Silver & Sterling Silver 101: Facts, Care Tips, and FAQ
A common but popular metal, silver has a long history that is wrapped within that of jewelry. It’s smoky luster and appealing color have intrigued people for centuries, and it has come a long way in terms of purity, durability, and value. Many jewelry buyers may notice “sterling silver” on certain pieces when shopping. In fact, it seems that all designer jewelers use sterling silver when seeking a casual, inexpensive metal. What is sterling silver, and how does it differ from the standard silver of decades past?
🧐Let’s talk about sterling silver and its uses in jewelry, and we’ll answer some frequently asked questions regarding silver care and its properties.
Understanding sterling silver
So what’s the difference between silver and sterling silver? Let’s take a closer look at both metals:
What is silver?
Silver is a malleable precious metal that is 99.9% pure silver and .1% other trace elements. It is one of the seven “metals of antiquity” that prehistoric humans used, but whose founding origins have been lost to time. It was one of the first metals used as currency, and it has served many practical purposes over the years.
Silver earned the moniker “the metal of the moon” due to its milky grey and white color. Not as bright as white gold and platinum, silver still shines beautifully when polished, and it can offer a cooler grey tone for gemstones that more neutral white metals lack.
The name silver comes from the Anglo-Saxon word seolfor, which was used to identify the metal. Its chemical name, argentum (AG), derives from the Latin word for silver.
While silver mines exist, most of the silver in the world actually comes from copper, zinc, and lead mines. In fact, silver is more commonly a by-product of these metals, rather than a solid deposit on it’s own!
Some uses of silver include ship anchors, dental fillings, coins, sculptures, plates and utensils, and more. Because it is so soft, it is not suitable for jewelry, and it must be combined with other metals to create more durable alloys.
What is sterling silver?
Sterling silver is one alloy that was created to increase the durability of pure silver for practical use. It is the most common alloy found in jewelry, and sterling silver’s composition is 92.5% silver, and 7.5% other metals. The 7.5% is usually copper, but it can also be zinc in certain mixtures. The introduction of these metals creates a strong, durable alloy that can withstand jewelry design and wear.
Sterling silver gets its name from one of silver’s oldest uses. In the 12th century, silver coins called “Easterlings” were used as currency, and the name was shortened to “sterling” over time.
📝Many countries have their own version of sterling silver, but the US requires at least 92.5% silver in each alloy. Set by Tiffany & Co. in the early 1900s, this standard ensures companies must create 925 sterling silver, which is high-quality and conducive to all its intended uses.
While sterling silver is a common jewelry making component, it actually had many uses over time. In fact, its biggest use was in tableware at fine dining establishments. The polished, elegant metal was seen as the peak of luxury, and many families still own and pass down a cherished set of sterling silver dinnerware to future generations.
Silver vs. sterling silver: what’s the difference?
So what is the difference between silver and sterling silver? As previously stated, pure silver is too soft to be found in jewelry. However, jewelers do create “silver plated” pieces. To silver plate a piece, jewelers use a process called electroplating to bind a thin layer of silver to a base, usually copper, nickel, zinc, or another inexpensive metal. These pieces are distinguishable from sterling silver if you use the methods below for identification.
🔍The easiest way to tell if something is sterling silver is its “hallmark” or stamping used to distinguish a metal’s purity. You’ll usually find these hallmarks inside sterling silver rings and bangles, on the backs of pendants, or near the clasps of chains.
Here is a chart to show the common silver plated, pure silver, and sterling silver hallmarks:👇🏻
|Silver Plated||Sterling Silver|
|EP or EPNS||925 or .925 (92.5% purity)|
|Silver on Copper||Sterling|
|Fine Silver (Not typically used)||Ster|
|999 or .999 (99.9% purity)||SS|
Outside of checking for sterling silver marks, you can also identify it by its darker color when compared to silver-plated or pure silver items. However, sterling silver is visibly lighter than silver plated jewelry, as the zinc or copper bases are typically heavier than the naturally light silver alloy.
👉🏻Sterling silver vs. silver: The facts of sterling silver
While it would seem like having a purer metal like silver for your jewelry would be beneficial, there are actually many reasons to prefer sterling silver over pure or plated options.
For instance, sterling silver’s color won’t fade over time. Silver-plated jewelry will last a few years—depending on your personal wear—before the plating will begin to wear off. At this point, you either need to spend more money replating it or purchase another piece. With sterling silver, you’ll never have to worry about its silvery shine fading, and as long as you clean and polish it the color will last.
Sterling silver is more expensive than silver plated jewelry, but that is because it does not have a cheaper base metal. As a result, sterling silver is technically more hypoallergenic over time than some plated options, as it has a lower nickel content than plated pieces with nickel in their base. Once the nickel base becomes visible through the plating, it could cause skin allergies. Sterling silver’s value as a resale item is also high, as it is a solid piece of alloy versus a coated metal.
Finally, while both sterling silver and silver plated jewelry tarnish, plated jewelry will tarnish faster. Because it has a higher silver content, it is more likely to oxidize at a rapid pace. Additionally, any plated piece with a copper base that has a worn coating could turn green! While sterling silver alloy will still tarnish, it can take much longer if the piece is properly cared for.
How sterling silver is used in jewelry
Although manufacturers utilize sterling silver for many products, their place in jewelry falls into two categories:
Sterling silver as jewelry
You can find sterling options for most types of jewelry, including sterling silver bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings. You’ll often find sterling silver chains as the default for most necklaces, as it is durable yet affordable and can be easily replaced if broken. Earring posts are also commonly sterling silver to provide some protection from mild skin sensitivities. Sterling silver also features prominently in fashion jewelry rather than luxury or special occasion pieces, although examples of both are still possible.😎
Sterling silver as a base metal
If sterling silver isn’t the main material used in creating a piece of jewelry, it may be the base of your metal. Jewelers use sterling silver as the base for jewelry plated with softer precious metals, such as gold or platinum. For instance, gold plated sterling silver has a strong core, so it can take a lot of wear and is perfect for rings, bracelets, or other pieces that need to maintain their shape.
You can also find rhodium-plated silver jewelry, which offers a much brighter shine than the grey sheen of silver!
White metal alternatives to sterling silver
There are a few alternatives to sterling silver if you’re looking for something a bit more luxe.
Many people prefer white gold vs. sterling silver. White gold is the next step up on the price scale, and it has an attractive, bright white sheen. Just be careful, as gold can be a bit delicate when compared to other white metals. If you’re looking for something expensive, platinum is prized as the premier white metal for jewelry and is rather sturdy. Finally, palladium is a happy medium between the two, with a high durability and a mostly affordable price tag.
Caring for your sterling silver jewelry
Sterling silver jewelry can require some maintenance, as it will oxidize and turn black over time. But, with a fixed routine, you should be able to keep your silver shiny and clean.
How to clean sterling silver
Wipe your pieces with a soft cloth and a polish designed to remove tarnish. Hardware stores and specialty craft stores can offer these materials, or you can buy them from a jeweler. Tiffany & Co. actually has a patented polishing cloth and mitt that can be used for cleaning sterling silver from any jeweler.
What else can I do to protect my sterling silver?
Here are some other care tips to prevent black tarnish buildup on your sterling silver:
- Store it in a dark place that is sealed and protected from air and water exposure.
- Avoid bringing your piece into contact with any chemical solutions, including soaps, hair products, cleaning products, or even salt water. Many chemicals can cause corrosion, so just remove your sterling silver jewelry before touching any of these liquids.
- Put your jewelry on last in the morning, after you’ve already finished your makeup, sprayed perfume or hair spray, and completed your look. At night, make sure your jewelry is the first thing you take off. Doing so ensures the least exposure to the chemicals used in your daily routine.
- Some people just have body chemistry that reacts with sterling silver, so be aware of your body! If your silver seems to react after one to two wears, consider an aggressive cleaning regimen or purchasing a less reactive metal.
❓Sterling silver FAQ
Here’s a quick wrap up of some frequently asked questions regarding sterling silver:
Is sterling silver real silver?
Yes, sterling silver is real silver. However, it is an alloy, and so it is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals (copper, nickel, zinc, etc.).
How much is sterling silver worth?
When it comes to jewelry, sterling silver is more affordable than white gold or platinum. However, if you’re looking to resell it, it’ll require a bit of math to understand a piece’s worth. Silver’s value is measured in ounces, which means you would have to weigh your item and calculate the sterling silver’s price based on the current selling rate, which changes frequently.
Does sterling silver tarnish, and how long does it take?
Yes, sterling silver does tarnish. How long it takes to tarnish depends on your personal wear. For instance, if you leave your piece exposed, spray perfume on it, or wear it in the pool, it will tarnish within a few wears. However, if you keep it safely stored and do your best to prevent chemicals coming in contact with it, it will last longer. A proper cleaning routine will also keep your silver from tarnishing prematurely.
Does sterling silver have nickel in it?
Typically, most of the 7.5% impurity is copper, but there is a chance for trace amounts of nickel in sterling silver.
Is sterling silver hypoallergenic?
Yes and no. While pure silver is hypoallergenic, sterling silver may contain nickel which is a common skin irritant. If you are allergic to nickel, it may be best to avoid wearing sterling silver jewelry unless you can 100% confirm with the jeweler that their sterling silver does not contain any traces of nickel. 💡However, most wearers shouldn’t have a problem with sterling silver jewelry.
Does sterling silver rust?
Sterling silver does not rust, but it can tarnish or corrode. Basically, sterling silver reacts with oxygen, which can cause discoloration, dulling, fading, etc. However, this will not change the chemical makeup of your piece and can be easily removed.
Is sterling silver magnetic?
Sterling silver is not magnetic, as both silver and copper are not magnetic. This is actually an easy way to distinguish between fake and authentic sterling silver. If you use a magnet on a piece, it will not react if it is real sterling silver!
Can sterling silver get wet?
You can get sterling silver wet, but it is not recommended as mentioned above. It is recommended that you do not submerge your sterling silver jewelry in water to avoid hard minerals in your water supply dulling the shine of your piece.
How can I verify a piece labeled “sterling silver” is authentic?
Aside from checking the hallmark and using a magnet, you can also check the authenticity of sterling silver by smelling it. Sterling silver does not have a natural smell, but if it does seem to have a metallic scent it could have too much copper in it. Or, rub the piece with a soft white cloth to see if any black residue comes off. If it does, it is tarnish caused by oxidation, and it is real sterling silver.
Remember sterling silver when buying your next jewelry piece
Sterling silver has been around for centuries, and it is a treasured metal with so many uses. However, its most spectacular use is jewelry, where it is bent and twisted to form some of the most intricate pieces. Thanks to Tiffany & Co., sterling silver is also much purer than other alloys, and this purity level means a higher value and more durability over time.😊
While silver is not necessarily for everyone, it’s a cost-friendly alternative to more expensive white metals like white gold, platinum, or palladium. It requires more care, but it will last just as long as other metals and can even outlive softer pieces. Sterling silver can be a finicky alloy, but it is well worth the effort to maintain its brilliant shine.