Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag (Latin: argentum, from the Indo-European root *arg- for “grey” or “shining”) and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal. The metal occurs naturally in its pure, free form (native silver), as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals such as argentite and chlorargyrite. Most silver is produced as a by-product of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining.
Silver is a very ductile, malleable (slightly harder than gold), monovalent coinage metal, with a brilliant white metallic lustre that can take a high degree of polish. It has the highest electrical conductivity of all metals, even higher than copper, but its greater cost has prevented it from being widely used in place of copper for electrical purposes.
Most silver is produced as a by-product of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining. Silver has innumerable applications in art, science, industry and beyond.
At the highest level, though, demand for silver breaks down into three important categories: silver in industry, investment, and silver jewellery & décor. Together, these three areas represent more than 95 % of annual silver demand. In 2010, 487.4 million ounces of silver were used for industrial applications, while over 167.0 million ounces of silver were committed to silver jewellery and 101.3 million ounces were used in coins and medals.
With unique properties including its strength, malleability and ductility, its electrical and thermal conductivity, its sensitivity to and high reflectance of light and the ability to endure extreme temperature ranges, it is an element without substitution.
Silver, in the form of electrum (a gold–silver alloy), was coined to produce money around 700 BC by the Lydians. Later, silver was refined and coined in its pure form. Many nations used silver as the basic unit of monetary value. In the modern world, silver bullion has the ISO currency code XAG. The name of the pound sterling (£) reflects the fact it originally represented the value of one troy pound of sterling silver; other historical currencies, such as the French livre, have similar etymologies.
The 20th century saw a gradual movement to fiat currency, with most of the world monetary system losing its link to precious metals after Richard Nixon took the United States dollar off the gold standard in 1971; the last currency backed by gold was the Swiss franc, which became a pure fiat currency on 1 May 2000. During this same period, silver gradually ceased to be used in circulating coins; the United States minted its last circulating silver coin in 1969.
The Royal Canadian Mint still makes many silver coins with various dollar denominations. Silver is used as a currency by many individuals, and is legal tender in the state of Utah. Silver coins and bullion are also used as an investment to guard against inflation and dollar devaluation.
Jewellery and silverware
Jewellery and silverware are traditionally made from sterling silver (standard silver), an alloy of 92.5% silver with 7.5% copper. In the US, only an alloy consisting of at least 90.0% fine silver can be marketed as “silver” (thus frequently stamped 900). Sterling silver (stamped 925) is harder than pure silver, and has a lower melting point (893 °C) than either pure silver or pure copper. Britannia silver is an alternative, hallmark-quality standard containing 95.8% silver, often used to make silver tableware and wrought plate. With the addition of germanium, the patented modified alloy Argentium Sterling silver is formed, with improved properties, including resistance to firescale.