(Silver prices poll updated with additional executive price targets.)NEW YORK ( TheStreet ) -- Gold was the hot metal in 2010 but silver has grabbed the early lead in the race to be 2011's precious metal winner. As gold prices struggle to hold new highs, silver prices are on a tear, reaching 31-year highs and up 31% already this year, but these levels are still a far cry from their $50 record. Silver hit an all-time high of $50 an ounce in 1980 after the famous (or infamous) Hunt brothers bought the metal aggressively for 7 years; at one time owning more than 200 million ounces of silver. The silver bubble burst soon thereafter, shedding 50% of its value almost immediately, and over the last 30 years the metal has traded as low as $4. The appeal of silver is three-fold. Often called the "poor man's gold," silver performs the role of a hard asset -- a form of money that retains more value than paper currencies. Silver, like gold, is also a safe-haven asset. There's been a lot of safe-haven headlines of late with the explosion of violence in the Middle East, rising food prices, riots, inflation, conflict between North and South Korea, a nuclear disaster in Japan and high unemployment.
Silver is also an industrial metal, with about 60% of its usage coming from the sector, which makes the metal a good play on a global economic recovery. Experts say, however, that industrial demand will not likely be as big of a support to higher silver prices in 2011 as it was in 2010, forcing investment demand to pick up the slack, So far, no problem. The iShares Silver Trust ( SLV) has added more than 280 tons so far in 2011 as traders jumped in. There have also been rumors that Asian buyers were gobbling up shares of the SLV in order to take physical delivery, which they have to do in 50,000 share lots. Backwardation in the futures market, where the spot month price is higher than the future months, points to a supply crunch and has been a green light for some traders that silver is headed higher.