The History of Silver in Fine Jewelry

The History of Silver in Fine Jewelry

Since it was first discovered, silver has been used for various purposes, such as eating and drinking vessels and artifacts like sculptures. Being lustrous and comparatively rare, it also served as a principal metal used for currency by many civilizations throughout the centuries. However, silver stands out as a commodity reserved for fine jewelry for royalty, the wealthy, and the privileged.

Silver is one of the Seven Metals of Antiquity known to ancient humans. Though archeological evidence indicates extraction from as early as 5000 years ago, its discovery is lost to history. While silver is more abundant than gold, silver is scarce as a pure native metal. The Egyptians are thought to have separated silver from gold by heating them with salt. Still, silver in its purest form started with the discovery of cupellation, a technique used to extract silver metal from its ores.


Uses of Silver in Antiquity

Silver in Antiquity
The Ketef-Hinnom scroll is considered one of the oldest surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible.

The ancient Egyptians widely used silver from as early as the Predynastic Period. Temple inscriptions indicate that silver was valued more highly than gold because of its relative scarcity, such that silver, and electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, was reserved to adorn royalty and the privileged classes. Silver was seen as a symbol of the moon, as opposed to gold being a symbol of the sun. Such symbolism was also regarded across cultures worldwide throughout the centuries.

Silver was also discovered independently in ancient civilizations around the world, such as the ancient Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Mesoamerican cultures. The abundance of silver in the coffers of Montezuma included a giant ceremonial costume made of silver representing the moon and an abundance of adornments that are a testament to the profusion of silver in the New World.

Silver was widely traded from 800 B.C. throughout North Africa and Asia Minor and was used as a medium of exchange by merchants in Mesopotamia. Though rare, surviving silver artifacts and jewelry produced by skilled silversmiths are present in significant civilizations within these areas. 

The ancient Greeks became the primary source of silver for over a thousand years because of the Laurium mines, which yielded millions of troy ounces during its peak production, providing one of the bases of the power help by the ancient Athenians. The ancient Greeks also developed skilled production of small motifs. Ancient Greek jewelers used silver and gold with inlays of precious stones, such as pearls, emeralds, amethysts, and garnets. These pieces of jewelry indicated the status and wealth of the wearer and are thought to have protected them from the Evil Eye.

The ancient Romans relied on the abundance of silver mined in their territories for the stability of their currency. An estimated 10,000 tons of silver stock circulated in the Roman economy by the 2nd century A.D., relying on Spanish and German mines. Denarius, one of the most recognizable ancient coins, was minted by the Romans. The Romans also used precious metals, such as gold and silver, as signature pieces for the ruling class. Romans were also awarded torques made of silver or gold for acts of bravery.


Medieval Period and the Age of Exploration

Medieval Period and the Age of Exploration
Henry I Silver Penny (1100-1135 AD)

Central Europe became the center of silver production during the Middle Ages. Pure native silver was abundant in these areas, along with ores, where silver is relatively easy to extract. 

Silversmiths flourished in Scandinavia because of large amounts of silver arriving in Scandinavia through conquest. Extraction of Swedish silver also fueled the popularity of wearing silver in Northern Europe as well as areas Viking were trading with.

Much of Medieval fine jewelry was made of gold. Silver at the time was seen as a more affordable metal and was thereby more widely available to more people. Availability of silver became widespread through the Renaissance.  Development of trade, trade guilds, and the middle class to whom intricate silver pieces in jewelry, as well as functional items are more accessible. 

Silver extraction during this age reached high levels with the discovery of the Americas by the Spanish. Central and South America became the foremost producers of silver from the 16th to the 18th century. Much of this silver was distributed worldwide, finding its way as far as China. Silver helped the Spanish Empire finance its ascendancy. The Empire’s power and reach undoubtedly helped reshape the popularity of silver worldwide as currency and as material for relatively affordable jewelry.

By the 18th century, as new silver reaches Europe from South America regularly, production of silver pieces grew to unprecendented levels. By the middle of the century, settings of diamonds in silver, became more common as new deposits from Brazil were discovered. Georgian jewelry is typified by cut-down collet settings composed of silver which compliments the white color of the diamonds they hold.


The 19th Century

The 19th Century
Victorian Silver Tea Set (ca. 1880)

The most notable development of silver as a material for fine jewelry was in 19th-century England. During the 1800s, silver was typically used for smithing cutlery, plates, and tablework. British silverwork spread to the outer reaches of the Empire, where the tradition is still alive today in places such as India and the United States. 

As Britain moved into the Victorian period, silver as a material for fine jewelry started ascending in popularity. Its malleability and light color make silver ideal for setting precious stones. Most pieces at the time were hand manufactured, with designs inspired by nature.

The Grand Period in the Victorian era saw tumultuous events that defined jewelry designs. Queen Victoria went into mourning with the death of the Prince Consort. The Queen’s influence on the general public ushered in a new style of jewelry - silver mourning jewelry. These fine pieces used blackened oxidized silver set with dark gemstones, such as black onyx and English jet. The influence of rising global trade and exploration also led to more intricate jewelry designs.


 

black diamond pendant necklace
The Majestic Necklace  crafted by Michelle Valadon is a powerful statement necklace that perfectly captures the spirit of Grand Period Victorian era jewelry. With intricately crafted details of oxidized silver holding gorgeously-displayed gigantic faceted natural Brazilian onyx, the aptly named necklace profoundly enhances the wearer’s queenly attributes. The Gothic Rose ring harks back to ring designs popular in the early period of Victorian jewelry typified by excellently-crafted silver work setting considerably-sized gemstones, some of which became popular as engagement rings carrying the wife’s birthstone.

 

gothic bracelets

Along with fine jewelry came items with designs that reflect sentimentalities, such as silver lockets and monogrammed jewelry; bracelets and bangles of ornate designs were also popular. The advent of the industrial revolution also made jewelry-making efficient, such that fine handcrafted pieces reserved for the privileged became attainable to more people.

The  Windows to the Soul  garnet bracelet cuff captures the spirit of the Belle Epoque and Victorian Era elements. With oxidized silver forming ornate, architectural-inspired patterns which combines to give an antiqued or old-world look of that time.


The 20th Century and the Present

gothic earrings

Though most fine jewelry houses, such as Tiffany & Co, Cartier, Lalique, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Boucheron, shifted to platinum for fine pieces, Art Deco silver jewelry was still being made. It was still popular from the end of the Victorian Era up to World War I. The period, known as the Belle Epoque, is known for its ornate patterns with soft curves and shapes. Many of which are made of silver.

Newer materials developed since the Second World War have helped launch the popularity of mass-produced jewelry. On the other hand, precious metals, such as gold and silver, remained exclusive to fine jewelry reserved for the more affluent. However, gold took center stage as a preferred material for fine jewelry.

On the other hand, silver remains a precious metal that is a preferred material for more affordable pieces of fine jewelry. Alloys of silver meant pieces that don’t tarnish became widely available. Exceptional pieces with oxidized patina are also popular as it gives an old-world or antiqued and vintage vibe.

The rise of the gothic subculture has resurrected the popularity of silver jewelry among its proponents. With the relatively low price and abundance of silver on the market, fine jewelry made of silver became more affordable. More recently, silver is finding its way as a popular alternative metal for all jewelry styles as more fashion designers embrace both the metal and the style.

gothic bracelets

Today, the rise in silver prices means it is back to being labeled as a precious metal. Manufactured silver has become more scarce, making pieces made of silver exceptional nowadays. The excellent craftsmanship of jewelry makers like Michelle Valadon has helped thrust fine silver jewelry into the limelight. With its versatility, timelessness, and beauty, silver is truly a stamp of luxury with the mark of history, tradition, and profound symbolism. 

Like many of the pieces for the Enlightenment Collection, whose texture serves the purpose of symbolism using precious silver. The textures are reminiscent of a sword or a weathered stone, which signifies the beauty of our imperfections and wisdom of the times we carry. The textured silver also tells us how we are sharpened through our experiences, just like the metal within the fire is sharpened and purified to bring out our true genius. The contrast convey a silver glow like the moon that appears from the dark clouds during the night due to the oxidized patina that appears within the pieces. Many of Michelle Valadon's pieces are signature to this approach.


Unique fine gothic jewelry crafted by Michelle Valadon provides vintage-inspired take to the old world charm offered by silver jewelry pieces, whose collections include the  Relics of Revival and Gothic Mystique  rosary-inspired silver and lava rock necklaces, hoop earrings, Budding Blooms stud earrings, and bracelets. 


Takeaways: Every Piece of Handcrafted Jewelry Is an Homage to a Truly Coveted Metal

Michelle Valadon is one of the foremost proponents of silver as a primary material for handcrafted fine gothic jewelry. The design of each piece is inspired by the romanticism and charm of times past. For jewelry seekers looking beyond the mass market for exceptional pieces, Michelle Valadon’s handcrafted fine jewelry pieces provide exclusive choices and something that can be genuinely called yours, not only as a fashion statement but as a reminder of your feminine essence.