If you’re shopping for silver, you may have come across the term “sterling silver”. But what is it? And how is it different from any other kind of silver?
We’re going to take a look at everything you need to know about sterling silver versus silver. And by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll be ready to shop for silver with confidence.
So step this way to find out more!
What is silver?
We’re all familiar with silver. The white metal is so well known, we even use it to describe a color. But what exactly is it?
Silver is a chemical element with the symbol Ag, from argentum, the Latin word for “shiny” or “white”. Silver has the atomic number 47 and, aside from its attractive appearance, it has a number of properties that make it quite special.
It’s more reflective than any other metal, and it’s also the best at conducting heat and electricity. And it is found in several different forms in the Earth’s crust.
Some silver is found “native” – i.e. in its pure state. It’s also found as an alloy, mixed with other metals like gold. And it’s a constituent of a number of minerals, including chlorargyrite and argentite.
It’s been used by humans since prehistoric times for coins, precious objects and jewelry. In modern times, its many and varied uses include in solar panels and photography, as a catalyst in chemical reactions, and to color stained glass.
What about sterling silver?
As we’ve seen, silver exists in nature in different forms, either alone or mixed with other metals and minerals. That means that you can get silver at different levels of purity.
The purity of silver is gauged using the per-mile scale, also referred to as its “millesimal fineness”. This tells you how many parts out of every thousand are pure silver. The higher the figure, the purer the silver and the more valuable it is.
Sterling silver is a specific purity of the silver. It is 925 on the per-mile scale, or 92.5 percent pure silver. The remaining 7.5 percent of the metal is usually copper, or sometimes nickel.
Marks signifying sterling silver
Some silver carries hallmarks that can tell you the purity of its composition. A three-digit number stamped on the silver will tell you its millesimal fineness. If you’re looking for sterling silver, therefore, you’ll want to see “925” stamped on the silver.
Depending on where the item has come from, it may carry other marks as well, or instead of, the three-digit number. You’ll sometimes see the letters “stg” or the words “sterling silver” or “sterling” printed on larger pieces. But note, if the mark simply reads “silver”, it may not be sterling standard.
In the US, you may find variations on the “925” mark. Sterling standard silver may also be stamped “.925” or “S925”.
In the United Kingdom, sterling silver items have been marked with a lion passant (a standing lion) since the fourteenth century. In France, the head of Minerva denotes a silver item with a purity of sterling or lower.
How do you test whether an item is silver?
Marks like the ones described above are one way to get a good indication of whether an item is silver. But what do you do if you’re not sure if the marks are trustworthy? And what if your item doesn’t have any markings at all?
There are a number of ways to test whether an item is silver. One simple way is to listen to it! When you strike sterling silver it will produce a clear, high-pitched ringing tone, lasting for one to two seconds.
You can carry out this test with a metal coin. Just don’t hit it too hard! Remember, silver is a soft metal. You don’t want to discover it’s the real thing by putting a big dent in it!
Conductor of heat
Silver, as we know, is also an extremely good conductor of heat. If you want to test a small item, you can use this to your advantage with the ice cube test.
Place the item you want to test on a flat surface. Then place an ice cube on top of it. At the same time, place a second ice cube flat on the surface.
Because silver is such a good thermal conductor, it will absorb heat from the environment and transfer it to the ice. If the ice cube on top of your item melts faster than the other ice cube, your item may well be silver.
You can also use your sense of smell to test if something is silver. Give it a good sniff! Silver doesn’t have an odor, but copper does. The small amount of copper in sterling silver isn’t detectable by the human nose. But if the metal contains larger quantities of copper, you’ll smell it.
Last but not least, there’s the magnet test. Silver isn’t magnetic, and neither is copper. So if a magnet sticks to your item, it isn’t made of silver.
How do you test the purity of silver?
If you know your item is silver, but aren’t sure how pure it is, you have a couple of options.
The first is to get your item X-rayed. For this, it will need to be sent away to a lab, so it does take a little time. It will carry a cost too.
It is, however, pretty accurate on most items. But note that some kinds of layering and plating can obscure the result.
Another approach is to use a chemical testing kit. This does, however, mean you’ll need to remove a small amount of metal from the surface of your item. Find somewhere where the mark will be as inconspicuous as possible.
Wear gloves when using chemicals. Most silver testing kits use nitric acid. Place a small amount of nitric acid on the spot where you’ve scraped away the surface. If it turns bright green, the metal isn’t silver.
If it turns pale green, the item is between 65 and 75 percent silver. If the item is made of between 75 and 90 percent silver, it will turn gray. And at 90 to 100 percent silver – which would include sterling silver – it will turn a cream color.
If your home tests aren’t giving you a clear result, you can always take your item to a jeweler. They can send it to a lab, who can conduct a range of tests to give you a definitive answer.
Is sterling silver the best?
It is possible to get silver up to 99.9 percent purity, but it does have its drawbacks, especially for jewelry. Very high purity silver has a slightly grayer color and is quite soft, making it vulnerable to bending and scratching.
Very pure silver is best used for items like earrings and necklaces. For items worn on or near the hands, like rings or bracelets, sterling silver is stronger and more durable. On the plus side, pure silver items are very resistant to tarnish.
You’ll also find silver in many other grades. In Britain, Britannia silver is rarer than sterling, and has a purity of 95.8 percent. In continental Europe, you’ll find silver items with purities anywhere from 80 percent upwards.
Coins usually have a purity of between 80 and 90 percent. The addition of other metals means they’ll wear down less quickly over time.
There is also a specific kind of silver known as “coin silver”, which has a purity of 90 percent. This is most commonly found in antique jewelry, often stamped “900”.
Sterling silver and skin allergies
Pure silver is hypoallergenic, so it’s a good choice for people with skin allergies. But the lower the purity of the silver, the higher the proportion of other metals it will contain. These often include copper and nickel, both of which can irritate sensitive skin.
For most people with skin allergies, sterling silver jewelry won’t cause a problem. With only 7.5 percent copper in the mix, the quantity will be too small to lead to a reaction. And it’s a much better option than lower purity silver.
But if you have very sensitive skin, even that tiny amount of copper can cause irritation. In that case, you’ll want to find a hypoallergenic alternative.
Bear in mind that when used in jewelry gold, like silver, is mixed with other metals to make it harder.
The same considerations apply to gold jewelry as silver. The higher the purity (measured in karats) the less likely it will be to irritate your skin. But even high purity gold can be too much for those with extreme metal sensitivity.
A truly hypoallergenic alternative is platinum. It also has the same sort of white color as silver. But it’s a lot more expensive. At present, platinum as a raw material is more than 40 times the price of silver.
What about tarnishing?
Sterling silver provides an excellent balance between strength and purity, with a shiny finish that is very desirable. But its main drawback is that it tarnishes.
Tarnishing is a chemical reaction that occurs when silver comes into contact with compounds in the air that contain sulfur. The result is a dark coating of silver sulfide on the surface of the metal.
Tarnish can be removed with silver polish or a polishing cloth. These abrade the silver, though, so over time they will wear away its surface.
A modern solution is a new type of silver. Argentium was developed in 1991 to be resistant to tarnish.
Argentium has a minimum silver purity of 92.5 percent, the same as sterling silver. Some versions have higher silver content, at 93.5 or 96 percent. In addition to the copper in the alloy, the metal contains a small proportion of a metal called germanium.
The addition of germanium makes argentium seven times more resistant to tarnishing than sterling silver. It also has a higher melting point, and can be fused and welded more easily than sterling silver.
Argentium remains quite rare on the market, and is sold at a premium. Look for the mark of a winged unicorn to distinguish it from other metals.
If your item isn’t made of argentium, you can slow down the rate of tarnishing in a couple of ways.
One is to use your silver regularly. The friction as objects are handled or jewelry worn will inhibit the formation of tarnish.
The second is to store your silver with care. Keep it in an airtight box. A stick of chalk inside the box will absorb moisture from the air and help prevent tarnishing. And you can buy anti-tarnish strips that do the same job.
Silver and gemstones
We’ve already seen that sterling silver is harder than silver of higher purity. It’s still a relatively soft metal, however, so it needs to be handled with care. And that means that it’s not the best choice as a setting for more expensive gemstones.
That’s because the silver bends out of shape quite easily. It would be all too easy to find a claw set diamond goes missing because one of the claws has bent!
So if you’re looking for jewelry adorned with precious gems, it’s best to choose a harder metal. Gold and platinum are significantly harder than silver, making them the classic choice for jewelry of this kind.
Silver does, however, make an attractive setting for semiprecious stones. It’s often used for amber, lapis lazuli, topaz and turquoise.
Ready to choose your silver?
That brings us to the end of our low-down of everything you need to know about sterling silver versus silver!
In a nutshell, sterling silver is a particular grade of silver, with a purity of 92.5 percent. It offers a great balance between purity and practicality. It’s pure enough that it looks beautiful and won’t trigger allergies in most people. Yet it’s tough enough to avoid bending or breaking too easily.
Look for hallmarks to see what purity of silver you’re buying. And there are lots of other tests you can do at home too. If in doubt, seeking a professional assessment from a jeweler can be well worth it for your peace of mind.