Silver Ores

SIC 1044

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in mining, milling, or otherwise preparing silver ores, including the production of bullion at the mine or mill site.

Industry Snapshot

Most world silver is produced as a by-product or co-product in the mining of other metals, such as copper and gold and, to a lesser degree, lead and zincem. The outlook for silver production tends to overlap with the outlooks for other metals. Primary producers, which account for roughly one-third of world silver supply, are more vulnerable to swings in the historically volatile silver market than diversified metal producers.

Silver entered the new millennium with relatively static prices, fluctuating less than $1.00 between its high and low prices. In 2001 silver averaged $4.36 per ounce, its lowest price since 1994. It rose steadily thereafter to an average of $7.32 in 2005 and then shot up to an average of $11.62 per ounce in 2006.

In 2004, United States mines produced approximately 1,200 tons of silver with an estimated value of $184 million, down from 2002's 1,470 tons with a value of $214 million. That trend continued into 2004, with domestic mine production decreasing further to 1,200 tons of silver with an estimated value of $184 million. Figures from the Silver Institute show that U.S. production fell to 1,141 tons in 2006, the lowest silver mine production levels since the mid-1990s. Alaska had replaced Nevada as the principal U.S. silver producer. An estimated 270,000 tons of silver make up the world's resources, according to the USGS. Major producers include China, Mexico, and Australia.

There were 21 principal refiners of commercial-grade silver producing an estimated 3,100 tons of output in the mid-2000s. Approximately 30 fabricators consumed more than 90 percent of the silver used in the arts and industry. Silver is mainly an industrial metal, and industrial and technical uses of silver, including photographic materials and electrical and electronic products, are by far more in demand than aesthetic silver uses, which include jewelry, tableware, and coinage.

In the late 2000s, silver production averaged 1,230 tons of silver with a value of about $520 million in 2009. Alaska maintained its number one status as the largest producer of silver followed by Nevada. In 2007 the price of silver continued to climb reaching $13.43 per troy ounce and $15.02 per troy ounce in 2008 before trending down to $13.37 per troy ounce in 2009. Rising silver prices illustrated the strong appeal for silver exchange traded funds (ETF) created in 2006. In fact, by October 2009 ETF inventories stood at about 11,700 tons of silver, compared to 8,240 tons in 2008.

Organization and Structure

Most silver is produced from argentiferous ores--the sulfides of lead, copper, and zinc--which may contain varying amounts of silver, depending on their location. Silver is also found as deposits of native silver (usually in alloy form), as sylvanite (gold and silver telluride) ores, and in many naturally occurring minerals, including galena (lead sulfide), argentite (silver sulfide), cerargyrite (silver chloride), and others.

Extraction and Refining.
Various methods are employed to extract silver or a combination of silver and gold from ores, scrap, alloys, and used photographic materials. As most silver is a by-product of copper, lead, and zinc ore treatment, the precise process differs with each ore. In every case, however, the silver is finally collected in the form of crude silver or silver-gold bullion. The former is refined by a process involving smelting in a furnace with lead oxide, fluxes, and a reducing agent to produce a purer alloy of silver and gold called dore. An oxidized lead residue melts away in the process.

Two methods--electrolysis and parting--are used to separate silver and gold in silver-gold bullion. In electrolysis, electric current is passed through a silver nitrate water solution, with silver, gold bullion, and dore serving as the anode. In the parting method, the dore is dissolved in a bath of hot concentrated sulfuric or nitric acid. Gold is recovered from the residue, and the clear solution is treated with ferrous sulfate to precipitate the silver, which is filtered off and melted into bars. In 2001, approximately 1,100 tons of silver were recovered from recycled materials according to the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries.

Background and Development

For thousands of years, silver's aesthetic and practical value, as well as its relative rarity, have earned it a position among precious metals. As a noble metal, it resists oxidation and demonstrates excellent properties of conductivity, making it particularly useful in both ornamentation and as a practical conductor of electricity and heat for numerous applications. Although it tarnishes easily in the presence of certain sulfur compounds and scratches easily in its pure form, it is the whitest of all metals and an excellent reflector of light--capable of reflecting up to 95 percent of incident light rays in the visible spectrum. Silver's chemical symbol, Ag, was obtained from the Latin name for silver, Argentum, which means bright and shining.

Early History.
Silver was one of the first metals after gold and copper to be molded by humans, and silver artifacts have been found in Near Eastern tombs dating to 4,000 B.C. The Romans developed a method of separating silver from ore by a heating process, which was used into the Middle Ages, when silver-copper mines were exploited in central Europe. By the sixteenth century, the Spaniards had discovered enormous silver and gold deposits in Central and South America. Mexico largely supported Spanish colonial wealth until its independence in the early nineteenth century. Into the 1990s, however, much of the silver remained, leaving Mexico the world leader in silver production. Minas de las Rayas, a mine that began operating in 1558, as well as other mines and general sites, still produced silver into the 1990s. The Fresnillo Mine, owned by the state-owned company Penoles, is known as the richest silver mine in the world and has been in operation since 1550. It produced 56 percent of Penoles's total silver with a record 893 metric tons in 2001. Until the discovery of the Comstock Lode strike in the Sierra Nevada area of the United States, Central and South America almost exclusively supplied world silver. Moving into the twentieth century, silver leaders in the western world were Mexico, the United States, Canada, Peru, and Bolivia.

Silver in Recent Times.
Domestic mine production of silver in the 1980s rose to its highest level in nearly 50 years. One reason is that during this period precious metal prices stayed higher in constant dollars than during the 1970s. Also, in 1979 and 1980, silver and gold prices were unusually high, whereas the prices of other base metals were relatively low. As a result, companies used their exploration budgets to search for precious metals, and new discoveries were developed in producing mines. In the late 1980s, rising prices for metals such as copper, lead, and zinc indirectly contributed to increased domestic silver production. Higher prices were the reason some mines reopened. Other companies increased the capacity of their operations due to the fact that nearly all base metal mines contain some silver.

World silver production rose from 14,266 metric tons in 1994 to 16,200 metric tons in 1998, with a value of $338 million, an increase of more than $200 million from the previous year. Given the magnitude of price declines, however, silver output remained relatively resilient due to the large portion--up to 70 percent--typically produced as a by-product of copper, lead, zinc, and gold mining activity. Silver prices averaged $5.22 in 1999 before dipping to $4.95 in 2000.

Silver Supply and Stocks.
The U.S. Mint safeguards a majority of the country's precious metals and is the caretaker of most of the silver supply of the United States. The value and amount of silver under the protection of the mint at the end of September 2001 were 220,062 kilograms (kg) of silver carrying an approximate market value of $32.422 million (at $4.5825 per fine troy ounce).

The early 1990s saw dramatic reductions in secondary silver supply. Compared with the early 1980s, silver supply from scrap during the 1990s fell to approximately half its former level and hovered around 100 million ounces (3,215 metric tons). Reasons for the decline included lower prices, the prevalence of lower-content scrap, and restrictive sales policies on official reserves. Most secondary recovery came from photographic scrap materials, which remained economically recoverable even at $3.50 an ounce, whereas recovery of the lower silver content in electronic scrap became less desirable. Approximately 1,600 tons of silver was recovered from old and new scrap in the United States in 2002, up from a low of 1,100 tons in 2001 but somewhat lower than the year 2000 high of 1,680 tons.

Other secondary sources also declined. Most notably, the U.S. Defense Department's National Stockpile inventory of surplus silver was reduced from nearly 4,300 tons in 1982 to just under 1,100 tons in 1998. Several regulations were enacted in the early 1990s to control the rate of change and nature of the National Defense Stockpile, including a 1992 law that restricted the disposal of silver from the stockpile to coinage programs or government contractors for use in government projects. Between 1981 and 1992, 65 million ounces of stockpile silver were used for coinage programs and roughly 3.5 million ounces were delegated to contractors, according to the Silver Institute. In 1992 Dennis E. Wheeler of the Idaho-based Coeur D'Alene Mines Corp. predicted that the National Defense Stockpile's supply of silver would be gone by 1997, at which time the U.S. Mint--which since 1985 has consumed roughly 45 percent of stockpile silver--would buy the metal from domestic producers. In 2002, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) transferred the remaining balance of silver, about 200 tons, in the National Defense Stockpile to the U.S. Mint--a unit of the U.S. Department of the Treasury--to manufacture bullion and numismatic coins. The transfer of the remaining silver indicated the termination of silver requirements in the National Defense Stockpile. The Silver Institute forecasts depletion of silver stocks in the first quarter of the twenty-first century if the yearly average reduction continues as previously illustrated.

In July 2002, silver mining companies got support from Congress, however, as the Senate and the House of Representatives approved the American Silver Eagle Bullion Program Act. The legislation authorized the Treasury Department to buy silver on the open market from domestic sources to produce the Silver Eagle bullion coin after the surplus silver in the National Defense Stockpile had been depleted. The U.S. Mint was expected to purchase some 9 million ounces of silver per year to continue to produce the coin, aiding beleaguered U.S. silver mining companies.

The USGS estimated in 2002 that reserves of silver worldwide in demonstrated resources from producing and nonproducing deposits stood at 280,000 metric tons, with the United States owning 30,000 tons of that figure. The reserve base for the five top silver-producing countries--the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Peru--held an estimated 56 percent of the world total at 240,000 tons. The USGS also reported that total discovered silver resources in the United States were estimated to be 330,000 metric tons and that the amount of silver in undiscovered mineral deposits ranged from 290,000 metric tons to 660,000 metric tons.

Silver demand in the early twenty-first century was almost entirely industrial, with electrical, electronic, and photographic applications making up the majority of silver usage. Demand for silver experienced its largest drop in twenty years in the poor economic climate of the early 2000s and as its use in electronic products decreased. The 2001 consumption of silver in the United States, including scrap, was estimated at 5,300 metric tons, down from 6,049 metric tons the previous year. This drop was due in part to the decline in domestic industrial consumption, down by 480 metric tons in 2001 to 2,450 metric tons. Photography was the largest end-use application at 2,000 tons, whereas batteries, electrical, and electronic products accounted for 1,060 metric tons. Jewelry, silverplate, sterlingware, and dental and medical usage accounted for the balance of consumption. Globally, demand for silver was estimated at 27,000 metric tons in 2001, down more than 1,400 metric tons from the previous year.

In the fabrication of silverware and jewelry, 2001 worldwide demand amounted to 287.6 million ounces, up slightly from 281.4 million in 2000. Demand in this sector was significantly lowered in the late 1990s and dropped 17 percent in 1998 in India alone, where jewelry, silver gift items, and silverware make up two-third's of that nation's demand for the metal; this figure was significant enough to affect worldwide demand assessments. The 1998 decline was attributed to silver prices and poor economic conditions in India and East Asia. In the United States, demand for the fabrication sector rose to 214.4 million ounces, a rise of 13 percent. For the tenth year in a row, 1998 fabrication demand was greater than the supply from mine production and recycling. The gap was bridged by supply hedging on the part of suppliers and probably some divestment. Sales of designer jewelry and white metals including sterling silver were strong in the late 1990s, and these fashion trends and the supply of disposable income were expected to continue well past 2000.

Industrial consumption in the United States also continued to grow but at a rate that was not expected to materially affect prices. Worldwide, the industrial sector continued to be the largest consumer of silver in 2001, at 338.5 million ounces. The photography market retained its leading position as a silver end-user, with 210.2 million ounces consumed in 2001. This figure was lower than 2000 by 9.5 million ounces and was expected to further decrease as digital imaging became more widespread. The coins and medals sector accounted for 27.2 million ounces in 2001. The metal is also used for hundreds of other applications. Its excellent and long-lasting conductivity, even in high temperatures, makes it the material of choice in batteries requiring little space, long life, and high voltage, as in hearing aids, space technology, submarines, and portable television sets. Silver's germicidal properties make it particularly suitable for medical applications such as bone-replacement plates and sutures, antiseptic drainage tubes, and water purifiers. Silver's reflectivity makes it a perfect coating for high-quality mirrors. Among other uses, it also serves as a freeze-resistant alloy in diesel locomotives and airplanes and is used as a colloidal catalyst in various vapor-phase organic chemical reactions. In the early 2000s, the potential existed for silver to replace toxic chemicals in wood preservatives and marine paints being banned for their toxicity. In early 2003, the growing popularity of the flat-panel television--on the market for the previous four years--gave silver another boost as the technology is completely dependent on silver.

The particularly volatile nature of silver prices has been partly attributed to the metal's dual role as both a precious metal and an industrial material. As a precious metal, silver benefits from the same interests that influence the price of gold and other precious metals as hedges against inflation. Thus, upturns in gold prices starting in 1993 were accompanied by similar patterns in silver prices; yet silver enjoyed a bigger boost relative to gold because of the notion that, as an industrial metal, it could benefit the most in the event of an economic recovery, according to Bette Raptopoulos of Prudential Securities Inc. in American Metal Market.

Silver-free Photography.
Silver-halide salts (including silver chloride, silver iodide, and silver bromide) darken when they are exposed to light. As a result of this property, silver halide is coated on photographic film, paper, and plates, which makes the photographic industry the largest end-user by far for industrial silver. New developments in photography have some members of the silver industry uneasy. Some analysts fear that new technologies in electronic imaging that do not depend on silver-based chemistry will phase out traditional photographic practices, causing significant losses to the silver industry. Other industry observers, however, feel that such new technologies may actually offer new and related growth opportunities to silver-based imaging.

Silver and the Environment.
The mining industry in general is not one favored by environmentalists. Gold and silver mines typically operate in delicate ecosystems, causing environmental damage, disruptions in native populations, and hazards to nearby water systems. Mining companies have relied primarily on insurers offering reclamation bonds pledging to clean up land affected by mining. However, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, insurance companies became wary of such risky bonds. A 2002 rule issued by the Bureau of Land Management required the mining industry to strengthen its bonding requirements, obliging some mining outfits to show more than 100 times as much money as before so that mining cleanup would not come out of taxpayers' pockets. The mining industry reacted unfavorably to the new rule, claiming that some mines would be forced to close. Critics, however, argue that there are thousands of abandoned mines throughout the western United States, causing taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanup to streams and related environmental damage, estimated at $32 billion to $72 billion.

World Conditions.
International supply in 2001 was led by Mexico, Peru, Australia, and the United States. China (1,800 metric tons) and Canada (1,270 metric tons) also were major producers according to 2001 figures. Silver mine production increased globally in 2001, to 18,700 metric tons, up 400 tons from 2000 despite lessened silver by-product from gold mines. This increase in silver production was due to growth in several base-metal mines in Mexico, Chile, and Peru. Central and South America produced more than 6,400 metric tons of silver in 2001--about 34 percent of total world output--led by Mexico, with 2,760 metric tons, and Peru, at 2,353 metric tons. Mexico's San Sebastian silver/gold mine, located in central Mexico, produced more than 31 metric tons of silver in 2001, the year it began operation, and was expected to double that figure in 2002. The number-two silver producer, Peru, enjoyed a 9 percent increase in production largely due to the recent addition of its Antamina Mine, where 120 metric tons of silver were mined in 2001.

With the significant political changes that occurred in Eastern Europe during the early 1990s, silver production data were available from those regions for the first time. The Silver Institute estimated production in those so-called transitional economies as follows: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS--the republics that were formerly the Soviet Union) at 39.0 million troy ounces from 1992 to 1996; Poland at 28.9 million troy ounces for the same period; China at 6.4 million troy ounces; Bulgaria at 3.1 million troy ounces; and North Korea at 1.6 million troy ounces.

Between 1998 and 2001, Canada accounted for 40 percent of American imports; Mexico accounted for 37 percent, Peru for 7 percent, and the United Kingdom for 3 percent, with the remaining 13 percent from elsewhere. The United States imported 3,310 metric tons of silver and exported 963 tons in 2001. Imports for 2002 were estimated at 3,630 metric tons, whereas 2002 exports were estimated at 885 metric tons.

Between 2000 and 2003, Mexico represented 44 percent of U.S. imports; Canada accounted for 34 percent, the United Kingdom for 11 percent, Peru for 7 percent, with the remaining 4 percent from other countries. The United States imported 4,510 metric tons, while exports were reported at 181 metric tons in 2003.

Market Conditions.
Analysts expected world silver output to be affected by the closing of several zinc mines due to low zinc prices in the early 2000s. A significant amount of silver is a by-product of zinc mining. Some of the mines will remain permanently closed while others were earmarked to reopen when zinc prices rebound. Although these mines together represent a loss of only approximately 80 metric tons of silver per year, another 60 metric tons per year were lost by cuts in copper mining.

In the first half of 2002, silver prices improved some 20 percent over a low of $4.07 per ounce in November 2001. By May of 2002, silver prices were between $4.50 and $4.75 per ounce, riding a wave of excitement in the gold market. Silver producers announced new, multimillion-dollar financing while their stocks climbed to new heights. The supply of silver was expected to decrease, however, in 2002, due to a mine supply decrease resulting from mine closings, a lack of new silver mines in production, and lowered by-product silver production from reduced base-metal production.

The Silver Institute reported a slight increase in world silver mine production in 2006 at 646.1 million ounces, compared to 595.6 million ounces in 2002. Notable gains were seen in Latin America and Asia. According to figures from the New York Commodities Exchange (COMEX), during 2006 the price of silver fluctuated greatly from a low of $8.82 per troy ounce to a high of $14.85 per troy ounce; the average in 2006 was $11.62. That figure was significantly higher than in 2005, when the average price was $7.32.

The values and amounts of silver under the protection of the U.S. Mint at the end of September 30, 2003, was 220,062 kilograms of silver carrying an estimated market value of $36,190 million (at $5.1150 per fine troy ounce), and the statutory worth stood at $9.148 million.

The industrial sector continued to be the largest consumer of silver worldwide in 2006, at 430.0 million ounces. For the first time, industrial use represented more than half the total global fabrication demand for silver. U.S. consumption in the industrial sector totaled 106.8 million ounces. The use of silver in jewelry and silverware worldwide fell by 5 percent in 2006. The use of silver in the photography market worldwide fell by 10 percent to 145.8 million ounces; much of this was attributed to the rising popularity of digital imaging.

U.S. silver production of approximately 1,141 metric tons (36.7 million ounces) in 2006 represented a decrease from 1,200 tons produced in 2004 (and valued at $184 million), and 1,240 tons produced by mines in 2003.

Current Conditions

World mine production reached 684.7 million ounces in 2008, compared to 646.1 million ounces in 2006 before (four percent) increasing to 709.6 million ounces in 2009. After a slow start in 2009, a boost from implied net investment, coins and medals, silver demand gradually improved during the remainder of the year.

Between investor demand and the economic turnaround within the industrial sector, 2009 ended up being a stellar year for silver. In fact, the price of silver averaged $14.67 per troy ounce in 2009, according to World Survey 2010, up considerably from the average $11.62 per troy ounce in 2006.

Although silver demand dwindled from 218.3 million ounces used in film manufacturing in 2000 to 104.9 million ounces in 2008 plunging to 82.9 million ounces in 2009 as photographic film went digital, other areas of growth looked promising. For example, silver used as a conductor for radio frequency identification (RFID) tags such as passports or ID cards. VM Group, a commodities analytics firm projected this market to advance by some 30 billion units by 2020. Another area of perceived growth centered on solar energy, in particular, crystalline silicon solar cells that hold 1.2 grams of silver per watt of energy produced. Early predictions revealed solar energy apparatus will use an estimated 50 million ounces of silver by 2020 every year.

Industry Leaders

According to the Silver Institute, the United States was the eight-largest silver producer in 2006, having produced 36.7 million ounces (about 1,141 tons) of silver. In 2003, according to the USGS, the major U.S. producers were Nevada, with 322,000 kilograms, and California, with 958 kilograms. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah produced 916,000 kilograms that same year. The principal silver producing mines in 2003 were Greens Creek Mine, in Juneau, Alaska; Red Dog Mine in Northwest Arctic, Alaska; Rochester Mine in Pershing, Nevada; Galena Mine in Shoshone, Idaho; and Bingham Canyon Mine in Salt Lake, Utah.

According to data released by the USGS, the United States maintained its position as the eight-largest silver producer with total production of 1,230 tons or 39.8 million ounces of silver consecutively for both 2008 and 2009. Red Dog Mine surpassed Greens Creek Mine as the top producing mine in 2008, but Greens Creek Mine was able to regain its title in 2009 with production totaling 7.46 million ounces. Leading silver producing companies in 2009 were Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. producing 17.7 million ounces; Southern Copper Corp. produced 13.2 million ounces; and Hecla Mining produced 11.0 million ounces.


Throughout the mid- to late 2000s, industry-wide employment remained at 900 employees before falling to 850 employees in 2009.

America and the World

The worldwide silver mine production leaders in 2006 were Peru (111.6 million ounces), Mexico (96.4 million ounces), and China (75.4 million ounces). Australia (55.6 million ounces); Chile (51.5 million ounces); Poland (40.4 million ounces); Russia (39.6 million ounces); the United States (36.7 million ounces); and Canada (31.2 million ounces) were among the other leading producers.

According to the Silver Institute, the leading silver producing countries in descending order for 2009 were Peru (123.9 million ounces); Mexico (104.7 million ounces); China (89.1 million ounces); Australia (52.6 million ounces); Bolivia (42.6 million ounces); Russia (42.2 million ounces); Chile (41.8 million ounces); the United States (39.8 million ounces); Poland (39.2 million ounces); and Kazakhstan (21.7 million ounces).

Research and Technology

Economic conditions were beginning to improve by the mid-2000s, and with that came the introduction of new technology. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use AgION's Silver Antimicrobial Type AK on its "list of food contact substances." This would include the highest amount of silver permitted by the FDA for "repeat-use articles," such as food storage equipment, appliances, and beverage dispensation equipment. With the heightened concern over food safety and the "zero tolerance policy on spoilage bacteria," treatment with the AgION Antimicrobial during production would minimize bacterial levels in between each use. A petition also was presented before the European Safety Authority requesting that the same method be used in European Union countries. This trend was expected to continue with further upcoming introductions and uses of silver-based biocides, which were currently being used in the architectural arena.

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