Have you ever thought about the wonderfully shiny sterling silver piece that adorns your neck, ears, or wrists? What it is, where it’s from, and how it got here? Sterling silver is ubiquitous in the jewelry industry, and widely used in many others, but there is a certain disconnection between the mines where metallic ore containing silver is excavated, and the world of high fashion where silver has reigned for millennia. If you love metal accessories as much as we do, you might enjoy a brief walk through all the hard work that goes into turning raw silver into a beautiful chain, and an understanding of why sterling silver and gold chains are as expensive as they are. You just might come out of it with an even greater love and respect for your favourite silver jewelry!
Before anything, a site is chosen that has indicated high levels of natural metal deposits in the Earth. Once a candidate has been decided upon, the site is scrutinized by environmental specialists and mining engineers in a series of studies, tests, and calculations. Since there are rigorous government controls on mining, the very confirmation of a piece of land as the future site of a mine can be a 2-5 year process. The mining company is also obligated to ensure, before any construction begins, that after the site has been depleted of valuable minerals there will be an environmental rehabilitation process to restore the land. Huge amounts of expertise and critical thinking go into making mining projects safe, environmentally sound, and effective- before they’ve even started construction! There are generally two types of mines: surface level mines, which surround their site like an enormous football stadium, and underground mines, which can be located deeper than a mile underground, where they carve out a virtual subterranean society. Either way, the scale is huge and the technical coordination is astounding.
Silver, like all metals, is found as a mineral encrusted below the earth’s surface. What many may not realize is that silver, copper, lead, and gold are most frequently mined in the same place and found in the same ores, and separated afterward. Only about a quarter of all silver produced is mined from ores that are specifically harvested for silver. Even from those rare ores predominantly made of crude silver, trace amounts of copper, lead, and gold will be recovered and saved, just as trace amounts of silver are recovered from lead, zinc, and copper ores.
Once the ores are recovered from the earth through painstaking physical labour and specialized mechanical machinery, they are shipped from the mine to a reduction plant to be milled. Reduction plants (also called “mills”) are usually located adjacent to or nearby the mine itself, established alongside the realization that the site will be profitable for years to come.
At the mill, the ores are ground into powder into giant drums to increase surface area, quickening the effect of metallurgical chemicals. Various metallurgical extraction processes are employed to isolate the desirable elements, ridding the original ore of unwanted impurities like antimony, arsenic, and tin, and separating usable metals like copper, lead, zinc. After all chemical treatments, intense heating, and physical separation, silver can emerge as pure as 95%.
At that point, it is shipped to a precious metals refinery. There the silver is soaked in nitric acid, dissolving into the mixture. Silver precipitant crystals are added to the solution, and the acid is drained and neutralized. The result is pure silver in the 99th percentile!
Alloys and Wire
Pure silver that will be used in the jewelry industry then typically gets shipped to a wire factory. There it can be alloyed with other metal to produce sterling silver, also known as standard silver, which is 92.5% silver (the remainder typically composed of copper). Sometimes sterling silver is also referred to as 0.925 silver. The alloy is heated yet again to become soft, and drawn through specially cut dies to be formed into wire. Depending on the width of the die, different gauges of wire are created.
Spools of sterling silver are shipped to chain makers, which range from small studios to fairly sizeable factories. This is perhaps where the silver industry ends and the jewelry industry begins. Automated machines are used to produce chains of almost countless different styles. Cable chains, snake chains, satellite chains, ball chains, figure eight chains, rolo chains, square chains and the list goes on. For each different style of chain link, a different specialized machine is required. Generally, the wire is fed into one side of the machine, where, depending on the style, it is bent, flattened, curved, soldered, and moved along. The following link receives the same treatment, and is joined to the first one. For simple chains this process continues until a long sequence of identical links emerges at the other side of the chain machine. Some chains are not so simple, and may involve 2 or more different kinds of links. Because most machines can only produce one size of one style of link, they must either be recalibrated to produce new effects and sizes, or, more likely, multiple machines must be used in combination.
Since there are so many different styles of chains, and a dedicated machine for each, there is indeed a smorgasbord of different chain making machines. Larger operations have upwards of 600! Other chains may feature indents, hammering, brushing and other personal flourishes that are achieved by hand, adding a human touch at the cost of skilled and time-consuming labour.
Chains that have completed the shaping process often undergo an additional electroplating process. This is where a very thin layer of an even more precious metal like gold or rhodium are plated onto the sterling silver through an electrochemical process that achieves a nearly flawless coating all over the chain. Plating is done with a number of benefits in mind, and is frequently used to change the colour, reduce the possibility of tarnishing, or increase the hardness.
And voila! The chain is born! A quick recap: silver-containing ores are mined from sites that are cultivated with the utmost of technical skill and environmental care, shipped to the reduction plant and broken down into constituent parts, shipped again to refineries that produce pure silver, shipped yet again to wire factories, and then shipped again as pure or alloyed wire to chain makers, where the chains are crafted and electroplating occurs. After that, the finished chain is, you guessed it, shipped all over the world, where jewelry enthusiasts incorporate them into original designs. The whole multi-stage process requires technical planning, environmental care, chemical engineering, huge machines, hard work, creativity, and a lot of transportation.
Silver in the World Today
The world’s most prolific silver-producing nations are Peru, Mexico, and Australia, but the most skilled and effective chain producer is Italy, where artisans have long cultivated silver working techniques and slowly amassed a virtually incomparable variety of machines. Furthermore, chain links are patented by the companies that build the chain making machines, so classic Italian designs are not commonly available outside the country. All of this means that if topnotch chains are sought after, intercontinental transit is involved, and Canadians have to buy most of their jewelry sterling silver at a disadvantageous exchange rate. While the Canadian dollar has been remarkably successful lately, especially against the American dollar, the Euro has been quite strong. As the price of raw silver has doubled in the past 5 years, and the whole process of transforming it from an unrefined mineral to a finished jewelry chain is so extensive, there is also a great deal of economic strategy in keeping the costs as low as possible at every stage.
A quick note on silver economics: as of May 1st, 2007, the price of pure silver was $0.47 CAD/gram. After being shipped, made into wire, shipped again, made into chain, shipped internationally to the supplier (with duties applied), and marked up every step of the way, it will end up costing the consumer upwards of a dollar per gram. Not bad, really, considering all of the shipping and markups. If you find silver chains for $0.60/gram, there are generally two possibilities: either the supplier bought it when it was worth much less, or it’s not pure silver. It could be a lower grade alloy or silver plated.
Treasure the beautiful sterling silver chains that flow into your country and around your limbs, and do not take them for granted! They are the result of skill, creativity, time, and hard work. Given everything that went into them, it is no wonder that sterling silver necklace you own is so valuable! And with recent stock market increases, your favourite sterling silver bracelet that you bought 5 years ago is now worth twice as much. In financial terms, that’s a pretty good return on investment indeed.