One of the crucial turning points in human history was the invention of the silver coin. For centuries, circulating silver bullion coins formed the backbone of international commerce and everyday trade. Today, silver bullion coins serve as an investment vehicle instead of circulating at face value.
How did we get here? Is the popularity of silver metal for coinage simply an accident of history? What makes silver coins so special and useful? All of these themes will be explored below.
Characteristics of Silver Coins
All silver bullion coins share a set of basic characteristics:
- They are government-issued and have legal tender status
- They have intrinsic value based on the weight of their silver content
- They are either intended for investment or collecting (modern), or were used in everyday commerce and trade (prior to the 1960s)
The Origins and History of Silver Coins
The earliest recorded coin was the Lydian stater, in the 6th century BC. These first coins used a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy known as electrum. The Lydian Empire controlled the major trade routes between Asia and Europe across the Bosporus Straits. Inventing a uniform, portable form of wealth facilitated long-distance trade. Highly pure gold coins from the Lydian and Persian empires eventually replaced the electrum coins.
The first widespread use of silver coins occurred in ancient Greece. Greek city states, especially Athens, leveraged their native silver deposits to create coins that were useful in everyday life, unlike highly valuable gold coins. In due time, silver coins became the dominant currency throughout much of the ancient world, including civilizations as distant as India and the Chinese dynasties.
The early modern world saw silver coins from continental Europe like the Maria Theresa thaler or the Spanish eight reales gain international acceptance. As the Autro-Hungarian and Spanish empires declined, the British Empire grew to dominate the world. Sterling silver (.925 fine) circulating British coins became the new silver bullion trade coins. Even nations on the Gold Standard in the 19th and early 20th centuries minted millions of silver coins each year to support their economies. The permanent rise in the price of silver beginning in the 1960s led to the debasement, then abolition, of circulating silver coins.
Why Was Silver Used for Coins in the First Place?
The reasons why silver is so well-suited for coins may not be obvious. After all, about half of modern silver demand comes from industrial sectors. The most common place a person today will encounter silver is in jewelry. Of course, this wasn't always so.
A few factors that led to silver being coined into currency are its recognizable color, relatively high malleability, and its nearly universal value to human societies. People who remember when silver coins circulated freely know that silver gave those coins an intrinsic value independent of their face value. Silver dollar coins were even used to back paper currency known as silver certificates for a time. The certificates could be redeemed on demand for circulating 90% silver coins.
The Advantages of Using Silver for Coins
When struck into coins by a government entity, silver meets all of the criteria needed for sound money:
- Silver is uniform, or fungible, meaning equal quantities of silver of the same purity are interchangeable.
- Silver is portable, making it easy to transport across long distances.
- Silver is durable, so it won't spoil or degrade over time in storage.
- Silver's natural scarcity gives it intrinsic value.
- Silver's value made it the only viable choice for fractional coins with intrinsic value.
- Silver has been widely recognized and accepted as money throughout history.
- Silver Coins Were Useful for International trade.
Archaeologists and historians have found empires and kingdoms throughout the ancient world that minted silver coins. We already noted that silver coins originated in Asia Minor. The Ancient Romans regularly issued silver coins across many centuries. Macedonia’s famous Alexander the Great helped spread the circulation of silver coins beyond the Greek world to Persia and India. When the Ottoman Empire conquered the Persians in the 15th century, silver coins were still the most common medium of exchange for trade across the Middle East. By the colonial period, the silver coins in use across Spanish America also became a standard for trade, even in foreign countries.
Modern Government-Issued Silver Coins
During the 1960s and 1970s, rising silver prices forced governments to remove silver coins from circulation.Instead of circulating, the silver coins were being hoarded by the public as an investment. Coins that had previously contained “coin silver” (.900 fine silver) were now made from cheaper alloys, usually some combination of copper, nickel, zinc, and steel, or of aluminum. The removal of circulating silver coins removed the supply of silver available to ordinary people, but the demand for silver as an investment remained.
In response, the 1980s saw governments introduce several new bullion coin programs and semi-numismatic bullion coin series expressly intended for investors. Chief among these were the Chinese Silver Panda (1983), American Silver Eagle (1986), and Canadian Silver Maple Leaf (1988). On some occasions, however, these coins have become collectible. Some countries also issue special proof varieties of the flagship bullion version of their coins for collectors.
Where Are Modern Silver Coins Made?
Two of the first entrants into the silver bullion coin market were United States Mint silver coins and Chinese silver coins - specifically, the Chinese Silver Panda coin. However, the top two best-selling silver bullion coins are the Silver Eagle and the Canadian Silver Maple LeafThe Perth Mint in Australia is a leading producer of semi-numismatic silver bullion and proof coins. The Perth Mint is Australia's official bullion mint, as opposed to the Royal Australian Mint, which strikes circulating coins.
How Are Silver Coins Made?
In the earliest days, silver coins were made by putting pieces of silver between two dies, stacking the dies on an anvil, and hitting the top die with a hammer. These were naturally called "hammered coins". Some areas, notably China, cast their silver coins in molds. The first mechanically-produced (milled) coins were produced in the mid-16th century, with the invention of the screw press. Human-powered and horse-powered screw presses remained the primary way of striking coins through the middle of the 19th century, when steam-driven presses replaced them.
Coin designs have grown more detailed and sophisticated over time to match the advancement in coin minting technology. Many coin designers (known as medalists) were also accomplished sculptors. Some famous coin designers, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, began their artistic career as skilled miniature portrait engravers. A.A. Weiman, who studied under Saint-Gaudens, was a famous sculptor and medalist before designing two of the most popular coins in U.S. history - the Walking Liberty half dollar, and the Mercury dime. Today, coin dies are modeled in 3-D on a computer, then engraved by automated CNC milling machines.
Collectable Silver Coins
Some silver coins have numismatic value greater than their intrinsic metal value -- in other words, collectible appeal. Proofs and older coins are often more likely to have additional market value to collectors. One popular old coin to collect is the Morgan silver dollar. Morgan dollars were minted in the United States between 1878 and 1921. The series is now widely collected and remains popular in the numismatic industry.
Many modern proof silver coins and collectible coins are based on a bullion counterpart. Nearly every 1 oz silver proof and collectible coin from the Royal Canadian Mint is based of their flagship bullion coin, the Silver Maple Leaf. The Perth Mint restricts total mintage of the 1 oz versions of their popular silver bullion series, the Silver Kookaburra, Silver Kangaroo, and Silver Koala, to add numismatic value. Bullion coins like these, that have designs that change every year and are more expensive than other silver bullion coins, are known as "semi-numismatic" coins. The best example of creating proof and collectible versions of silver bullion coins is the Perth Mint Australian Silver Lunar coin series. These coins come in various sizes, with bullion, proof, reverse proof, and colorized versions.
Other Forms of Silver Bullion
Silver coins are not the only way for investors to gain exposure to physical silver bullion. Two other popular options are silver bars and silver rounds. The former are exactly what they sound like: rectangular bars made of highly pure silver. Silver rounds are often confused with silver coins. This is because rounds look very similar to coins, and weigh the same 1 troy oz of silver. Technically, they are silver medallions. They are usually .999 fine silver, although you'll also see .925 fine sterling silver art rounds, as well. Unlike silver coins, silver rounds are not legal tender. They are not issued by a government and have no face value. Rounds have one advantage over coins despite this drawback: Silver rounds (and bars) usually have a lower premium over spot than silver coins of comparable weight.
Why Are Silver Coins an Investment?
Precious metals are frequently touted as an investment that protects against volatility in equities and promotes asset diversity. The high entry level for investing in gold makes silver investment a more logical choice many people. With either metal, most retail investors prefer government-issued bullion coins for the peace of mind that they provide. Due to their legal tender status, silver (and gold) bullion coins have certain protections and guarantees under the law that silver bars and silver rounds do not enjoy.
Bullion coins are categorized as "investment coins" because their face value is completely symbolic. Instead, they are issued expressly for investors to gain exposure to precious metals. For these purposes, it's often popular to purchase bulk coins of 20 or more. This even helps customers get a small discount on the cost per coin.
Overall, silver's low correlation with most traditional financial assets makes it a useful store of wealth over the long run. Moreover, as both industrial and investment uses of silver increase over time, there is also upside potential for this tangible asset. Gainesville Coins has exclusive design silver rounds, silver bars, and silver coins for sale, in addition to silver bullion from various governments and international refineries.
Buy Silver Coins The Easy Way
Gainesville Coins makes buying silver bullion or collectible coins easy. We are the industry leader in accepting cryptocurrency in payment for precious metal products. We accept Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ethereum Classic, Litecoin, and Dash for both domestic and international orders. International orders can also be paid for by bank wire. Domestic orders can be paid by credit card, check, or bank wire, in addition to cryptocurrency.
Gainesville Coins sells everything from large gold bars to old silver dimes at low, low prices.We ship precious metals to 47 countries worldwide. We probably ship to yours!