Silverware and Its History
Silver was one of the seven metals of antiquity that were known to prehistoric humans. It is a precious metal that is mined from the earth, and is found in subsoils all over the world. Nuggets of silver metal can be found in minerals and sometimes in rivers, however they are rare.
Pure silver is too soft for functional use. Alloys such as copper are added to give it hardness and strength. Over the years, individual countries have established various silverware standards, for example:
- German 800/1000
- Britain's sterling 925/1000
- Britannia 958/1000
This system is universally recognised, meaning 800 parts silver per 1000 and so on. American silver manufacturers followed an independent course regarding silver purity standards during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Silver manufacturers also adhere to the guild system. Hallmarks demonstrating purity, location, manufacturer, maker and date can be used to identify silver pieces. This system was and remains widely used.
Silver has long been a staple in society, both for purpose and pleasure. There have been discoveries evidencing the existence of silversmithing that date back to 2500BC. The earliest surviving examples date from 1900BC. In Greek and Roman civilizations, silver coins were a staple of the economy. When the Phoenicians first came to what is now Spain, they obtained masses of silver. They could not fit it all on their ships and as a result used silver to weight their anchors instead of lead. In the middle Ages, central Europe became the centre of silver production; this is after Mediterranean deposits exploited by the ancient civilisations had been exhausted.
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. By the 19th century, primary production of silver had moved to North America, particularly Canada, Mexico, and Nevada in the United States.
Silver is known as the ‘noblest metal’ and the ‘Queen of Metals’. Silver was viewed as a sign of wealth, and so was restricted to ownership by royalty, aristocracy and the clergy. The historical association between silver and money can still be found in some languages. In French, ‘argent’ means both silver and money. The Roman word ‘argentarius’ meant banker (also known as a silver trader).
Wars and numerous internal conflicts among and within the countries of Europe mean that there is limited survival of silverware made before 1700. Pieces made after that date are in ample supply.
In folklore, silver was commonly thought to have mystical powers. For example, a bullet cast from silver is often considered to be the only weapon effective against mythical creatures such as werewolves and witches.
Silver is also heavily referenced throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament.
The major use of silver throughout history (besides coinage) was in the manufacture of jewellery and other general use items. Examples include table silver for cutlery, for which silver is highly suited due to its antibacterial properties.