Silver, #47

The Latin word argentum gives us the symbol—Ag—for the element silver. The modern country of Argentina was once the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Plata is Spanish for silver. Argentina is Italian. Colonists from Italy make up a large part of the country’s citizenry.

Silver is one of those things everyone knows about. Most of us have seen, held, or possessed silver jewelry, cutlery, or coinage. Silver, like gold, is found in nature in its native state and is thus one of the metals known to ancient peoples. It is soft, shiny, and easily worked. Silver has a relatively low melting point (961 ºC or 1763 ºF) and is thus within the range of wood fires and charcoal furnaces.

Silver is a superb conductor of heat and electricity and makes an excellent reflective surface. It has a number of industrial applications and about 20,000 tonnes are produced annually, mostly as a by-product from gold, lead, and zinc mining. México is the world’s leading silver miner. The conquistadores established the first mint (in México City) in the New World. One of the prize pieces in our modest coin collection is a five-ounce, $10,000-peso silver bullion coin from Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Here’s the obverse:

And the reverse:

The currency was debased in 1993 and $10,000 pesos became $10 pesos so it’s not as valuable a coin as the denomination might suggest. It is a beautiful coin nonetheless and has a nice heft in the hand. The real thing is 65 mm (2.6 in.) across and 6.2 mm (1/4 inch) thick. Five troy ounces is about one-third of a conventional (avoirdupois) pound.

Silver doesn’t readily combine with oxygen but it is vulnerable to sulfur with which it forms a brown-black tarnish (Ag2S, silver sulfide).

Silver is alloyed with other metals because it is too soft. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. Electrum is a naturally-occurring mixture of gold and silver and was used in the earliest coin systems. Investment-grade silver, like the coin above, is 0.999 fine or containing only 1% impurities.

One troy ounce of silver is about 31.1 grams (our customary or avoirdupois ounce is about 28.3 grams) and its spot price these days is about 22 bucks.

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