A major watershed of silver production
was the discovery of the New World in 1492, after which time
major silver mines in Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru were opened
leading to a rapid rise in the annual world production of
silver. This rise, coupled with improved techniques for extracting
silver from ore, broadened both the quality and quantity of
ore that could be exploited. Later improvements, particularly
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, vastly enhanced
the base of silver production and accelerated the exploitation
of silver as a byproduct of base-metal mining.
Only about 25 percent of cumulative world silver production
occurred before the 1770s. Records remain somewhat incomplete
for the periods before 1900, however they play a critical
part in determining cumulative historical production. To learn
more, select from the following periods of time. Material
adapted in part from the Silver Institute's Stocks of Silver
Around the World publication.
Old World Silver (4000 BC - 1500 AD)
The area of Anatolia
(modern Turkey) is considered the first major source of mined silver, having provided
the resource to craftsman throughout Asia Minor. Silver from the Anatolian region
largely served as the source of silver for the Western cultures flourishing in
the Near East, Crete, and Greece.
Silver craftsmanship was centered largely
in Asia Minor and Greek Islands, along with areas of mainland Greece dominated
by the Mycenaean culture. Asia Minor provided most of the supply for the flourishing
A concentrated effort to mine silver began sometime after
3000 B.C. The first sophisticated processing of silver ore was attributed to the
Chaldeans in about 2500 B.C., who used a "cupellation" process to extract silver
from lead-silver ores. The need for traditional silver (particularly for the flourishing
Minoan and later Mycenaean civilizations) resulted in the location and exploitation
of silver deposits in what is now Armenia
After the catastrophic destruction of the Minoan (Cretan)
civilization in 1600 B.C. and the decline of the Mycenaean
culture around 1200 B.C., the focus of silver production changed.
The mines of Laurium (near Athens) became the leading production
center and provided silver for the burgeoning Greek civilization.
Further, the silver trade throughout Asia Minor and North
Africa expanded significantly after the 8th century B.C.
The Laurium mines were highly productive; estimates from historical writings and
physical evidence from old mine dumps indicate silver production to have been
about 1 million troy ounces per year at Laurium during the height if production
(600 B.C. to 300 B.C.). In fact, for about 1,000 years ending around the 1st century
A.D., the Laurium mines were the largest individual source of world silver production.
Outside the Laurium mines, production was concentrated mainly in Asia Minor, Sardinia,
other Grecian locations and, to a limited extent, in Asia.
following the heyday of Greek mining in Laurium included the Carthaginians’ exploitation
of Spanish silver. After the Punic Wars, the Romans replaced the Carthaginians
as the exploiters of Spanish silver and extended their silver mining to other
areas of continental Europe.
Spanish mines became a critically important
source of silver for nearly 1,000 years, thought their exploitation was halted
temporarily by the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century A.D. The Spanish
mines not only provided a substantial portion of domestic needs of the Roman Empire
until 476 A.D. but also served as a critical source of silver for the Asian spice
trade. To meet the burgeoning trading requirements, Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy
supplemented the Spanish production.
The Moorish invasion of Spain necessitated
that the exploitation of silver move to a broader spectrum of countries, principally
in Central Europe. Several major silver mine discoveries occurred between 750
and 1200 A.D., including the classic Schemnitz, Rammelsburg, Goslar, and Saxony
regions in Germany. Concurrently, discoveries of silver were made in Austria-Hungary
and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Based on the analysis of available literature and historical
records, the production levels from 300 B.C. to 1000 A.D.
are not likely to have risen significantly from the estimated
1.5 million troy ounces per year levels of the Laurium mine
era. Although mine production in Spain dominated the first
1,000 years A.D., it was balanced by the decline in production
at Laurium and Asia Minor. The real expansion in production
occurred in the 500-year period from 1000-1500 A.D., when
the number of mining locations and, to a lesser extent, the
improvements in mining and processing technology occurred.
New World Silver (1500 - 1875)
significant improvements in technology and discovery of the "New World" in 1492
led to a vast storehouse of mined silver that expanded silver production by nearly
an order of magnitude, most particularly in the development of the mercury amalgamation
process. The first major exploitation of "New World" silver was in the Potosi
district of Bolivia. Although the actual production from Bolivia from 1500 to
1800 A.D. is difficult to quantify accurately, Spanish records indicate that about
1 billion troy ounces were produced in this time-frame. For the same period, about
1.5 billion troy ounces were mined in Mexico with the bulk being mined from 1700
Peru’s production has been more consistent – production averaged
more than 3 million troy ounces annually from 1600 through 1800. Historically,
the Cerro de Pasco district has been among the leading sources of silver in Peru.
The Spanish produced Mexican silver beginning in the early 1500s. Production
increased significantly in the 1700s, averaging about 9 million troy ounces annually.
From 1500 through 1800, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico accounted for over 85
percent of world production and trade. The remaining production in the period
was derived largely from Germany, Hungary, and Russia, with lesser amounts from
other European countries, Chile, and Japan.
After 1850, several other
countries increased production particularly the United States with its discovery
of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Silver production continued worldwide, growing
from 40 to 80 million troy ounces annually by the 1870s.
The Rise Of North America (1876 - 1920)
The period from 1876 to 1920 represented an
explosion in both technological innovation and exploitation of new regions worldwide.
Production over the last quarter of the 19th century quadrupled over the average
of the first 75 years to a total of nearly 120 million troy ounces annually.
A good deal of the new production was added from major new discoveries in
the U.S., most notably the Comstock Lode area in Nevada, the Leadville district
in Colorado and various districts in Utah.
Similarly, new discoveries
in Australia, Central America and Europe greatly augmented total world production.
The succeeding decades from 1900 to 1920 resulted in another 50 percent expansion
in production to about 190 million troy ounces annually. These increases were
spurred by discoveries in Canada, the United States, Africa, Mexico, Chile, Japan,
and various other countries.
The explosion of technology that enabled
steam-assisted drilling, mining, mine dewatering, and improved haulage was a major
breakthrough. Further improvements in mining techniques enhanced the ability to
handle ore and allowed for exploiting larger volumes of ore that contained silver.
For example, the removal of precious metals from zinc by a technique called "fuming"
provided a way to separate economically precious metals from moderate-grade complex
The Modern Era (1921 - Present)
A variety of advances in the early
part of the last century allowed for increased production
worldwide. This was critical, as many of the high-grade ores
throughout the world had been largely depleted by the end
of the 19th century. These advances included:
Bulk mining methods, both at the surface and underground, capable of handling
large amounts of lower grade base-metal ores that contained byproduct silver.
Refinement of extraction techniques capable of separating various base-metal
concentrates from ores.
Improved techniques in ore separation, notably
froth flotation (post 1910) that allowed for concentration of silver in lead,
zinc, and copper concentrates.
Improvements in electrorefining techniques
allowing for the easy separation of silver and other base metals from refinery
slimes, thus providing an increasingly important source of silver.
the explosion in the production of these various base-metal sources throughout
the 20th century led to an increasing output of silver-bearing residue and ultimately,
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