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The History of Silver

Oct 13, 2007
Silver is a precious metal that has been used by humans since the dawn of civilization. In this first part of a two part series we will look at the early history of silver.

Old World Silver (4000 BC - 1500 AD)

The area of Anatolia (modern Turkey) is considered the first major source of mined silver. It provided the resource to craftsman throughout Asia Minor. Silver from the Anatolian region largely served as the silver source for the Western cultures flourishing in the Near East, Crete, and Greece.

Silver craftsmanship was centered largely in Asia Minor and Greek Islands, along with areas of mainland Greece dominated by the Mycenaean culture.

Asia Minor provided most of the supply for the flourishing silver market. A concentrated effort to mine silver began sometime after 3000 B.C. The first sophisticated processing of silver ore was attributed to the Chaldeans in about 2500 B.C., who used a "cupellation" process to extract silver from lead-silver ores.

The need for traditional silver resulted in the location and exploitation of silver deposits in what is now Armenia. After the catastrophic destruction of the Minoan (Cretan) civilization in 1600 B.C. and the decline of the Mycenaean culture around 1200 B.C., the focus of silver production changed.

The mines of Laurium (near Athens) became the leading production center and provided silver for the burgeoning Greek civilization. The silver trade throughout Asia Minor and North Africa expanded significantly after the 8th century B.C.

The Laurium mines were highly productive; estimates from historical writings and physical evidence from old mine dumps indicate silver production to have been about 1 million troy ounces per year at Laurium during the height if production (600 B.C. to 300 B.C.).

For about 1,000 years ending around the 1st century A.D., the Laurium mines were the largest individual source of world silver production. Outside the Laurium mines, production was concentrated mainly in Asia Minor, Sardinia, other Grecian locations and, to a limited extent, in Asia.

The period following the heyday of Greek mining in Laurium included the Carthaginians exploitation of Spanish silver. After the Punic Wars, the Romans replaced the Carthaginians as the exploiters of Spanish silver and extended their silver mining to other areas of continental Europe.

Spanish mines were a critically important source of silver for nearly 1,000 years, though their exploitation was halted temporarily by the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century A.D.

Spanish mines not only provided a substantial portion of domestic needs of the Roman Empire until 476 A.D. They also served as a critical source of silver for the Asian spice trade. To meet the burgeoning trading requirements, Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy supplemented the Spanish production.

The Moorish invasion of Spain necessitated that the exploitation of silver move to a broader spectrum of countries, principally in Central Europe. Several major silver mine discoveries were made between 750 and 1200 A.D., including the classic Schemnitz, Rammelsburg, Goslar, and Saxony regions in Germany. Discoveries of silver were also made in Austria-Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Although mine production in Spain dominated the first 1,000 years A.D., it was balanced by the decline in production at Laurium and Asia Minor. The real expansion in production occurred in the 500-year period from 1000-1500 A.D., when the number of mining locations and, to a lesser extent, the improvements in mining and processing technology occurred.

A major area of silver production was the discovery of the New World in 1492, after which time major silver mines in Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru were opened, leading to a rapid rise in the annual world production of silver.

This rise, coupled with improved techniques for extracting silver from ore, broadened both the quality and quantity of ore that could be exploited. Later improvements, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, vastly enhanced the base of silver production and accelerated the exploitation of silver as a byproduct of base-metal mining.

Only about 25 percent of cumulative world silver production occurred before the 1770s.

In the next article we will look at New World production of silver and its role in the silver industry.

The discovery of the New World in 1492 and the discovery of large silver deposits there had a huge impact on the trade and use of silver. In addition new technological developments changed the methods of mining and refining silver. Let's continue the story of silver with the discovery of the New World and continuing to the modern day.

New World Silver (1500 - 1875)

Significant improvements in technology and discovery of the "New World" in 1492 led to a vast storehouse of mined silver that expanded silver production by nearly an order of magnitude, most particularly in the development of the mercury amalgamation process.

The first major exploitation of "New World" silver was in the Potosi district of Bolivia. The actual production from Bolivia, from 1500 to 1800 A.D., is difficult to quantify accurately. Spanish records indicate that about 1 billion troy ounces were produced in this time-frame. For the same period, about 1.5 billion troy ounces were mined in Mexico with the bulk being mined from 1700 to 1800.

Peru's production has been more consistent production averaged more than 3 million troy ounces annually from 1600 through 1800. Historically, the Cerro de Pasco district has been among the leading sources of silver in Peru.

The Spanish produced Mexican silver beginning in the early 1500s. Production increased significantly in the 1700s, averaging about 9 million troy ounces annually. From 1500 through 1800, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico accounted for over 85 percent of world production and trade.

The remaining production in the period was derived largely from Germany, Hungary, and Russia, with lesser amounts from other European countries, Chile, and Japan.

After 1850, several other countries increased production particularly the United States with its discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Silver production continued worldwide, growing from 40 to 80 million troy ounces annually by the 1870s.

Silver in North America (1876 - 1920)

In the years 1876 to 1920 there was an explosion in both technological innovation related to silver production and the exploitation of new regions worldwide.

Production over the last quarter of the 19th century quadrupled over the average of the first 75 years to a total of nearly 120 million troy ounces annually.

A good deal of the new production was added from major new discoveries in the U.S., most notably the Comstock Lode area in Nevada, the Leadville district in Colorado and various districts in Utah.

Similarly, new discoveries in Australia, Central America and Europe greatly augmented total world production. The succeeding decades from 1900 to 1920 resulted in another 50 percent expansion in production to about 190 million troy ounces annually.

These increases were spurred by discoveries in Canada, the United States, Africa, Mexico, Chile, Japan, and various other countries. The explosion of technology that enabled steam-assisted drilling, mining, mine dewatering, and improved haulage was a major breakthrough.

Further improvements in mining techniques enhanced the ability to handle ore and allowed for exploiting larger volumes of ore that contained silver. The removal of precious metals from zinc by a technique called "fuming" provided a way to separate economically precious metals from moderate-grade complex ores.

The Modern Era of Silver (1921 - Present)

A variety of advances in the early part of the last century allowed for increased production worldwide. This was critical, as many of the high-grade ores throughout the world had been largely depleted by the end of the 19th century.

These advances included:

- Bulk mining methods, both at the surface and underground, capable of handling large amounts of lower grade base-metal ores that contained byproduct silver.

- Refinement of extraction techniques capable of separating various base-metal concentrates from ores.

- Improved techniques in ore separation, notably froth flotation (post 1910) that allowed for concentration of silver in lead, zinc, and copper concentrates.

- Improvements in electro-refining techniques allowing for the easy separation of silver and other base metals from refinery slimes, providing an increasingly important source of silver.

The explosion in the production of these various base-metal sources throughout the 20th century led to an increasing output of silver-bearing residue and ultimately, refined silver.
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