Beloved for its signature shine and unmatched versatility, silver is a perennial favorite as a jewelry material. Not only does silver look and feel great in a multitude of jewelry types, but it’s also more affordable than gold or platinum, making it more accessible to creators and those who love to wear it.
But where and when does the legacy of silver jewelry begin, and what can this history tell us about how silver is meant to be worn? Let’s get into the history of silver jewelry right now and see what we find.
Silver has been mined and used for jewelry since before written language and recorded history, around the 4th millennium BC. The earliest written accounts of human civilization in Mesopotamia suggest that silver was not only used as currency, but as a fashionable adornment.
How was silversmithing possible in an era with relatively crude tools? In its highest purity, silver is rather soft and malleable, allowing our ancient ancestors to work with simple stone and bronze tools to craft some exciting creations.
Silver was scarce back then, of course, due to primitive mining methods and a lack of infrastructure. Only the most wealthy, high-ranking individuals in this era would have the means to secure silver pieces for their home or wear things like chains, rings, and other accessories.
Several examples of bronze age silver remain intact today, and are worth a closer look to see that these artisans knew what they were doing despite technological limitations.
Famed classical civilizations like Greece, Rome, and Egypt are renowned for their leaps in tech, among other advancements in philosophy, science, and government.
Silver was front and center among the most popular materials of this time, right around the 2nd and 1st centuries BC when populations began to boom thanks to agricultural techniques.
Mining methods had also improved around this time, so silver was more abundant and accessible on a broader scale. Crafters turned silver into necklaces, cuffs, and bangles, while also decorating sarcophaguses and tombs with the precious metal.
This marked the first time that silver wasn’t just for the elites, but also within reach for a broader portion of the population.
Silver saw another big boost after the fall of Rome in 476, as much of the infrastructure destabilized and gold grew scarce. Silver was therefore a key jewelry material in Medieval times, captured in essence by Gothic, Romanesque, Germanic, and Byzantine traditions.
This era saw intricate brooches, pendants, multi-faceted necklaces, and legendary crowns in addition to the typical lineup of everyday accessories. Some of the best pieces of this time were commissioned by royals, noblemen, and clergy members, and are preserved to this day.
The most important developments of this era were innovation and production quality, as metallurgists and alchemists improved upon existing formulas to attain more stable and functional silver for jewelry and more.
The Sterling Standard
The Italian Rennaissance marked a big shift in ideas, industry, and the arts, with silver once again at the center of it all. The individual was exalted in the Rennaissance, with personal empowerment for one’s own family, business, and place in society.
As a result, craftsmen earned a place in a developing middle class and worked with silver in exciting new ways. Not only did jewelry makers conjure up new designs and one-off creations, but painters also produced engravings that could be used for larger scale production of jewelry through replication.
Sterling silver was also embraced more widely during this time as nation states formed and required a more universal standard of currency to facilitate commerce. The sterling standard holds strong today at 92.5% pure.
20th Century Breakthrough
A new world of art and expression opened up during the 20th century as the benefits of the industrial revolution played out. Silver was accessible to the masses, and a staple of jewelry and houseware alike.
Men and women both wore silver jewelry increasingly during this time, with combinations of new and old styles. Art Deco was the craze leading up to the Second World War, after which more contemporary and experimental styles began to emerge.
Many of these vintage silver jewelry pieces remain in circulation today. Could you be holding onto one of these classic rings, bracelets, or necklaces? Examine the hallmarks and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Make the Most of Modern Silver
Nowadays, there are virtually no limits for who can wear silver jewelry in any setting imaginable. Men and women can sport earrings, rings, stacks of bracelets, or just a classic silver chain to bring an outfit together.
Maybe there’s an era from history that inspires your search for the next item in your silver collection, or you simply want the latest and greatest designs from forward-thinking creators. With silver jewelry, there’s never a wrong answer.