Recognize Silver, Silver Qualities, Fineness and History
Silver Mining and Production
Bullion - Store of Value
Silver Purity and Identification Marks
Silver is and has been just as popular as gold and used for coins, jewelry and other decorative pieces for thousands of years.
Silver Mining and Production
Silver was first mined in what is now Turkey and that area was also where the majority of silver crafts were produced at the time. Throughout history, it has been found in many places all over the world, and today, the top 5 silver producing countries are Peru, Mexico, China, Australia and Bolivia.
Top 20 Silver Producing Countries in 2009
(millions of ounces)
- Peru 123.9
- Mexico 104.7
- China 89.1
- Australia 52.6
- Bolivia 42.6
- Russia 42.2
- Chile 41.8
- United States 39.8
- Poland 39.2
- Kazakhstan 21.7
- Canada 19.6
- Argentina 17.1
- Turkey 14.0
- Sweden 8.7
- Morocco 8.3
- Indonesia 7.7
- India 7.3
- Guatemala 4.2
- Iran 3.5
- South Africa 2.6
Silver is soft, only a little bit harder than gold, and there are many uses for this malleable precious metal. In fact, it is so incredibly versatile that it’s almost magical. It is obviously used for silverware and jewelry, but did you know it is also all around us? It is inside electric switches, under the keys on your keyboard, inside circuit breaker boxes, in eyeglasses, mirrors, behind your car’s dashboard, behind the control panel on your microwave, the list goes on.
And – here is where it gets magical – silver has antimicrobial and germicidal properties. People knew about this very early on; Hippocrates wrote about its healing properties, and the Phoenicians are rumored to have used silver containers to store water and wine. It has been used extensively for medical purposes, in many cases the same way we use antibiotics these days. In the late 1800s, a German obstetrician discovered that applying a weak silver nitrate solution to newborn babies’ eyes helped prevent gonococcal opthalmia, a disease that causes blindness. Recent findings suggest that silver can speed up healing times of both wounds and bone injuries, and you can already buy a few wound care products and band aids that contain silver.
There is also clothing with silver. Since it reduces odor and inhibits the growth of fungi and bacteria, it is perfect in workout wear. Other research has found that silver is a fantastic water purifier, both for drinking water and in swimming pools. Who knows, maybe we can do away with that horrible chlorine soon and use silver in some form instead?
Silver is soft, and in jewelry, you will most often find it alloyed with another metal, often copper. The most common and well-known blend is sterling silver (stamped .925) which consists of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.
German silver (sometimes marked G. Silver) looks like silver, but it’s not. It is a blend of copper, nickel and zinc, so watch out for that if you’re shopping at a flea market or yard sale (where they can often be found). Also, keep an eye out for things marked Alpacca (or Alpaca), Nickel (NS) or New silver (also called Nysilver) – these are not silver either, but that same type of copper-nickel-zinc alloy. Sometimes you will see 1MA, Prima or Extra Prima nysilver – same thing, the alloy again.
Silver plating was discovered back in 1600s. By using simple electrodes one silver and another copper would cover copper with thin layer of silver. Use of silver is minimal, so is the cost. Placing copper spoon on one side and silver electrode on another and run electricity through it and it will cover copper spoon with thin layer of silver in a few hours. There are many silver plated products on the marker. Many people are confused into thinking they are silver and worth as much as silver, but they are not. The silver content in silver plated products is so small, there is no silver value in such products. Most common silver plate marks are: E.P., Electroplate, Plate, S.P.
All (quality) silver pieces of jewelry will have at least one, but often many stamps on the back. The number tells you the fineness of the silver (like .925), and the “hallmark” tells you who made it and where it was made. It can be just 925 with the initials of the silversmith, or it can be a whole little “picture book”.
Reading the hallmarks can be quite a challenge. Sometimes everything is spelled out, and sometimes, it’s just little squares or symbols with barely visible letters and digits. Most of us are not able to decipher them on the spot, but there are forums, experts and even entire hallmark encyclopedias online. If you are going to be shopping for antique or vintage silver jewelry made by a specific designer at an auction for example, it doesn’t hurt to read up on the typical marks he/she used beforehand.
American hallmarks tend to be easy to read, often written out in plain English, even including the word “Sterling”. Those from other countries can be a bit more cryptic, and each country has its own marks and standards, which varies from each part of the country as well as time period. Often, if you go way back, there were no standards at all. Holland, for example, did not have a national standard until 1814.
Standards for silver purity are also different from each country and has often changed within the countries throughout history. In Denmark for example, the standard for silver used to be .826, then .830, and then, from 1936 and on .925. However, since jewelers had to pay a fee to the assay office for changing to .925, a lot of silver made around that time is still stamped .830 when it is in fact 925 sterling.
In Britain, the standard for Sterling has always been .925 and the British hallmark system is wonderfully organized. It always consists of 4 to 5 marks telling you the fineness of the silver, where the piece was made, who made it, when it was made, and for pieces made between 1784-1890, a duty mark, which certified that the appropriate taxes had been paid.
The French system presents quite a challenge. Instead of using numbers, they use images of animals and human heads, different ones for different parts of the country and for specific time periods, so you need to memorize quite a few if you’re going to be able to tell when and where the piece was made right there at the flea market vendor’s table.
Silver Purity and Identification stamps
Below is a short list of a few different common grades of silver and where they are from:
999 – Pure silver (Bullion grade)
980 – Mexico (1930-1940)
958 – Britannia silver
950 - France (1st standard), Japan, U.S. (19th century), the Netherlands (before 1814), Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Mexico
947 - Russia (91 zolotnik)
925 - Sterling silver
916 - Finland, Russia (88 zolotnik), Latvia, Poland, Romania, Spain, Portugal
900 - US coin silver
835 - Germany, Austria, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands
830 - Scandinavia (older pieces), Portugal
826 - Denmark (1893 – 1972), Norway (before 1892)
800 - Germany (after 1884), France (2nd standard), the Netherlands (before 1814), Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Japan, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Mexico
If silver item does not have one of the above stamps, nor "Sterling" or "Silver" imprinted, most likely it is not silver.
Silver as Investment
A traditional way of investing in silver is by buying actual bullion bars. In some countries, like Switzerland and Liechtenstein, bullion bars can be bought or sold over the counter at major banks.
Physical silver, such as bars or coins, may be stored in a home safe, a safe deposit box at a bank, or placed in allocated (also known as non-fungible) or unallocated (fungible or pooled) storage with a bank or dealer. Silver is traded in the spot market with the code "XAG". When settled in USD, the code is "XAGUSD".
Various sizes of silver bars:
1000 oz troy bars – These bars weigh about 68 pounds avoirdupois (31 kg) and vary about 10% as to weight, as bars range from 900 ozt to about 1,100 ozt (28 to 34 kg). These are COMEX and LBMA good delivery bars.
100 oz troy bars – These bars weigh 6.8 pounds (3.11 kg) and are among the most popular with retail investors. Popular brands are Engelhard and Johnson Matthey. Those brands cost a bit more, usually about 40 cents to 2.00 dollars per troy ounce above the spot price, but that price may vary with market conditions.
Odd weight retail bars – These bars cost less and generally have a wider spread, due to the extra work it takes to calculate their value and the extra risk due to the lack of a good brand name.
1 kilogram bars (32.15 oz troy)
10 oz troy bars and 1 oz troy bars (311 and 31.1 g)
Silver Coins and rounds
Buying silver coins is another popular method of physically holding silver. One example is the 99.99% pure Austrian Philharmonics and Canadian Silver Maple Leaf coins. Coins may be minted as either fine silver or junk silver, the latter being older coins with a smaller percentage of silver. U.S. coins 1964 and older (half dollars, dimes, and quarters) are 25 grams per dollar of face value and 90% silver (22½ g silver per dollar). All 1965-1970 and one half of the 1975-1976 Bicentennial San Francisco proof and mint set Kennedy half dollars are "clad" in a silver alloy and contain just under one half of the silver in the pre-1965 issues.
Junk-silver coins are also available as sterling silver coins, which were officially minted until 1919 in the United Kingdom and Canada and 1945 in Australia. These coins are 92.5% silver and are in the form of (in decreasing weight) Crowns, Half-crowns, Florins, Shillings, Sixpences, and threepence. The tiny threepence weighs 1.41 grams, and the Crowns are 28.27 grams (1.54 grams heavier than a US $1). Canada produced silver coins with 80% silver content from 1920 to 1967.
Other hard money enthusiasts use .999 fine silver rounds as a store of value. A cross between bars and coins, silver rounds are produced by a huge array of mints, generally contain a troy ounce of silver in the shape of a coin, but have no status as legal tender. Rounds can be ordered with a custom design stamped on the faces or in assorted batches.