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History of Silver


Turkey is considered the first major source of mined silver, having provided the resource to craftsman throughout Asia Minor. The earliest known workings of significant size were those of the pre-Hittites of Cappadocia in eastern Anatolia. Silver is generally found in the combined state in nature, usually in copper or lead mineralization, and by 2000 BC mining and smelting of silver-bearing lead ores was under way. Lead ores were smelted to obtain an impure lead-silver alloy, which was then fire refined by cupellation. The best-Silver from the Anatolian region largely served as the source of silver 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.

The need for traditional silver (particularly for the flourishing Minoan and later Mycenaean civilizations) 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. Further, 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.). In fact, 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 became a critically important source of silver for nearly 1,000 years, thought their exploitation was halted temporarily by the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century A.D. The Spanish mines not only provided a substantial portion of domestic needs of the Roman Empire until 476 A.D. but 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 occurred between 750 and 1200 A.D., including the classic Schemnitz, Rammelsburg, Goslar, and Saxony regions in Germany. Concurrently, discoveries of silver were made in Austria-Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

The 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. For the recovery of New World silver, the Patio process was employed. Silver-bearing ore was ground and then mixed with salt, roasted copper ore, and mercury. The mixing was accomplished by tethering mules to a central post on a paved patio (hence the name of the process) and compelling them to walk in a circle through the mixture. The silver was gradually converted to the elemental state in a very finely divided form, from which it was dissolved by the mercury. Periodically, the mercury was collected and distilled to recover the silver, and this was subsequently refined by cupellation. The first major exploitation of New World silver was in the Potosi district of Bolivia. Although the actual production from Bolivia from 1500 to 1800 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 to expand worldwide, growing from 40 to 80 million troy ounces annually by the 1870s. Today, Peru and Mexico are the largest producers of silver.

It is estimated that more than 95% of all the silver ever mined throughout history has already been used and is gone forever and unrecoverable at any price. In 1900, there were approximately 12 billion ounces of silver in the world. Today, that figure has fallen to about 300 million ounces of above-ground, refined silver.

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