Nickel silver first became popular as a base metal for silver-plated cutlery and other silverware, notably the electroplated wares called EPNS (electro-plated nickel silver). It is used in zippers, better-quality keys, costume jewellery, for making musical instruments (e.g., cymbals, saxophones), and is preferred for the track in electrically powered model railway layouts, as its oxide is conductive. It is widely used in the production of coins (e.g. Portuguese escudo and the former GDR marks, ). Its industrial and technical uses include marine fittings and plumbing fixtures for its corrosion resistance, and heating coils for its high electrical resistance.
In the 19th century, particularly after 1868, Plains Indian jewelers were able to easily acquire sheets of German silver. They used them to cut, stamp, and cold hammer a wide range of accessories and horse gear. Continuing into the present, Plains metalsmiths have used German silver for pendants, pectorals, bracelets, armbands, , conchas, earrings, belt buckles, necktie slides, stickpins, dush-tuhs, and tiaras. Nickel silver is the metal of choice among contemporary Kiowa and Pawnee metalsmiths in Oklahoma.
Early in the twentieth century, German silver was used by automobile manufacturers before the advent of steel sheet metal, i.e., the famous Rolls Royce Silver Ghost of 1907. After about 1920, its use became widespread for pocketknife bolsters, due to its machinability and corrosion resistance. Prior to this point, the most common metal was iron.
Musical instruments, including the flute, saxophone, trumpet, and French horn, can be made of nickel silver. For example, some leading saxophone manufacturers, such as Keilwerth, Selmer, , Yanagisawa, and Yamaha, offer saxophones made of nickel silver, though these are far rarer than traditional brass bodied saxophones. It is said to produce a bright and powerful sound quality; an additional benefit is that nickel silver does not require a lacquer finish. It is the most commonly used material for woodwind keys. Most clarinets, oboes and similar wind instruments have nickel silver keys, normally silver plated. It is used to produce the tubes (called staples) onto which oboe reeds are tied. It was used in the construction of the National tricone resophonic guitar. The frets of guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and related string instruments are typically made of nickel silver.
Nickel silver was first known and used in China. It became known in the west from imported wares called bai-tong or pakfong (白銅, literally "white copper"), for which the silvery metal colour was used to imitate sterling silver. According to Berthold Laufer, it was identical with khar sini, one of the seven metals recognized by Jābir ibn Hayyān.
In the 18th century, researchers found it was a copper-nickel-zinc alloy . In 1770 the Suhl (Germany) metalworks were able to produce a similar alloy. In 1823 a German competition was held to perfect the production process: the goal was to develop an alloy that possessed the closest visual similarity to silver. The brothers Henniger in Berlin and in Schneeberg independently achieved this goal. The manufacturer Berndorf named the trademark brand Alpacca, which became widely known in northern Europe for nickel silver. About the same time in 1832, a form of German silver was also developed in Birmingham, England.
After 1840, the development of electroplating caused nickel silver to become widely used. It formed an ideal, strong and bright substrate for the plating process. It was also used unplated in applications such as cheaper grades of cutlery.
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- Neumann, B. (1903). "Die Anfänge der Argentan- (Neusilber)-Industrie und der technischen Nickelerzeugung". Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie 16: 225. doi:10.1002/ange.19030161004.
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