Precious metals are rare, naturally occurring metallic elements with high economic value. The precious metals tend to be less chemically reactive than other metals and have a high natural lustre. Traditionally, precious metals were important as currency. The best known precious metals are the coinage metals: gold and silver. Although both have industrial applications, they are better known for their uses in coinage, art and jewellery
The use of these metals as coins dates back to the bronze age when they were first purified. While silver coins were minted, silver was also valued commercially simply by weight. Interestingly, jewellery artefacts of gold and silver have been discovered dating back as early as 2100 BC – in Mesopotamia and Greece.
Silver purification dates to the end of the 4th millennium BC (early bronze age)- that is over 6000 years ago - when inventive Anatolians and Mesopotamians (from modern day Turkey and the fertile crescent of the River Euphrates) discovered they could extract silver from lead through cupellation (heat separation of silver from lead compounds). Silver is rarely found as a pure element – occurring more frequently mixed with other minerals and lead. So methods had to be developed to purify it. Cupellation was one such method.
Very few silver pieces from this time have survived but those that do give us a great insight into what these Bronze Age silversmiths were capable of.
To both the Greek and Roman societies the availability of silver was extremely important as their currencies, properly minted silver coins, depended on it. It appears that silver was less used than gold in jewellery, as we see many more gold items surviving from that era. But to some extent, this may be due to remelting and recycling. The surviving artefacts show that gold was used for all possible types of jewellery including finger rings, anklets, armlets etc.
Nowadays, silver and gold are hallmarked. Hallmarks indicate the purity of the precious metal. Sterling silver is indicated by the mark 925. Gold is identified by the carat (ct): 9 ct is harder than 18ct and 24 ct (the purest and softest form of gold).
How amazing to reflect on the history of precious metals!