The twenty years between 1900 and 1920 resulted in a 50 % increase in global production, and brought the total to about 190 million ounces annually. These increases were spurred by new discoveries in Canada, the United States, Africa, Mexico, Chile, Japan, and elsewhere.

During the 1900s, new mining techniques contributed to a massive rise in overall silver production. Breakthroughs included steam-assisted drilling, mine dewatering, and improved haulage. Further, advances in mining techniques enhanced the ability to separate silver from other ores and made it possible to handle larger volumes of material.

During the 1970s, Poland emerged as an important producer after the discovery of copper deposits that were rich in silver.

Today, Peru and Mexico are still among the primary silver producers, but the distribution of silver production around the world is quite balanced and about one-fifth of the silver supply comes from recycling instead of new production.

More than 5,000 years after ancient cultures first began to mine in relatively small amounts, silver mine production has now grown to almost 800 million ounces in 2019.

Silver Mining

Silver is found in a native form very rarely as nuggets in placer deposits and veins. It is more commonly combined with sulfur, arsenic, antimony, or chlorine and in various ores such as argentite (Ag2S), chlorargyrite (“horn silver,” AgCl), and galena (a lead ore often containing significant amounts of silver).

Silver ore is mined through both open-pit and underground methods. The open pit method involves using heavy machinery to mine deposits relatively near the earth’s surface. In underground mining, deep shafts are dug into the ground to extract ore.

Once ores are extracted, they are crushed, ground, and separated through a process called “flotation” to achieve mineral concentrations that are 30-40 times higher than naturally occurs. Refiners then further concentrate this extraction through the process of electrolysis or amalgamation.

In recent centuries, large deposits were discovered and mined in the Americas, influencing the growth and development of Mexico, Andean countries such as Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru, as well as Canada and the United States. Approximately 20% of the silver produced annually is from recycled materials. Some silver is recovered from ores mined principally for the silver content, eg, around Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Mexico.

However, about 85% of mine supply is a by-product of treating lead-zinc-copper and gold ores. The main producing areas in Canada are BC, New Brunswick, Ontario and Québec. Canada produces over 1000 t of silver annually. Ores at primary silver mines are concentrated by gravity and flotation, and the silver recovered by cyanidation or pyrometallurgy. Silver occurring in base-metal ores follows these metals in concentrating and smelting processes, ends up in residues and is recovered by electrolysis.

New Brunswick’s complex geological past has given rise to a diversity of metallic mineral resources. Metallic mineral deposits may contain base metals such as copper, lead, zinc, and iron; precious metals such as gold and silver; or rare metals such as indium.

Brunswick Mines in northeast New Brunswick produced lead, zinc, and copper, plus significant amounts of gold, silver, cadmium, bismuth, and antimony for export worldwide.

Trevali Mining Corporation (Trevali) wholly owns the historical Caribou underground zinc-lead-silver-copper-gold project in New Brunswick, Canada. The annual average production of the mine is expected to be 93 million pounds (Mlb) of zinc, 32.5Mlb of lead, 3.1Mlb of copper, 730,000oz of silver and 1,500oz of gold.

Global mined silver production grew by 5.3 percent in 2021, reaching 822.6 Moz. This increase was the most significant annual growth in mined silver supply since 2013 and was driven by the recovery in output following COVID-19 related disruption in 2020.

Silver production from primary silver mines increased by 10.2 percent, as they are concentrated in countries where mining was heavily impacted by COVID restrictions in 2020. The recovery from pandemic-related disruption also led to higher silver output from gold and lead-zinc mines, by 5.8 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively. Mexico was the number one silver producer in 2021, followed by China, Peru, Australia, and Poland.

Primary silver mining total cash costs (TCC) and all-in sustaining costs (AISC) fell for the second consecutive year. TCC dropped to US$3.88, an 18 percent decline over 2021, and AISC dipped to US$10.88, a 3 percent decrease over last year.

Silver is a unique metal because it has properties of both a precious and industrial metal. We believe this makes silver a useful portfolio holding as it can potentially appreciate in both environments where demand for precious metals rising, such as during periods of heightened volatility, as well as in eras of strong economic growth where industrial demand is expanding.

For long term investors, we believe that a basket of silver mining stocks is a desirable way of gaining exposure to silver given their leveraged exposure to the underlying metal’s price movements and their favorable taxation compared to physical silver and futures.

For Further Reading

Antimony on Periodic table

This is part of a ongoing series where Edge Exploration shares facts about different featured minerals. Check out our last post about Antimony: Antimony – Gold’s Lesser Known Companion


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