The history of sterling silver - from antiquity to modern times
Sterling silver has been a treasured metal for centuries. Its lustrous shine and durability have made it a popular choice for jewellery, cutlery, and other decorative objects. But what is the history of sterling silver? Who created it and why? And how has it been used throughout history? In this article, we will explore the history of sterling silver, from antiquity to modern times.
The changing uses of sterling silver through history - a brief overview
Sterling silver jewellery has a long and fascinating history, dating back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Greece. Throughout history, sterling silver has been a highly prized metal for the creation of jewellery due to its beauty, durability, and versatility.
Sterling silver was originally used for coins, as well as decorative objects such as jewellery and tableware. It was also used for religious objects, such as chalices and crosses.
In ancient times, silver was used for a variety of objects, including jewellery, coins, and decorative objects such as vases and bowls. The Egyptians were known for their intricate silver jewellery, while the Greeks and Romans used silver for coins and tableware.
In ancient Egypt, sterling silver was used to create intricate jewellery pieces such as bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. These pieces were often adorned with precious stones and other decorative elements, and were highly valued by the ruling elite and the upper classes.
Similarly, in ancient Greece, sterling silver was used to create a wide range of jewellery items, from delicate filigree earrings to bold and elaborate necklaces. These pieces were often adorned with gemstones and other decorative elements, and were worn as symbols of wealth and status.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, sterling silver became a popular choice for religious objects, such as chalices and crosses. It was also used for tableware, including plates, cups, and utensils. During the Middle Ages, sterling silver jewellery continued to be highly prized by the ruling classes and the wealthy, with skilled craftsmen creating intricate and ornate pieces for their patrons. Silver jewellery was often adorned with precious stones and enamel, and featured intricate designs and patterns.
18th and 19th Centuries
In the 18th and 19th centuries, sterling silver remained popular for tableware, with elaborate silver sets becoming a symbol of wealth and status. It was also used for decorative objects such as candlesticks and picture frames. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sterling silver jewellery became more widely available to the middle classes, due in part to the growth of the silver industry and advances in production techniques. This era saw the rise of popular jewellery styles such as the Victorian locket and the Art Nouveau pendant, which featured delicate filigree work and ornate designs.
In the 20th century, sterling silver continued to be used for jewellery, tableware, and decorative objects, but its popularity waned as new materials such as stainless steel and plastic became more common.
Today, sterling silver jewellery remains a popular choice for both its beauty and durability and is often used for fine jewellery, flatware, and decorative objects. It is also a popular choice for commemorative and collectible objects, such as coins and medals. Modern jewellery designers continue to explore new techniques and styles, creating unique and innovative pieces that showcase the beauty and versatility of this timeless metal. Whether it's a simple pair of silver earrings or an ornate necklace with gemstone accents, sterling silver jewellery continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of people all around the world.
What is sterling silver and what are its properties?
Sterling silver is a white, lustrous metal that is known for its durability and shine. It is softer than many other metals, but still strong enough for practical use. It is also relatively lightweight, making it a popular choice for jewelry.It is a type of silver alloy that contains 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, typically copper. The addition of copper makes the silver stronger and more durable, as pure silver is too soft for practical use. Sterling silver is known for its bright, shiny appearance, making it a popular choice for jewellery, tableware, and other decorative objects.
How long ago was sterling silver created?
The origins of sterling silver can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Silver was first mined in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) around 4000 BCE, and by 2500 BCE, the Egyptians were using silver for decorative objects. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used silver for coins, jewellery, and tableware.
Who created sterling silver?
There is no single person credited with creating sterling silver, as it evolved over time as a result of experimentation with different alloys. However, it is believed that the concept of using an alloy to make silver more durable originated in Germany in the 12th century.
Why was sterling silver created?
Sterling silver was created to address the issue of pure silver being too soft for practical use. The addition of copper made the silver stronger and more durable, allowing it to be used for a variety of objects.
Why is it called sterling silver?
The term "sterling" comes from the Old English word "steorra," meaning "star." It was used to describe a coin that had a small star on it, which was introduced by the Norman rulers of England in the 12th century. Over time, the term "sterling" came to refer to any high-quality silver.
When was sterling silver first used?
Sterling silver was first used in the 12th century in Germany, where the concept of using an alloy to make silver more durable originated. It was later introduced in England in the 13th century, where it became the standard for silver objects.
When was 925 first used on silver?
The use of the term "925" to denote the silver content of an object dates back to the 14th century, when it was first used in France. The number refers to the percentage of silver in the alloy, with 925 representing 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals.
How can you tell sterling silver from vintage?
To determine whether an object is made of sterling silver, look for a hallmark or stamp that indicates the silver content. In the UK, the hallmark for sterling silver is "925," while in other countries it may be a different number or symbol.
If an object is vintage or antique, it may not have a hallmark or the hallmark may be difficult to read. In these cases, you can test the object for silver content using a silver testing kit or by taking it to a professional appraiser to determine which period the piece originates from.
The history of using sterling silver as currency
The origins of silver coins can be traced back to ancient times, when various civilizations began using silver as a medium of exchange for trade and commerce. The first silver coins were likely produced in Lydia, a region of Asia Minor, around the 7th century BCE. These early coins were made by stamping a design onto a small piece of silver, which was then used as a form of currency.
Over time, the use of silver coins spread to other civilizations, including ancient Greece and Rome. In Greece, silver coins were known as drachmae, while in Rome they were called denarii. These coins were used for a wide range of transactions, from buying goods and services to paying taxes and tribute to the ruling powers.
During the Middle Ages, silver coins continued to be an important form of currency throughout Europe, with various rulers minting their own coins with distinctive designs and denominations. The silver content of these coins varied widely, with some containing high levels of pure silver and others containing only small amounts of the metal.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, silver coins played a key role in the development of international trade, particularly between Europe and the Americas. The Spanish silver dollar, also known as the "piece of eight," became a widely accepted currency in the New World, and its use helped to facilitate trade and commerce across the Atlantic.
Today, silver coins continue to be a popular form of currency and investment, with many countries minting their own silver coins for collectors and investors. While the use of silver coins as a primary form of currency has declined in modern times, the enduring value and appeal of silver as a precious metal ensures that silver coins will continue to hold a special place in the history of currency and commerce.
How has the value of sterling silver changed over time?
The value of sterling silver has fluctuated over time, influenced by a variety of factors including supply and demand, economic conditions, and changes in consumer preferences. Here is a brief overview of how the value of sterling silver has changed over time:
Ancient Times: In ancient times, sterling silver was highly valued for its beauty and durability, and was often used as a form of currency. The value of silver was based on its weight, with larger pieces of silver being more valuable than smaller ones.
Middle Ages: During the Middle Ages, sterling silver continued to be highly valued as a form of currency, and was also used to create a variety of decorative objects such as jewellery and household items. The value of silver fluctuated based on supply and demand, and was often influenced by wars and other geopolitical factors.
Industrial Revolution: With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the value of sterling silver began to decline. Advances in manufacturing made it easier to produce silver objects on a large scale, leading to an increase in supply and a decrease in value.
Modern Times: In modern times, the value of sterling silver has continued to fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including changes in consumer preferences and economic conditions. The price of silver is often influenced by changes in the global economy, and can be affected by factors such as inflation, geopolitical events, and supply and demand.
Overall, the value of sterling silver has changed over time, reflecting changes in the global economy and shifts in consumer preferences. While it continues to be valued for its beauty and durability, the value of sterling silver is subject to the same economic forces that affect other commodities and currencies.
When did silver become affordable for the masses in the UK?
Silver has been a valuable and highly prized metal throughout history, and it was generally not affordable for the masses until the modern era.
During the mediaeval period and into the early modern era, silver was used primarily by the wealthy and powerful, and it was not readily available to the average person. The production and trade of silver were tightly controlled, and the cost of silver items was prohibitively expensive for most people.
It was not until the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that the cost of silver began to come down, due to advancements in production techniques and the availability of new sources of silver. As a result, by the mid-19th century, silver items such as tableware and jewellery had become more affordable for the middle class, although they were still considered luxury items.
In the UK, the introduction of the sterling standard in 1158, which mandated that silver coins contain 92.5% silver, helped to establish a stable currency and create a market for silver. This standardisation of silver content in coins and later in silver objects helped to regulate the market and make silver more accessible to the masses.
Overall, it was not until the modern era, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, that silver became more affordable for the masses in the UK and other parts of the world.
Sterling Silver and the Industrial Revolution
During the Industrial Revolution, which took place during the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century, sterling silver was widely used in a variety of ways by the Victorians.
One of the primary uses of sterling silver during this time was for the production of tableware, including flatware, serving dishes, and tea sets. As the Victorian middle class grew in wealth and prosperity, there was a strong demand for finely crafted silver tableware to use in their homes and to display their social status. This demand for silver tableware drove the growth of the silver industry and encouraged innovations in production methods and design.
In addition to tableware, sterling silver was also used for a variety of decorative objects during the Victorian era, including jewellery, picture frames, and candlesticks. These objects were often highly ornate and detailed, featuring intricate engravings and other decorative elements that showcased the skill of the silversmith.
Sterling silver was also used during the Victorian era for commemorative objects, such as presentation pieces and trophies. These objects were often presented as gifts to individuals or organisations to mark significant events or achievements.
Overall, the Victorians' use of sterling silver during industrialization reflects their desire for finely crafted objects that reflected their growing wealth and social status. The use of sterling silver in tableware, decorative objects, and commemorative items helped to drive the growth of the silver industry and establish it as an important part of Victorian culture and society.
A new era: sterling silver jewellery and mass production
Sterling silver jewellery first became mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution, which took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. Advances in technology and production methods allowed for the mass production of a wide range of goods, including jewellery made from sterling silver.
One consequence of the mass production of sterling silver jewellery was that it became more affordable and accessible to the middle classes. This in turn led to an increase in demand for silver jewellery, and helped to establish sterling silver as a popular and enduring material for the creation of jewellery.
Another consequence of mass production was that it led to a standardisation of jewellery designs and production methods. Rather than relying on individual craftsmen to create one-of-a-kind pieces, jewellery could now be produced on a large scale, with standardised designs and consistent quality.
However, the mass production of sterling silver jewellery also had some negative consequences. For one, it led to a loss of individuality and creativity in jewellery design, as many pieces were produced using standardised designs and methods. Additionally, mass-produced jewellery often used lower quality materials or shortcuts in production, which could compromise the quality and durability of the finished piece.
Despite these challenges, the mass production of sterling silver jewellery has had a significant impact on the industry, making it more accessible to a wider range of people and helping to establish sterling silver as a popular and enduring material for jewellery. Today, many jewellery designers continue to explore new techniques and methods for creating sterling silver jewellery, blending traditional craftsmanship with modern technology to create unique and innovative pieces that showcase the beauty and versatility of this timeless metal.
The history of sterling silver's military uses
Sterling silver has been used for various military purposes throughout history due to its unique properties, including its durability, malleability, and resistance to tarnish. Here are some examples of sterling silver's military uses through history:
Swords and Armour: Sterling silver was used to create decorative elements for swords and armour in ancient times. It was often used to create the hilt of a sword, which could be adorned with precious stones and intricate designs. Additionally, it was used to create decorative elements on armour, such as breastplates and helmets.
Military Medals: Sterling silver has been used to create military medals for centuries. In the United States, the Purple Heart medal is made from sterling silver and awarded to soldiers who are wounded or killed in combat.
Military Badges: Sterling silver has been used to create military badges and insignia for various branches of the military. These badges and insignia are often worn on uniforms to indicate rank and status.
Dog Tags: Sterling silver has been used to create military dog tags, which are worn by soldiers to identify themselves in case of injury or death. These dog tags are engraved with personal information such as name, rank, and serial number.
Silver Bullets: In some cases, sterling silver has been used to create bullets for military use. While silver bullets are not as effective as lead bullets, they were sometimes used in situations where lead was not available or deemed unsuitable.
Sterling silver has had a long and varied history of military use, from decorative elements on swords and armour to the creation of military medals, badges, and dog tags. Its durability, malleability, and resistance to tarnish have made it a valuable material for use in military contexts.
The uses for sterling silver during the First and Second World Wars
During World War I and II, sterling silver was used in a variety of ways to support the war efforts of the Allied powers.
One of the most significant uses of sterling silver during this time was for the production of military insignia, such as badges, medals, and rank pins. These items were often made of sterling silver due to its durability and resistance to tarnishing, which ensured that they would remain in good condition throughout the rigours of military service.
Sterling silver was also used to produce a variety of other military items, such as canteens, mess kits, and other utensils. These items were valued for their durability, as well as their ability to resist corrosion and other forms of damage in the harsh environments of war.
In addition to military uses, sterling silver was also used for civilian purposes during the war. For example, many people donated sterling silver items to be melted down and used in the production of war materials, such as ammunition and aircraft parts. These donations were seen as a patriotic duty and a way for civilians to contribute to the war effort.
The use of sterling silver during World War I and II played an important role in supporting the Allied powers and ensuring their success in the conflict. Its durability, resistance to tarnishing, and other unique properties made it a valuable material for a wide range of military and civilian applications.
The history of sterling silver’s use for household items
Sterling silver has been used for household items throughout history due to its unique properties, including its durability, malleability, and resistance to tarnish. Here are some examples of sterling silver's household uses through history, starting from ancient times:
Ancient Egypt: Sterling silver was used to create a variety of household items in ancient Egypt, including bowls, plates, and utensils. These items were often adorned with intricate designs and symbols, and were considered to be a symbol of wealth and status.
Ancient Greece: In ancient Greece, sterling silver was used to create a variety of household items, including drinking cups, plates, and bowls. These items were often adorned with intricate designs and patterns, and were used for special occasions and banquets.
Medieval Europe: During the mediaeval period in Europe, sterling silver was used to create a variety of household items, including goblets, candlesticks, and cutlery. These items were often adorned with intricate designs and were considered to be a symbol of wealth and status.
Renaissance: In the Renaissance period, sterling silver continued to be used for a variety of household items, including tableware, candlesticks, and vases. These items were often adorned with elaborate designs and were highly valued as a sign of sophistication and refinement.
Modern Times: Sterling silver continues to be used for a variety of household items in modern times, including flatware, serving pieces, and decorative objects. These items are often designed with modern aesthetics in mind, and can be found in a variety of styles to suit different tastes and needs.
Sterling silver has had a long and rich history of use in household items, spanning from ancient times to the present day. Its unique properties and timeless beauty have made it a valuable material for creating a wide variety of objects that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
The history of sterling silver as tableware
The history of sterling silver tableware dates back centuries, and the material has been used for a wide variety of dining items, from spoons to serving platters. Here is a brief overview of the history of sterling silver tableware:
Medieval Europe: During the mediaeval period in Europe, dining was often a communal affair, with large feasts and banquets being common. Sterling silver tableware was used to serve food and drink, including goblets, plates, and utensils. These items were often decorated with intricate designs and were considered to be a symbol of wealth and status.
Renaissance: In the Renaissance period, dining became more refined and sophisticated, and sterling silver tableware was used to create a variety of dining items, including salt cellars, gravy boats, and carving sets. These items were often highly decorated, with elaborate designs and patterns.
18th and 19th Centuries: During the 18th and 19th centuries, dining became more formal and elaborate, and sterling silver tableware was used to create a variety of specialised items, including soup tureens, asparagus servers, and oyster forks. These items were often designed with specific functions in mind and were highly valued as a sign of sophistication and refinement.
Modern Times: In modern times, sterling silver tableware continues to be used for formal occasions and special events. While its use has become less common in everyday dining, it is still valued for its durability and beauty. Today, sterling silver flatware and serving pieces are often designed with modern aesthetics in mind, and can be found in a variety of styles to suit different tastes and needs.
The history of sterling silver tableware is a reflection of the changing nature of dining and social customs over time. From communal feasts to formal banquets, sterling silver tableware has played a central role in the art of dining for centuries, and continues to be valued for its beauty and functionality.
A history of sterling silver’s medical applications
Sterling silver has a long history of use in health and medical applications, dating back to ancient times. Here is a brief overview of the history of sterling silver in medicine:
Ancient Times: In ancient times, silver was believed to have healing properties, and was used to treat a variety of ailments. The ancient Greeks and Romans used silver to disinfect wounds, and the ancient Chinese and Indians believed that silver could help to purify the body and promote health.
Middle Ages: During the Middle Ages, silver was used to treat a variety of conditions, including infections and skin diseases. Physicians would often prescribe silver compounds, such as silver nitrate and colloidal silver, for their patients.
19th and 20th Centuries: In the 19th and 20th centuries, silver continued to be used in medicine, with silver compounds being used to treat everything from tuberculosis to syphilis. In addition, silver was used to make medical instruments, such as scalpels and forceps, due to its durability and antibacterial properties.
Modern Times: Today, silver is still used in a variety of medical applications, including wound dressings, catheters, and implants. Silver is known for its ability to kill bacteria and other microbes, making it an effective tool for preventing infection.
The history of sterling silver in medicine reflects its unique properties and versatility. From ancient times to modern day, silver has been valued for its ability to promote health and prevent disease, and it continues to be an important tool in the field of medicine.
The history of sterling silver reveals its importance not only as a valuable metal but also as a versatile material that has been used in a wide variety of applications throughout history. From its use in ancient times for religious and medicinal purposes to its widespread use today in jewellery, tableware, and medical applications, sterling silver has been a valuable resource for centuries.
As we continue to appreciate the beauty and functionality of sterling silver, it is important to recognize its unique properties and versatility. Whether used in decorative or functional objects, sterling silver is a symbol of elegance, durability, and refinement that has stood the test of time. Its history is a testament to its enduring value and importance in human culture and innovation.
Puneet who is Silver Smith and director of Lunar Moth Jewellery and has been lovingly hand crafting pieces for over 12 years. You can read more about Lunar Moth Jewellery on our About page here.