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The Purity of Silver

by Laura Fronty

Silver symbolizes the moon, its purity, and its white glints.  Its name is believed to derive from the Sanskrit word ar-jun that means both “white” and “shining”.  In antiquity, silver was often deemed more valuable than gold.  In Egypt, for example, it was considered extremely precious.  But unlike gold, which suffers almost no ill effects from age over the centuries, silver is quite fragile and prone to oxidation, causing it to deteriorate.  Once the Spanish conquistadors began to exploit the silver mines of the New World, entire ships were needed to carry the metal to Europe and Asia.  Today, as then, the majority of the world’s silver comes from Latin America.

A Soft Metal

Silver is too malleable to be used in its pure state.  After gold, it is the softest and the most ductile of metals and, like gold, it can be stretched into wire thread.  It is alloyed with other metals; most commonly copper, in order to harden it.  However, unlike gold, which takes on different hues when alloyed with other metals, solid silver remains white with gray tints.

In antiquity, there was a widely used alloy made from a base of gold and silver.  This metal has been forgotten in our time, but its beautiful color-simultaneously pale and glimmering-deserves to be rediscovered by designers.

Silver and Customs

In certain civilizations, silver is preferred to gold.  In Africa and Asia, silver is worn daily while gold-which is rarer and more costly-is reserved for urban dwellers or for more ceremonial settings.  In these countries, for centuries, metalsmiths have produced magnificent jewelry from silver through the art of chiseling, casting, enamel, or niello.  The jewelry was often decorated with symbolic stones-such as coral, cornelian, turquoise, and amber-which serve to protect and bring good luck.

In India, women have always prized silver, and their jewelry reflects this passion.  Their silver is cast, then recast, eternally transformed so that over thousands of years women from the middle and lower castes have decorated their arms, wrists, necks, ankles, hair, and clothes with this silver, thus displaying their dowry directly on their bodies.

Beliefs and Superstitions

In antiquity, newborns were given silver jewelry.  The metal was thought to keep away evil spirits and protect the baby while it slept.

In the Maghreb, the Middle East, and Asia, silver is still believed to have protective power; and the Tuaregs of North Africa, for example, don’t wear gold because they believe it arouses the attention of the evil eye.

In India, newborns are bedecked in silver anklets decorated with tiny bells.  Their cheerful tinkling allows the mother to keep track of her child’s moments once the baby learns to crawl.

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, similar virtues were attributed to silver in Europe.  In Germany, for example, pieces of silver were frequently sewn onto the jackets of young soldiers because they were believed to ward off bullets.

The preference for silver over gold sometimes has its source in religious beliefs.  In early Islam, true believers were not allowed to wear either gold or silk during their earthly life lest they be denied these pleasures in paradise.  Over time, religious law has relaxed its strictures.  In principle, the prohibition still holds for men, but women, at least, are allowed to dress themselves in jewelry made of gold or vermeil.

Distinguishing between the real and the fake

Look out for imitations; they do not have the same market value as pure silver.

If you have any doubts about the jewelry, you must apply the touchstone test followed by the revealing liquids (chemical acids).  Rub on the metal on a black stone such as slate, then place a drop of acid on the spot that the silver has marked.  If the mark disappears, it is not silver.

Silver marks and standards

Since the end of the 19th century, silver in France has been designated by a silver mark of the head of Minerva, wearing a helmet and looking to the right.  If the piece is secondhand, or acquired abroad, it is stamped with a weevil (beetle) or a swan.

Like gold, silver has several degrees of fineness (the proportion of precious metal found in an alloy).  The degree reflects the quantity of copper used.  In France, the finest silver is made with 925 parts silver and 75 parts copper, as reflected by the 925/1000 mark engraved on the metal.  In English speaking countries, the metal often bears the engraving “pure sterling.”

It looks like silver!

Up until the end of the 18th century, it was common practice to weld a thin leaf of silver to a sheet of copper to obtain silver-plated metal.

Maillot and Chorier were the first in France to perfect an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel that imitated perfectly the appearance of white metal.  Named “Maillechort” after its inventors, the metal is plunged into a bath of silver salts, which settle on the surface by means of electrolysis.

In North Africa, alloys of copper and zinc were often used to imitate silver.  It can be difficult at times to distinguish zamak from solid silver.

In Southeast Asia, nickel has long been used as an alloy; the result is often known as “alpaca silver.”  In Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, mountain tribes continue to make large quantities of jewelry from this alloy or from hollow silver, which is light and fragile.

Silver around the world

In Spain, solid silver is frequently cheaper than in France.

Scandinavian jewelry, often sober and refined, is much esteemed for the high quality of its design.  Jewelers there have not hesitated to choose silver for their beautiful creations, occasionally enhanced by a piece of Baltic amber or a moonstone.  Georg Jensen, the well-known Danish jeweler, has made superb pieces in the style of art nouveau, and his company remains among the most important in the world of contemporary silver design.

Jewelry made by the Navajos is equally famous.  Crafted from solid silver, the pieces are often decorated with turquoise.  Sadly, their success has had a detrimental effect on their art:  jewelry made today is only of a mediocre quality when compared with those much admired pieces made as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, which are now collectors’ items.

How to buy antique pieces

Silver is a soft metal that dents, scratches, and bends easily.  It is important to make sure that such damage is not too evident.  Rings are especially fragile.  A silver band can become as thin as a sheet of paper.

Hollow silver is most likely to show scars from its earlier life.  Sometimes these pieces cannot be repaired.  It is impossible to repair dents on a bangle or drop earrings, no matter how thick the silver leaf.

Care and maintenance

Silver jewelry that is exposed to the air and sunlight oxidizes and tarnishes quickly.  It is important to put silver away and to separate it from any other type of metal that can tarnish or scratch it.

Protect fragile pieces, particularly those made with hollow silver, by wrapping them individually in a soft cloth-either felt of silk is best for the most delicate pieces.

The best way to maintain the luster of your silver is to wear it as often as possible, but certain types of skin, because they are more acidic, can cause silver to oxidize.

Cleaning products made for silver tableware should not be used on silver jewelry unless the piece is extremely dirty.  Never use one of these products on silver decorated with gemstones.

The best silver cleaner can be found at your local pharmacy and in some supermarkets:  baking soda.  The simplest method is to pour some of the soda power into your damp hands and then gently rub the jewelry until its original color and shine return.  To reach into the contours of embossed or carved silver, use a damp toothbrush whose bristles have been softened by previous use.  You can also add a drop of liquid detergent to the baking soda.  Rinse the jewelry in water and dry with a piece of fine cloth.

Toothpaste is another good choice for cleaning silver, but it is not suited for the care of antique jewelry, particularly if it is engraved or carved.  The paste tends to slip into the cracks and dries quickly.  If necessary, you can remove the white marks with pure alcohol.

Lemon juice shines silver and wipes away blemishes.  You can simply rub the jewelry against the slice of lemon, or for rings and other carved silver items, use a soft-bristled brush dipped in lemon juice to rub the jewelry.

Old fashioned recipes

To restore the shine to severely oxidized silver, roll it in a sheet of aluminum foil and plunge into a pot of boiling salted water.  The salt is optional, but it helps to activate the process.  Leave the package in the pot for about ten minutes, then remove from the pot and open up the foil.  The sheet of foil should have absorbed all of the oxidation and should now be black.  Rinse the newly shined piece of jewelry and you are done.  This method should not be used with jewelry decorated with pearls or other precious gemstones.