This post grew out of a rich discussion of a Bulgarian pendant posted by Cordelia Donahue and my own realisation that I needed a simple framework to help me think about the sources of ethnic silver. It is not meant to be authoritative but I hope it will be useful. Do please offer corrections and extensions.
Silver is classified as a noble or precious metal along with gold and platinum. All other metals, such as copper, zinc, tin etc. are classified as base metals.
1. Pure silver or bullion. Bullion, available in the form of ingots, has 100% silver content and is recovered from mining and smelting. It is hardly ever used for jewellery in its pure form because it is too soft.
2. Silver alloys or amalgams.
(a) Using bullion plus. Other metals such as copper and zinc are usually added to pure silver in small quantities to make it harder, more malleable and better able to acquire an attractive finish. The advantage of using pure silver as a starting point is that the silversmith can control the process of making an alloy with the appropriate qualities and can control the quantity of silver which is needed in some places to gain a hallmark.
(b) Using coin silver. Where bullion was not available, coins, particularly those that were known to have a high silver content were used for making jewellery. For instance, in Turkestan, Russian, Persian and Chinese coins were used; in Yemen Maria Theresa thalers were specially imported for the purpose. The coins were melted down by the silversmith.
With cupellation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupellation). In some cases, the liquid material underwent a process of cupellation which separated the silver from the base metals. On completion the silver could be treated in the same way as bullion in that base metals could be added by the silversmith giving him greater control of the process.
Without cupellation. In other cases, the liquid metal was used immediately. The metal composition of the coin would then be reflected in the metal composition of the jewellery. Since the silver content of coins differed from place to place and was also reduced over time, the content of silver in jewellery would also have varied along these lines. But the jeweller himself may have intervened in this process by adding to the mix.
(c) Using old jewellery. Old pieces of silver jewellery, no longer wanted, were a common source of silver. Melted down they provided the material for new necklaces, bracelets, rings etc. in much the same way as coins did.
3. Silver substitutes. These look like silver and sometimes pretend to be silver.
(a) Those with a recognised composition. These are forms of nickel silver and are called by various names.
Paktung. This is an alloy of brass with 5-10% nickel added. Invented by the Chinese, and imported in small quantities to Europe and elsewhere, its composition remained a commercial secret until the second half of the eighteenth century when nickel was identified as the vital element.
German silver. This is an alloy of copper (60%), zinc (20%) and nickel (20%). It was discovered in 1823 in Germany by an industrial chemist called EA Geitner and was marketed under the trade name 'Alpacca'. The name Alpacca was used in Europe until around 1918 when it was replaced by the more commonly used name, German silver. It had many industrial uses but was also adopted later for the making of tableware and jewellery
Maillechort and New Silver are other names for nickel silver alloys which are used for making jewellery
(b) Other silvery alloys. I'm guessing here (I could find no direct references) but I suspect that silversmiths (a) melted down coins which did not contain silver and (b) had their own recipes for making silvery materials for jewellery.
The term gilit is often used, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to describe these silver substitutes.
To make these substitutes look more acceptable and attractive, they were sometimes covered in silver plate.
One more term... white metal. This is a description, used by the Fine Arts trade, of silver that does not have a hallmark. It is however, recognised that the item contains silver and it is priced accordingly.
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