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Silver has been used as a form of currency by humanity throughout civilization, stretching back to the rise, and eventual fall, of the Roman Empire. Although most people tend to think of Silver as gold's poor sibling, the stunning truth is that Silver is the second most used resource on planet earth, with only king oil standing above it in the commodity hierarchy.
Silver plays a critical role in constructing all kinds of infrastructure and is a key component in the generation of electricity. Suffice to say, without Silver, we would live in a very different and probably less technologically advanced world.
Today, we set out to learn the origins and applications of the world's oldest money: From the techniques of the Silver mining profession, to the multitude of products made with Silver, to the history of the collapse of Rome, under the weight of government counterfeiting, as they turned their back on Silver.
Let's dive into one of my favorite commodities of all time, it's Silver, on Commodity Culture.
What is Silver and What are its Uses?
Silver is a white metallic element that is resistant to corrosion, moisture, and alkalis, and it is basically indestructible on a molecular level. It is moldable and malleable as well, making it ideal for creating a variety of goods.
Silver's element symbol Ag is derived from the Latin Argentum and Sanskrit argunas, from "bright".
Silver is unique because it serves as a store of value, a medium of exchange, and is used widely for industrial purposes. Whereas its more-known cousin, gold, does find some industrial use, including microprocessors, memory chips, and many technology products, it is by far most valued as a monetary metal.
Silver, on the other hand, is a much-needed commodity with industrial use comprising a full 50% of its demand and its uses are many.1 It's scarcity and use throughout history as money make it an ideal unit of transaction as it is the most fungible of the precious metals, meaning it is divisible into smaller denominations to make transactions easier.
Jewelry is the most obvious product made with Silver, and although its main purpose is certainly decorative, Silver and gold jewelry can also be used as a store of value and a unit of exchange in times of economic turmoil.
The main use of Silver, however, is in the fabrication of electronics. Silver has the highest known electrical and thermal conductivity of all the metals and is needed to conduct electricity efficiently.
Electrical switches, circuit boards, superconductors, electroplating and, well, pretty much anything that uses electricity requires some amount of Silver to operate. And remember, this is a finite resource with a limited supply.
Silver is also used to make textiles and clothing, musical instruments, and window applications.
Silver also plays a role in energy generation, being a key ingredient in solar panels, and is often employed in control rods used to moderate the level of nuclear fission in a nuclear reactor.
Brazing and soldering require Silver due to its high tensile strength, meaning it is incredibly strong while still being flexible.
Silver is even used in the production of chemicals. It acts as a catalyst to produce both formaldehyde, used in solid plastics, as a protective coating, and as a disinfectant and embalming agent, AND ethylene oxide, used for molded plastics flexible plastics like polyester.
Incredibly, Silver iodide has even been used to make clouds produce rain in an attempt to control hurricanes.
On top of all this, because of its antimicrobial properties, Silver finds a lot of use medically. It kills bacteria by interfering with their respiration, as it absorbs oxygen. Before we had modern medicine and pharmaceutical drugs, Silver foil was even laid over wounds to help them heal.
In hospitals, Silver coats surfaces and medical equipment to protect them from spreading pathogens, and it also finds a lot of use in dentistry for both dental tools and cavity fillings.
Silver is required in engine bearings AND EV batteries, making it a vital part of the automobile industry. Although the widespread adoption of digital photography has lessened its impact, Silver also used to be an essential component of traditional film photography.
There are a ton of other uses for Silver, but suffice to say, it is one of our most important resources and is a part of almost everything we know as modern technology. Now that we've got a handle on how Silver is used let's look at how Silver is mined.
How is Silver Mined?
Silver mining's history can be traced back to Anatolia, or modern day Turkey, around 3,000 BCE. Although there have been a lot of different forms of currency, Silver has stood the test of time, and its implementation as money has allowed civilization to flourish.
By 100 CE, Spain became the center of the Silver mining industry, and mines there became a supplier to the Roman Empire. During this time, Silver was a highly valued trading component on the Asian Spice Routes, stretching from Japan's west coast, through Indonesia's tropical islands, around India, and into the Middle East and Europe.
After Spain conquered the Americas around the year 1500, Mexico, Bolivia and Peru produced over 85% of the world's Silver. Silver mining later spread to the U.S., Australia, Central America, Canada, Africa, Japan and many other countries worldwide.
The Silver mined on the planet today comes from two sources: pure Silver mining and Silver produced as a by-product of mining for other metals, such as copper, uranium, lead, zinc, and gold. The by-product scenario is far more common, with at least 80 percent of the world's Silver being produced alongside other elements.
As early era miners were living in a society that needed far less Silver than we use today, surface deposits could often be sufficient, and so the trusty pickaxe could extract the ore. As the demand for Silver increased, miners needed to journey underground to get that precious ore, and tools ranged from simple hammers and axes to chisels, to wedges and crowbars, and eventually, to drill bits and explosives, as mining entered the modern era.
Silver ore can be both strong and solid, made up of dense nuggets, or in a more flaky form, mixed with gravel, sand and other minerals.
Open-pit mining involves explosives set into holes drilled in the rock around the Silver deposit. Miners then blast the rock into smaller pieces and collect the waste rock and ore to be sent to a leach pad or facility for processing. Silver from open-pit mines tends to be of a lower grade, so a large amount must be extracted to be profitable.
Underground mines are carefully constructed to contain a network of tunnels and chambers that chase a vein of higher-grade Silver by following it closely, allowing for ideal extraction. Underground mining also uses explosives, but in a more targeted and controlled way, to break apart ore banks in the mining shaft and access that sweet, shiny Silver.
The ore has to go through an extracting and refining process to become pure Silver and that pure Silver can be separated from the ore through flotation, involving a mix of chemicals and slurry, or tank leaching, which uses an agitator tank, to mix slurry with cyanide and oxygen and then adds zinc powder to end up with Silver precipitate.
The process is still not over because the resulting substance is a Silver-bearing mineral concentrate that needs to have another major metal removed from it. This tends to be either copper or lead and the separation process differs depending on the secondary metal.
All of this to end up with a beautiful metal that I think triggers something primal within our evolutionary psychology after thousands of years of using Silver as a form of money.
Unfortunately, where there is money, there is often greed and we will next take a look at how an entire empire was brought to its knees due to the debasement of its Silver coins at the hands of politicians. It's a tale as old as time that seems to repeat itself.
A History of Silver as a Currency
Silver utensils and ornaments have been discovered in the ancient tombs of Egypt, China, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and more.
While highly valued as a decorative status symbol that can double as a store of value, Silver's greatest legacy may be its long history as money throughout the ages, and no example stands out more prominently, or tragically, than Rome's Silver Denarius.
The Denarius began to see use in the Roman Republic around 211 B.C and stood as its currency for four full centuries before collapsing due to debasement at the hands of a greedy and over-leveraged government.
Silver was the metal of choice when it came to currency, though gold coinage also saw some brief use in the Empire.
Although the quantity of Silver in the Denarius stayed above 90% for a large portion of this time, including a decree set forth by Caesar Augustus in 15 B.C. that all coins should be in the 95 to 98 percent range, the costs of running an empire eventually caught up with the Romans.
Border defense, walls, administration costs, waging war, infrastructure like roads and aqueducts, and that didn't even count the entertainment and food, famously dubbed "bread and circuses," used to distract the populace from government corruption and the fact that those Denarius's in their satchels weren't quite buying what they used to back in the day.
The quality of Rome's currency dropped from the aforementioned 95% to 98% Silver content in the time of Caesar Augustus, down to 74 to 89% in the era of prominent Stoic Philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
By the time the mid-third century rolled around, the Silver contained in the Denarius had plummeted to as low as 3%, with 45% being the best quality coins available. There was a direct connection between the size of the Roman Empire and the quantity of Silver in its coinage, and in 285 AD, Rome had become so vast and unwieldy that it would be split in two by Emperor Diocletian.
The Empire's rise was truly impressive, and its fall was no less spectacular. A weakened Rome, laid morally and bankrupt by rampant corruption and the government's coin minters, was overrun in 476 AD by Germanic tribes, including the Huns, Goths and Vandals.
Fast forward through history and we find that the United States was also an empire based on using Silver as a currency. The American coins minted between 1794 and 1964 contained between 89% and 90% Silver and the U.S. used to hold a vast strategic Silver stockpile.
When the thirteen colonies threw off the yoke of British colonial rule and created America, one of the most pressing issues was creating a common form of currency. Spanish "thaler" coins formed the basis for the early economy pre-revolution, but a U.S. Mint was soon established after the revolutionary war and began pressing Silver dollars in 1794.
An early example of currency debasement in the U.S. was the first introduction of Silver-backed paper contracts in 1776, the Continental Dollar, one of America's first attempts at a paper form of money. The costs of waging war got in the way of the celebrated introduction of this currency, however, and it collapsed, leading Founding Father Thomas Jefferson to remark:
"Paper is poverty… it is only the ghost of money, and not money itself."
What we have learned from the fall of Rome and U.S. currency debasement is that holding a real form of money like Silver can safeguard one's finances from the hidden tax of inflation and the ambitions of the Central Bank money printers.
More people around the world are now starting to take an interest in holding physical Silver to protect their purchasing power in the case of a persistent and rising inflationary environment. In addition to this rush of retail investors into the Silver space, Silver is still needed for all the reasons listed at the start of the show, and rumors abound of a supply shortage being inevitable.
With this in mind, what does the future look like for Silver in the years ahead?
The Future of Silver
Putting its monetary value aside, Silver will be needed more than ever as an industrial commodity. Every smartphone and desktop and laptop computer made needs Silver. With the lightning speed at which companies release new phone models and the future rise of developing nations who want computers, we can see just how important Silver is to the future of industry worldwide.
Silver also wins out here when it comes to the massive geopolitical push to prioritize climate change by reducing carbon emissions, as it is essential for the construction of electric vehicles, solar panels, and so many other aspects of the green economy that is being strived for. This green infrastructure is being built in many countries as we speak and to do that, you've got to have Silver. With this fact in mind, some estimates point to a whopping 85% increase in Silver demand in 10 years.
As we move into an uncertain future, in perhaps one of the most pivotal moments for humanity in recent history, one constant that will remain is the need for Silver, and Silver is known to thrive in times of uncertainty and technological advancement.