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Silver ore rarely exists as pure nuggets. It is almost always found in existence with other metals, such as gold, copper, lead and zinc, or other elements and alloys, such as sulphur, arsenic, antimony, chlorine, argentite, and galena. For this reason, 50% of the silver mined today is as a by-product of other mining operations. The value and amount of these secondary products impacts upon the viability of each individual mining operation.
Silver mining methods
There are two basic methods of mining for silver. The most common of these is an open pit, which is used extensively in South American mines. Underground excavation is the second method of mining silver and is more common in silver-rich Poland.
Because mines excavate more than the pure metal element, refinement is needed to produce pure silver, and mining operations normally include ore crushing and extraction processing. The two most common extraction methods are smelting, and electrolytic refining of copper (floatation). Chemical leaching can be used, and mercury amalgamation used to be a popular way to refine silver ore, but due to mercury’s toxicity this is prohibited in most countries.
Silver mining history
There is evidence that mining for silver took place over 5,000 years ago. Early mines existed from 3,000 BC, in Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey.
The precious metal enabled early civilisations to flourish in the 'Near East' of Ancient Greece and Rome. Around 1,200 BC, the Laurium mines (in Greece) became the leading centre of silver production. The Roman occupation of Britain also lead to extensive extraction of silver from lead ore within years of the conquest.
In South America, the ancient indigenous peoples of the Andes were highly skilled silver miners, with a knowledge of metallurgy - even before the lands were discovered by Columbus. After he landed in 1492, the Spanish were quick to exploit the continent's rich veins of precious metals, turning Spain into the major world power. Their discovery led to wars and confrontations which shaped the world, as other nations sought a share in the Spanish plunder.
Rich veins were also discovered in North America and, following the 1849 California Gold Rush, vast deposits of silver were discovered in 1859, in the Comstock Lode, Nevada. Using new excavation techniques, like square set timbering, and extraction methods, such as the Parkes Process, these deposits added to the United States' wealth, and the growth of Nevada and San Francisco.
The 1840s saw the start of mining in Australia, whilst in the early twentieth century new deposits were discovered in Europe, South Africa and Central America.
The world’s largest silver mines
Today, the largest silver mines are in Mexico and Poland, with six of the top 10 silver mines in the world located in one of these two countries.
Below are the top 10 silver mines (by production) in the world, with the parent nations in bold:
- 1) Penasquito, Mexico - open
- 2) Polkowice-Sieroszowice, Poland - underground
- 3) San Cristobal, Bolivia - open
- 4) Pitarrilla, Mexico - open
- 5) Lubin, Poland - underground
- 6) Rudna, Poland - underground
- 7) Gumuskoy, Turkey - open
- 8) Fresnillo, Mexico - underground
- 9) Antamina, Peru - open
- 10) Cannington, Australia - underground
Where does the most silver come from?
Mexico, followed by Peru, are the leading national silver producers. The chart below uses data from the US Geological Survey to illustrate just how much silver was produced in 2017 and by which nations.
Please note: This data is released post-Q1 on an annual basis. The page, and charts, will be updated accordingly once the latest information has been released.
Below are the top 10 silver producing nations in the world:
- 1) Mexico - 5,600 metric tonnes
- 2) Peru - 4,500 metric tonnes
- 3) China - 2,500 metric tonnes
- 4) Russia - 1,600 metric tonnes
- 5) Poland - 1,400 metric tonnes
- 6) Australia - 1,200 metric tonnes
- 7) Chile - 1,200 metric tonnes
- 8) Bolivia - 1,200 metric tonnes
- 9) Kazakhstan - 1,200 metric tonnes
- 10) US - 1,020 metric tonnes
Based on estimated 2017 data by the US Geological Survey.