Silver: Metal of Many Faces

Tradition, Investment, High-Tech Performer

Like its sister metal — gold — silver has been used since ancient times in coins, jewelry, ornaments, and utensils. Silver has been part of the economic and monetary systems of all major cultures and traded in virtually every corner of the inhabited world, from ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, to Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent of the Middle Ages, and the modern Americas. Silver has been hauled across continents by camel and horseback, loaded onto wooden sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic, carried in cargo planes and armored trucks and is most likely jingling today in your pocket. Silver even plays a role in popular culture, in such expressions as “every cloud has a silver lining.”

People have lost their lives for silver. The New Testament claims that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. In the New World, pirates brought down ships from the tip of South America to Newfoundland to plunder their silver cargo and, sometimes, to murder their crews.

In the modern world, silver is an investment for speculators and a tradition for fresh-faced young couples who order wedding silverware. With the advent of photography and computers, silver divorced itself from gold. No longer a metal to be coveted simply for its value and beauty, silver became the darling of the modern age. An excellent conductor of electricity and a principal element in photographic processing, silver is an integral part of computers, electronic equipment and the filmmaking process. It is found in most households, perhaps in the china cabinet or kitchen drawer, but more likely, in the DVD player, palm pilot or laptop.

A Metal for Mettle

Battle of Salamis

The Roman Army had special awards for soldiers who showed bravery in battle, as modern armies do. Soldiers wore these decorations in parades and received them at the end of a campaign. One symbol of Roman victory was a staff with a small silver or bronze eagle, with wings uplifted, often with gold or silver thunderbolts in its talons. It was dedicated to Jupiter, the God of victory, and was carried to lead the whole legion to victory.

The Athenians of ancient Greece grew wealthy from mining a rich seam of silver in the Laurion mines. Much of this silver wealth went into constructing an impressive shipping fleet that destroyed the invading Persians in the battle of Salamis in 480 BC. During that battle, the Athenians fled to the island of Salamis, where they watched their city burn. But because of the superior speed of Greek ships, and the Greeks’ knowledge of the waters in the narrow strait, they won the battle, sinking two hundred Persian ships.

For Yellow Glass: Add Silver

A more benign story about silver in Ancient Rome was how it was used to color glass. In the glassmaking process of Ancient Rome, different chemicals were added to glass to change its color. For example, silver made yellow glass, cobalt made blue glass, and copper made red glass. A virtually color-free glass could be created by carefully selecting fine silver-free sand. The artisans of the Roman Empire designed more varied and beautiful glass than any other civilization until the Renaissance. Glassmaking in Rome became so popular, and glassmakers so prosperous, that Roman rulers required glassmakers pay a large tax.

Star, Starling or Easterling?

Norman Coins Made of Silver

The symbol Ag comes from the Latin word “argentum” meaning “silver.” But the term “sterling” appears to have derived its meaning from a number of sources. Scholars once believed the word could be traced to 13th century Easterling, the eastern edge of the land that we now call Germany. Many people in this region were merchants and money-changers, and the area was said to have the finest silver coins in Europe. In those times, silverware could be used as an alternative to silver coins when paying taxes.

Some scholars believe the word sterling is related to the Old English “Steorling,” which once meant a coin imprinted with a star (such as the small stars found on some Norman pennies.) Others have suggested that “sterling” may be related to the mintmarks on coins in the Middle Ages, which often included a star and starlings.

Tea Party Tradition

Silversmithing was a trade practiced by many men by the 1700s, some of them quite famous, like Paul Revere. Revere learned the trade from his father and his artistry and craftsmanship, celebrated during his lifetime, are still regarded as a benchmark of the American decorative arts. But there were accomplished women silversmiths, too, who practiced the trade from early as the 1600s.

Paul Revere

Colonial America mimicked European culture with its proclivity for tea and coffee. Perhaps it was the Boston Tea Party in 1767 that prompted Americans, for patriotic reasons, to swear off tea drinking in favor of the modern staple, coffee. (To this day, the United States is unique among former British colonies — including Canada, Great Britain and Australia — in the preference for coffee over black tea. Any U.S. coffee addict who has searched in vain for fresh-brewed coffee when traveling in these countries will attest to this!) In any case, during Colonial times, there was ample opportunity for silversmiths to work at making silver tea and coffeepots, sugar bowls, and cream pots.

The Colonial Williamsburg web site describes silversmithing in this era as an art: “The 18th-century silversmith was thought of as someone akin to a sculptor. Both had to know how to shape their materials with artistic talent, taste, and design.” To produce a coffeepot, for example, the silversmith would pour molten silver into a sooted cast-iron mold to make an ingot, which would be hammered into a thick sheet; then cut into a circle. This piece of silver would be stretched and hammered thinner and cupped into a bowl shape. Handles and spout were made separately, joined, and the final piece polished to a brilliant luster using pumice and jeweler’s rouge. Silver was a part of everyday life for the wealthy family in early America. It was used as currency, gifts, jewelry, and in drinking and eating utensils. A family’s status, wealth and social prominence was shown by its visible display of silver ornaments.

Silver in Native American Culture

Silversmithing has been a part of Native American culture to present times. A chief named Atsidi Sani is generally credited with bringing silversmithing to the Navajos. Also known as Herrero Delgado (“Thin Smith”) and Beshiltheeni (“Metal Worker” or “Knife Maker”), he is believed to have learned the craft from plateros (Mexican silversmiths) in the 1850s, during a break in the war between the Navajos and the Mexicans in the valley of the upper Rio Grande (now New Mexico). He began making silver pieces such as bridles, knives and jewelry and passed along his skills to four sons who were already skilled in metalworking.

Even before they developed a reputation as silversmiths, the Navajos conquered and traded with the Spanish. Spanish silver ornaments acquired through battle or trade, such as crosses and rings, were worn as symbols of prowess and wealth. The Navajo also fashioned beads from Spanish-Mexican trouser and jacket ornaments. Early Navajo silversmiths often melted Mexican and U.S. Coins for their silver, and the practice persisted in spite of laws forbidding the “defacement” of U.S. currency. Sterling silver candlesticks or tea pots also served as silver sources when coins were not available.

The Navajo passed along their silversmithing skills to the Zuni, and then the Hopi. Each group incorporated tribal styles.

Germ Killer Redux

Throughout history, people have exploited the germicidal properties of silver. The Greeks and Romans stored water and other drinks in silver vessels that were believed to keep the liquids fresh. During the plagues in Europe, wealthy families ate from silver plates and used silver utensils, in the hope that silver might protect them from the disease that was claiming their neighbors’ lives. Pioneers traveling across the U.S. placed silver and copper coins in their wooden water casks and milk jugs to retard the growth of bacteria and algae. Settlers in the Australian outback would place a silver spoon or fork in their water tank in the belief that it would sanitize the water.

From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, the medical industry made use of silver’s germicidal properties. For half a century, silver appeared in hundreds of medical products. Silver eye drops were routinely placed in newborn babies’ eyes to prevent blindness when the mother had gonorrhea. Silver salts were commonly used in nose drops and wound dressings, and silver was an ingredient in popular “health tonics” and in oral smoking remedies. With the discovery of antibiotics (sulfa drugs and then penicillin) in the early to mid-1900s, interest in silver as an anti-microbial medicine declined. Since patents could not be taken out on silver, pharmaceutical companies could make more money from developing and patenting antibiotic drugs.

But silver is staging a modest comeback as a germ fighter. In modern times, silver water purification filters and tablets are available for use in homes, businesses, and on airlines. Electrical ionizer units that use silver and copper ions to sanitize swimming pool water — replacing chlorine — have been developed. Silver is even used by the U. S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), and the Russians, to purify water in both countries’ space shuttles In the half-century since penicillin, we have seen the development of new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and rising concerns about the overuse of antibiotic “wonder drugs”. Some groups advocate return to using silver for disinfecting swimming pool water, for example, and for medical antibiotic purposes. Bacteria and viruses, interestingly, have not been shown to develop resistance to the antibiotic effects of silver.

Silver for Health?

Silver is also promoted today for more fanciful, and perhaps questionable, uses. A spring 2003 women’s catalog features lingerie and sporting clothes “with silver ions embedded in the fabric, to help prevent odors and the spread of bacteria on clothing”. Some natural foods or “health” companies market colloidal silver food supplements as treatments for cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and herpes infections. Since the manufacture and sales of these products in the United States is not regulated by the federal government — unlike many foods, drugs and medical products controlled by the United States Federal Drug Administration (FDA) — the quality, safety and silver content of these products varies greatly.

In 1999 the FDA issued a “final rule” establishing that: “All over-the-counter (OTC) drug products containing colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts for internal or external use are not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded. …Many OTC drug products containing colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts are being marketed for numerous serious disease conditions and the FDA is not aware of any substantial scientific evidence that supports the use of OTC colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts for these disease conditions.”

The Blue Man

The lack of FDA regulation may be one reason to be wary of silver medical products; another is a disfiguring skin condition that may result. People who frequently take silver-based nose drops, or similar products, may find that their skin takes on a grayish or blue tint after prolonged exposure. This condition, known as argyria, is characterizied as a generalized gray, blue or gray-black staining of skin and mucous membranes produced by deposits of silver in the skin. This is usually the result of industrial exposure or the consumption of medicines that contain silver salts.

Rosemary Jacobs

If fine particles of silver are introduced through breaks in the skin, a localized argyria may develop. Some people have also developed localized argyria from dental procedures, silver amalgam tattoos, silver sutures used in abdominal surgery, acupuncture needle sites, or silver earring sites. There is a large individual variation in how much exposure to silver products may cause argyria in any given person.

People with argyria were exploited in early 1900s circus freak shows. The famous “Blue Man” who was displayed as a curiosity in the Barnum and Bailey Circus sideshow had a case of argyria that was so advanced his dark-blue skin appeared black at a distance. The condition was diagnosed through an autopsy in 1923 after he fell ill, was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York City and died. His case was reportedly one of the most severe described in the medical literature

Another argyria sufferer, Captain Fred Walters, was recruited to be the “Blue Man” in the Coney Island Circus in the early 1900s. He took silver nitrate initially to cure his locomotor ataxia, and eventually increased the dosage in order to deepen his skin pigmentation to make himself more “profitable.”

A modern web site, complete with photos, relates the tale of Rosemary Jacobs, a woman who reportedly contracted argyria from “health remedies” in the 1950s.

Selected Links:

Colonial Williamsburg: Silversmith

Argyria:, Inc.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Robyn Mosher
Medical and Science Writer