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26 august 2017

I opined earlier this year that I don't own any gold. Silver, yes, of course; I have a few coins, a few household objects. A few old fillings in my teeth. Nearly everybody in the developed world has a bit of silver; it's a precious metal, but also one woven into the fabric of our lives. Sometimes literally. As Lindsay Shen points out in Silver, woven silver fabric was long a staple of luxury wear in both Europe and Asia. And in the 21st century, nanosilver, added to a range of textiles, provides protection against fungi and microbes.

Silver has remarkable medical and public-health applications, at least compared to its precious-metal cousins, which have medical uses ranging from narrow to none. Silver is antimicrobial, a versatile purifier. The excellent conductivity that makes it shine also makes silver turn bacteria haywire, even causing a kind of "zombie effect" that turns microorganisms on their relatives. Generations of 20th-century newborns had their eyes treated with silver nitrate, eradicating birth-related blindness. "Colloidal silver" is claimed by alternative-medicine types as a panacea, but Shen does not join in that theory. Colloidal silver seems to do little but turn people blue. But more focused uses of the metal are highly beneficial.

Shen also notes that silver was integral to the rise of photography as a dominant modern technology. Worldwide use of silver in photo processing peaked in the late 20th century. Now that most pictures are digital, demand for industrial silver has dropped considerably. But smaller quantities of the metal continue to be vital in all kinds of electronics. You need no silver to print those photos you never print, but you use silver when clicking the various buttons on your phone that enable digital sharing.

Demand for silver will continue to keep its price high, and the lives of silver-miners at risk. Shen talks at length in several different chapters about the ills done in the name of silver extraction, archetypally at Potosí in Bolivia. To this day, miners toil to extract low-grade ore from the near-inexhaustible Cerro Rico, source of a significant percentage of all the silver in circulation in the early modern period, and even today. Shen writes interestingly about the globalization of the silver trade in the centuries that followed Spanish exploitation of the mines of South America. Much of this metal ended up in China – not because the West was so eager to buy Chinese goods, but because monetary policy in China so greatly overvalued silver, compared to its worth in the West. Silver flowed eastward, but gold tended to flow westward.

And both metals keep flowing. Shen seconds an observation made by Zorach and Phillips in Gold, for the same Reaktion series: artifacts made of precious metals continuously undergo recycling. "Most of the silver objects that ever existed are now lost to us," says Shen (154). Royal collections and archeological finds account for most of the old silver objects that persist. But even then, fluctations in the price of silver have driven many a trove to the melting pot. By the time the price restabilizes, it's too late to save the coins and jewelry of the past. You can only forge new ones.

Shen offers a loving catalogue of all the ways that silver can be worked: raising (by hammering into sheet form and then shaping); cutting and joining (with solder); casting; stamping, pulling into wire and then twisting that wire into filigree; repoussé; engraving; piercing; coloring with oxidation (a technique called niello); gilding; polishing; weaving into cloth, as mentioned above; grinding into pigments for painting, illumination, and lettering.

Shen is also eloquent about the long history of silver as status symbol, especially in table settings. It was common in middle-class, middle-American, mid-20th-century families like my mother's to have "good silver." The stuff you called silverware was of course stainless steel and not very steely at that; it might bend under slight provocation. The good silverware was often heavy stainless in artistic shapes, brought out only on the most festive occasions. The actual silver might never be brought out at all. Received as a wedding gift, wrapped in cloth, stored in chests, polished once a lustrum, such silver could travel as heirlooms down the generations without ever bearing food to mouth. You know you have some cushion in life when you can afford to have utensils you never use and barely ever look at.

Shen, Lindsay. Silver. London: Reaktion, 2017.