A look at silver mining - and how silver is extracted from the earth to be transformed into the beautiful ornaments we know and treasure.
Silver – that white, lustrous metallic element that has been cherished from mankind’s very beginning. Second in value only to gold, silver was known by ancient alchemists as Luna or Diana, in honour of the Goddess of the Moon. They also gave it the symbol of the crescent moon.
Silversmithing, the art of producing highly decorative silver ornaments is one of the oldest trades known to man. In fact Archaeological excavations suggest that the trade was already well established as far back as the 16th Century, B.C.E in Egypt. Silver artefacts, dating from the pre-Greek Minoan and Mycanaean periods, have been found in ruins on the island of Crete and on the Greek mainland. Much of this early work with silver was done for religious observance. Thus silver candle-sticks, chalices, patens, shrines and, in some cases, whole altars have been found. Over time, the craft developed and silversmiths became reknowned for the skill and beauty of their art work.
Silver, in its free or uncombined state is very rare. It will normally be found in conjunction with deposits of gold and copper. More common are its many ores. However, only about 25% of the earths annual production of silver comes from silver ores. The other 75% is obtained as a by-product of the refining of lead, zinc, copper and gold ores. Where on earth is silver most plentiful? The major silver mines are located in Mexico, Peru, South Africa, The United States, Canada and Australia.
How is silver recovered? The most common process involves super-heating the ore in a furnace to convert the sulfides to sulphates and then using a chemical process to precipitate metallic silver. To separate silver from ores of other metals the most common methods are amalgamation and a system known as the Parkes Method.
Amalgamation involves adding liquid mercury to the crushed ore. The mercury amalgamates with the silver. The amalgam is then washed out of the ore. The mercury is then distilled to leave metallic silver. With the Parkes Process, a small amount of zinc stirred into molten lead dissolves the silver in the ore. This molten alloy then rises to the surface of the lead as scum, where it is easily removed. The zinc is then removed by distillation.
Silver’s relatively high cost is in direct relation to its rarity. It ranks 66th among elements in natural abundance in crustal rocks. The delicacy with which it is able to be fashioned to produce exquisite pieces of craftsmanship adds to its value.
As it has done from man’s origins,silver will continue to delight and enchant us – as surely as it will continue to rise in value.