Silver: The Medical Metal

Silver is a precious metal with many uses, from jewelry to industrial applications. However, not many people are aware of silver’s medicinal properties. It’s actually a great healer, but it is not without its side-effects.

When it comes to medicine, silver’s secret is the oligodynamic effect – a mechanism that makes heavy metal ions antimicrobial. Scientists aren’t 100% sure how the oligodynamic effect works, but many theorize it has to do with the metal ions irreversibly damaging important enzymes within the microbes. Other metals, such as lead and mercury, also exhibit the oligodynamic effect. But unlike these other metals, silver is the least toxic to humans.

In any case where bacteria or infections are a threat, silver can prove to be very helpful – and it is used as such. Centuries ago, people recognized silver’s antibacterial properties and stored milk, wine, and other perishables in silver containers. In modern times, silver lined or coated medical devices – like catheters, breathing tubes, and prostheses – have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of infection.

Because of silver’s effective antimicrobial properties, many types of liquid suspensions and ointments were developed and used to treat both topical and internal diseases and infections. However, this was largely discontinued not only because of the development of safe and effective antibiotics, but because of health concerns – namely, a condition called Argyria. When silver solutions are repeatedly ingested – or even topically applied, as in some cases – they can be absorbed by the body’s soft tissues and cause a permanent blue/gray discoloration of the skin known as Argyria.

In light of this risk, silver is no longer used in actual medicines. Still, it is very useful in purifying solutions and creating infection-free environments.

The Legend of the Staffordshire Hoard

In 2009, Terry Herbert decided to try his hand at treasure hunting in a field near Lichfield in Staffordshire. A member of the local metal detector club, Herbert followed all the proper procedures – including getting permission from the landowner, Fred Johnson. Herbert set out, sweeping the field with his metal detector, hoping to find some lost jewelry. Instead, he stumbled upon the largest Anglo-Saxon gold hoard ever discovered.

Over the course of five days, Herbert filled 244 bags with artifacts. It seemed as if the treasures were endless, so Herbert contacted archeologists who began excavation of the field. The find was so big; the location of the excavation was initially kept secret. Eventually, the word got out and the world was talking about the Staffordshire Hoard – as it had come to be known.

After months of work, the entire hoard was excavated, which amounted to 3,500 pieces of treasure. Interestingly, the entire hoard is martial, or military related. It contains no domestic items, jewelry, coins, or anything of the like. Aside from a few crosses, the treasure is all swords, armor, helmets, scabbards, and other military items. However, the items were not likely partitioned to standard soldiers; the equipment, dating back to about the 7th or 8th century, was exemplary of the finest metalwork of the time. And of course, it contained a lot of gold.

To this day, experts are still unsure of the purpose of the Staffordshire Hoard. Theories range from a religious offering, to buried treasure that the owners never returned to uncover, to a trophy collection representative of many victorious battles.

All together, the treasure was valued at approximately $5 million. Both Herbert the finder and Johnson the landowner received half a share of the treasure’s value. Today, the Staffordshire Hoard is on display or on loan to a number of museums, including the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in England and the National Geographic Museum in the US.

The Art of Gold Plating

The art of plating – coating an object with a thin layer of another (usually precious) material – has been around for thousands of years as a staple technique in the world of art and jewelry making. Gilding, or gold plating, is perhaps the most popular plating technique of all.

In modern times, there are many different ways to gild an object with a layer of gold. Electroplating and a number of chemical methods are all valued techniques for industrial gilding projects (e.g. making gold electrical contacts). More artistic projects, however, tend to favor the ancient techniques of mechanical gilding.

As the name implies, mechanical gilding relies on more elbow grease than its electro and chemical counterparts. As you may know, gold is an extremely malleable metal – which is the reason it’s so easy to plate things with. The first step to any gilding project is to pound the gold to be used as thin as possible (using modern techniques, this can be thinner than a sheet of paper) into gold foil. Afterward, they’re a few options for plating the gold onto a piece of art or jewelry.

In ancient times, artisans used the simple method of hammering the foil directly onto the piece. However, hammering alone was not sufficient to gild all types of material. So, gilding techniques evolved. Polished metal surfaces could be gilded if they were heated to just under their melting temperatures, and then pressed with gold foil. Other surfaces required a thin coating of gesso – a type of adhesive made of ground gypsum, chalk, and glue – to make the gilding permanent. For wood or paper surfaces (like illuminated manuscripts) grinding the gold into powder and mixing it with a binder made an easy to apply gilding substance.

The work of a skilled gilder can make an object appear to be made of solid gold. Manhattan Gold & Silver uses a number of assay types to determine gold content. Of these, a simple scratch test works best to determine if a piece is gilded or solid gold. If you discover your gold jewelry is gold plated, don’t fret! The most common gilded metal in jewelry making is silver, so your jewelry may still have some solid value.