The History of Nickel Silver and Sterling Silver
Silver is one of the finest metals our world has to offer us. It is certainly beautiful, with the highest quality shine of all the metals. It is also durable, strong, and hard; making it useful to mankind for many different reasons.
Silver is malleable and ductile, which means it can be melted, beaten, and formed into thin sheets of wire. It is then made into jewellery. Silver is the metal that appears the most white and reflective, showing off its beautiful shine. It can also be combined with other metals, like copper and nickel, to make it stronger.
Greece is known in history for its silver mines, but that did not last long. Not only was Greece a silver superpower in Europe, but Spain also discovered its own silver mines. As the popularity of silver spread, Mexico and Peru found their own silver mines too. After Mexico and Peru discovered their silver, it was said they sold three-quarters of the world’s silver. Mexico and Peru still produce the most silver in the world, claiming one fifth of the world’s silver.
Two of the world’s most useful silvers are nickel silver and sterling silver. Nickel silver, found by the Chinese, has an incredible amount of uses from zippers through to plumbing parts. Sterling silver is pure and pretty, making it a wonderful use for flatware or aesthetically pleasing for architecture.
History of Nickel Silver
Nickel silver is a metal that contains copper, nickel, and zinc. It actually has no silver in it at all, ironically. The nickel only makes it appear as silver. The formation of it is usually about 60% copper, 20% nickel, and 20% zinc. It is also commonly known as German silver.
It has been dated as far back as the Qing Dynasty in China, which began in 1636. The Chinese word for nickel silver was “paktong”, literally meaning “white copper”, because it is mostly made of copper and has a white-silver appearance.
Through trading with Europeans, nickel silver showed up in Germany around 1750. In 1823, there was a competition to perfect nickel silver so it would be more visually appealing, essentially more “silver.” The Henniger brothers of Berlin and Ernst August Geither of Schneeberg won the competition and are remembered in history as the men who perfected what we now know as nickel silver.
The copper in nickel silver makes it more ductile and resistant to corrosion while the nickel gives it the white-silver appearance. Zinc lowers the melting point, making it easier to melt. The zinc also raises the strength and hardness of the metal, making it last longer.
Nickel silver develops a brownish-green patina when exposed to oxygen and that is why when women wear “fake” jewellery their fingers turn green. It is important to keep silver in a Ziploc bag with tarnish paper and the air squeezed out in order to elongate the life of the silver.
Nickel silver may be wrought, cast, rolled, stamped, forged, drawn, extruded, and machined for all its uses.
Nickel silver has been historically used for: silverware, zippers, keys, instruments, jewellery, coins, plumbing fixtures, heating coils, pendants, pectorals, bracelets, armbands, hair plates, earrings, belt buckles, necktie slides, stickpins, tiaras, pocketknife bolsters, marine fittings, door knobs, handrails, and hub caps. Today nickel silver is used mostly for industrial and electrical purposes.
The History of Sterling Silver
Sterling silver is purer and has been around longer than nickel silver. Sterling silver is made up of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of another metal, usually copper.
Throughout history, sterling silver can be seen in Mesopotamia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It is known that Apollo and Artemis carried silver bowls in Greek mythology. That was at least 2700 years ago, dating back to 3rd millennium BC.
Sterling silver became popular in Europe around the 12th century, near northern Germany. The first legal definition of sterling silver came around in 1275. It used to be known as “easterling silver” and was later cut to just sterling silver, as it is known today.
Between 1634-1776 sterling silver was used widely in colonial America for buckles and coffee pots. Meanwhile, starting in the 16th century, forks became very popular in Italy and France. People had always had silver knives and spoons but used their fingers for most foods. When the silver fork was invented, people started using it from Italy to France and changed the world of proper dining. Dining etiquette became very important and it was frowned upon if you were still using fingers. Forks, knives, and spoons were now meant to be used all the time, at every meal.
By the time the 18th and 19th centuries rolled around, sterling silver was extremely important to a person’s social status. It showed they had power and wealth and that they were important. Everybody who was anybody owned sterling silver. And not just one dining set for a family, but hundreds of pieces of sterling silver to host large dinner with lots of courses.
It was not uncommon for people of the Victorian era, 1840-1940, in both Europe and the United States, to host meals with 5-18 courses. Throughout those meals, there were several wine glasses, champagne glasses, forks, knives, and spoons of sterling silver used. In addition to dinner forks, there were many other special forks, such as medium, dessert, fish, oyster, lobster, terrapin, salad, berry, pie, fruit, ice cream, beef, sardines, bread, olives, asparagus, pickles, etc. The list is practically endless.
Meals would last for hours and hours with all those courses. The more food a person had to serve, and the more sterling silver they had to serve with, the wealthier and more powerful they looked. Wealth and power were very important for social status.
It was also popular to have church silver, tankards, beakers, tea sets, tea caddies, trays, salvers, porringers, braziers, and candlesticks made of sterling silver. Social status was a big deal during the Victorian era and owning lots of sterling silver was a good way to show that you had money. It has the highest metallic lustre of all the metals and that is why it is so desirable.
It was also important to have sterling silver serving ware. You needed spatulas, soupspoons, cake knives, etc.-all in sterling silver.
The status of sterling silver as flatware declined in the 1950s due to life becoming busy and people not having time for such long, luxurious meals.
Sterling silver is not only a popular metal for flatware but also palaces, cathedrals and temples. Many buildings throughout Asia, Europe, and America contain sterling silver for its durability and shine. Sterling silver is also very popular with coins and jewellery in today’s society.
Silver has been an important part in the world’s history. Silver has helped the world grow economically, socially, and aesthetically. Silver has literally given us currency with coins. It has given us the ability to show-off our social status with our without it. It has given us beauty in jewellery and architecture.
It is funny because nickel silver is not really silver, technically, but only has the appearance. Yet, it is still categorised as a silver metal. The copper-nickel-zinc metal has had many uses throughout history, all thanks to the Chinese. Just think, would our electricity be the same without nickel silver? It is interesting to think how one thing can affect another, and they may not even seem relatable on the outside.
Sterling silver, on the other hand, has been more useful to the eye, whereas nickel silver was more useful for making things. Sterling silver was extremely important during the Victorian era with all the silverware needed to impress society. It is also interesting how time has changed and sterling silver has less meaning at the dinner table, but more meaning on our bodies-our jewellery.
In any case, you can see how the history of nickel silver and sterling silver has evolved over time. Silver has brought society together through discovery, trading, competitions to better it, creating new things, buying it, sharing it, and even changing it. The durability, beauty, malleability, and strength has given silver high quality and made it highly desirable. No matter what the desire may be, it will always be desirable in some type of way. It has proved itself with zippers, plumbing parts, coins, jewellery, silverware, etc.-and it will continue to prove itself time and time again.
As long as humans can continue to create and be innovative, silver will never disappoint. The history of nickel silver and sterling silver has been fascinating, but what the future holds can be even more fascinating. As fashion trends change, so will jewellery making. Who knows what the world will come up with next.