Dampen the dust and cool the drill bits. They’re eight feet long, clattering on the rock like steel spears. I ask a gray smudge how long he’s been drilling. “Twelve years.” His voice sounds brittle in my ringing head; for me, twelve minutes would be enough.
Silver ore is ground to dust, loosed from barren rock in tanks of foaming water and chemicals, and recovered as ash gray sludge. Refineries turn this into silver grains, then gleaming bars the size of bread loaves.
It’s dazzling, this metallurgical baking. A silver ingot starts out radiant orange—liq¬uid fire bubbling in an iron mold. It cools to red, hardening, then hits the refinery floor a spluttering incandescent bar. Blisters mar it: too much oxygen. A plunge into a cruci¬ble, some charcoal to draw off oxygen, and the silver pours into another mold, now smooth, lustrous, and perfect.
ASILVER INGOT, weight about 70 pounds, sorely tempts me one day in a vault of the Central Reserve Bank of Peru, in Lima. “Take any ingot you can lift with one hand,” urges a guard. But, he adds, I must lift the bar from the top; I may not scoop it up in my palm. Since even the biggest man cannot wrap his fingers much more than a third of the way around a stan¬dard ingot, I see little hope of sudden wealth. Yet silver is silver, and I try any¬way; once, twice, a third time, a fourth. . . .than just the imagination. Spanish conquis¬tadores scoured the viceroyalty of Peru for silver, and extorted a roomful from the hos¬tage Inca king. Later they mined it by the mountain at legendary Potosi, using thou¬sands of Indian slaves. And everywhere they stole it: ceremonial silver knives, silver ear ornaments, silver masks and idols.