Silver is a classic precious metal for use in jewelry, bullion coin, tableware, and a variety of industrial applications as well, due to its high conductivity in both heat and electricity (the highest conductivity of any metal!)
It's been known to be have been used by humans since antiquity, and therefore it has a rich tradition in the craft of metalsmithing.
Types and Uses of Silver
Fine silver, or pure silver, can be used for bullion and artistic pieces, but this metal is generally too soft for use in most daily-wear jewelry. Far more often, it is alloyed with other metals to improve its wearability.
The most important silver-dominant alloy for use in jewelry is sterling silver, which is defined as an alloy of 92.5% silver and some other addition metals. Most commonly, copper dominates the remaining 7.5%.
Silver is also an important addition metal in gold-dominant alloys, often occupying about 50% of the non-gold component in typical karat golds, along with copper and other metals.
Silver naturally has antibacterial properties, which makes it a popular choice for tableware and utensils (though I'm not sure that detail was well-known in antiquity). While tableware is often simply silver-plated to reduce its overall cost, the name silverware derives from this popular metal choice.
Nickel Silver, or German Silver, is a misleadingly named alloy containing no actual silver. Rather, its silver color comes from the addition of nickel to copper, often in combination with zinc. This alloy has a similar color to silver and acts as a great substrate for electroplating, so it is a popular choice for plating real silver and reducing the overall cost of larger pieces.
Tarnish and Polishing
Silver is not particularly reactive with atmospheric oxygen at normal temperatures, unlike copper, so it generally does not oxidize in the same way copper does. Increasing copper content in alloys can, however, cause oxides to form, which will lead to a dark coating that will vary depending on the environment.
Unfortunately, however, atmospheric sulphur does readily react with silver, which leads to the well-known dull grey-brown tarnish. These days, the amount of sulphur in the air has increased dramatically (part of the reason I am dedicated to sustainable sourcing). It's safe to say that our ancestors didn't have to polish their silver nearly as often as we do!
This tarnish inevitably forms on silver, whether it be fine silver or sterling, depending on local atmospheric condition in a matter of months or years. There's no reason to fret if your silver pieces start tarnishing; this is a completely normal and expected process, and can even be intentionally leveraged to interesting aesthetic effects.
Tarnish can be easily removed by occasional polishing. This can be accomplished using specialized expensive and harsh chemicals, but can also be done with purely mechanical processes and no end of folk remedies.
Polishing does remove small portions of the metal, and so for important historical artifacts, great care must be taken to reduce the occurrence of tarnish in the first place, lest it be polished out of existence over time. These artifacts are often stored in specialized air-tight atmospheres that contain no reactive gases, to preserve it for future generations.
Use in Jewelry
Sterling silver is an excellent metal for use in jewelry. While it naturally has a lustrous soft white color, it can be easily polished to a very bright shine. When polished, it can be so reflective as to serve as a mirror.
It is soft enough to be cold worked with similar techniques to gold alloys and copper, but can be work-hardened through mechanical manipulation for long-lasting wearability. This work-hardening can sometimes make working in silver a little difficult for metalsmiths, who need to frequently anneal it to retain is ductility.
As a precious metal, silver is an enduring store of value, having been used through numerous times in history as a monetary standard. Its frequent occurrence in nature, as compared to rarer metals like gold causes the price of pure silver to generally hover around 1-2% of the price of the same weight in pure gold.
This can dramatically reduce the cost of a piece of jewelry, while still leading to an elegant and beautiful aesthetic result. It's a great choice for casual jewelry as well as wedding jewelry when budgets need to be more tightly constrained.
While gold is more commonly used for wedding jewelry, due to the fact that it does not tarnish, its high price can prove a prohibitive obstacle for a debt-burdened millennial couple to afford. Silver is an excellent alternative with similar wearing characteristics, and only requires occasional polishing to maintain is luster.
I can generally make any of my pieces using sterling silver, and in fact, I generally work in silver to experiment with new designs, since its lower cost makes it easier to justify things like serious chip-forming. I'm able to develop plans for working in gold that are less wasteful by first working in silver once I'm happy with the end product.
If you see anything on my website that you'd like to get priced for fabrication in silver, just drop me a line to discuss a custom commission.