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What Does Sterling Silver Mean?

Similar in its composition and character to gold and copper, silver is a very soft, ductile and malleable metal that also takes a very high polish. While it doesn't have the hardness of gold, it still has many uses, especially when alloyed with other metals to make it harder. But what does sterling silver mean? 

Silver is one of the seven metals of antiquity that were known to prehistoric humans, the others being gold, copper, tin, lead, iron and mercury. However, as it has been in use for so long, the history of its discovery and early use is not known.

It's a more reactive metal than gold and is harder to extract from its ores when mined. This meant that in antiquity, supplies of silver were rarer and therefore more expensive until around 1500 BC, when the Egyptians discovered new methods of refining it.

Well, pure silver is not made up of only silver. It has 99.9% of silver and a small content composed of other metals such as copper. On the other hand, Sterling Silver consists of 92.5% silver, and the remaining part consists of copper – mostly copper. This is the reason why Sterling Silver is popularly referred to as 925 Sterling Silver or just 925 Silver.

Silver needs to be combined with other metals because it is very difficult to make great designs with just pure silver, which is very soft and malleable. A bit of hardness has to be introduced by adding other metals such as copper. That's why jewellers are capable of making the most intricate and complex designs with 925 Sterling Silver.

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What Is Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is defined as a metal alloy (blend) containing at least 92.5% silver. The most common sterling alloy is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. Sterling silver is an alloy created when copper is added to pure silver to make the resulting compound more durable and less soft.

Usually, sterling silver has a purity of 92.5%, meaning that 7.5% of the alloy is made of copper or another metal (usually nickel or zinc).

There is also the so-called coin silver, which is an alloy of lower purity: It usually contains 90% or less silver. Tarnish-resistant Argentium sterling silver is 1.2% germanium, 6.3% copper and 92.5% silver. This patented 925 silver alloy is tarnish-resistant, with the tarnish resistance increasing over time! Germanium atoms in the alloy migrate to the surface, allowing the protective germanium oxide layer to regenerate. Argentium silver doesn't develop firescale, which makes its production cleaner for the environment.

Fine silver, sometimes stamped ".999", is 99.9% pure silver, which means it is softer and more malleable than sterling. In addition, fine silver can be fused! (Sterling silver requires solder; fine silver can be joined with just heat, no solder required.)

Sterling components and jewellery made in the USA are often stamped "sterling." Goods made for international trade are often marked "925", indicating the 92.5% fineness. "Coin" silver is used in some countries and could be marked "900" or "800" depending on fineness.

Other possible markings are less clear. "Mexican Silver," "German Silver," "Indian Silver," "Montana Silver", and simply "silver" does not guarantee any silver content. "German Silver," "Alpacca," and "Alpaca" are merely other names for the alloy of copper, nickel and zinc usually called "nickel silver." Despite the name, nickel silver contains no silver.

In many countries, a precious metal must be stamped with a quality mark such as "925" for sterling. In addition, some countries require jewellery made of precious metal to be submitted to a governmental assay office for destructive testing before being marked and sold.

Sterling Silver is very easy to test. Silver-plated brass, nickel silver or low-quality silver alloys will turn green when a drop of nitric acid is applied because of the high copper content. Sterling will turn a creamy colour. When testing suspect goods, a small file can be used to cut through any plating or lacquer in a discreet area on the item.

Is Sterling Silver Real Silver?

You might wonder: is sterling silver real silver? The answer is a definite yes. Sterling silver is an alloyed form of silver that is much more suitable for jewellery and other metalwork.

Fine silver is 99.9% pure silver. The metal is beautiful and suffers from minimal tarnish in this form, but it's generally too soft and malleable for many uses, including making most jewellery.

Instead, fine silver is alloyed with copper to create sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper. This percentage of fine silver is why you will sometimes see sterling silver referred to as '925 silver' or hallmarked with a 925 stamp.

The copper makes the silver harder, more durable, and therefore much better to work with and use without compromising the colour. Therefore, most silver jewellery that you buy and wear will be sterling silver.

The only downside to sterling silver is that the added copper will cause it to tarnish more easily, with the metal turning dark brown or black over time, especially in humid conditions. However, it's easy to clean and beneath the tarnish, your sterling silver will still be in great condition: it won't rust or perish with normal use.

Sterling silver is real silver, but it's not pure silver. Instead, it's always 92.5% pure silver. Pure silver is very soft, making it a poor choice for jewellery or other applications where an item gets touched and used frequently. To enhance the durability of pure silver material, manufacturers add other metals to silver. These can include copper, zinc, and other materials. No matter what materials are added, the final product must be 92.5% silver. If the amount of pure silver is less or more than 92.5%, the piece of jewellery can't carry the label "sterling silver."

An alloy is a mixture of two or more different types of metals. The metals are heated to a liquid state and then poured together, forming a new material with properties from each metal.

No one knows for sure when the first silver alloy was created, but we do know that it was widely used in the 11th century. For example, the Norman Penny, issued in Britain by William the Conqueror in 1083, was made from a silver alloy. In some of the coin's earliest designs, two small stars floated above the king's shoulders — in Old English, the word sterling translates as "like a little star," which is one possible origin of the word sterling.

When Europeans discovered the Americas, they also stumbled upon its rich silver mines. Central and South America rose as the largest silver-producing regions globally, and silversmiths took advantage of the new market. After strengthening the silver with copper or another metal, artisans fashioned almost any item, you can think of from sterling silver, including perfume bottles, utensils, medical equipment, jewellery and musical instruments.

What Are the Advantages of Sterling Silver for Jewelry?

Which is better: silver or sterling silver? That all depends on your application. For jewellery, sterling silver is usually the best choice since pure silver jewellery is easily damaged. These are a few of the reasons sterling silver is good quality and beautiful choice for jewellery:

  • Hypoallergenic - According to the Mayo Clinic, sterling silver is hypoallergenic. It's a great choice if your skin reacts to other materials like nickel.
  • Durable - Sterling is one of the most durable precious metals, which means that it's an excellent option for delicate filigree and pieces that receive regular wear.
  • Valuable - Jewelry made from sterling silver will hold its value since the metal itself is precious. This may not be true for costume jewellery made from brass and other materials.
  • Cost-effective - Sterling is considerably less expensive than gold, platinum, and other Precious Metals.

Sterling Silver Value

While sterling silver can be placed at number four in the list of expensive jewellery metals starting from the top as the most precious metal that can be used in jewellery making, it is the least expensive of them all. However, the value of sterling silver still makes it expensive.

This is because while comparing more than one metal, the value of sterling silver might seem less, but it is actually 'comparatively less'. Therefore, when you consider sterling silver value independently without any comparisons, you will notice how valuable and expensive sterling silver can be.

Other than the famous standard of valuing sterling silver based on its quality for being 92.5% pure silver mixed with 7.5% of another metal, a few other things add to the value of sterling silver. We have briefly described all 4 of these factors here.

How To Tell If Something Is Sterling Silver?  

The easiest way to tell if a piece is sterling silver is to look for a quality stamp. According to international standards, all sterling silver should be marked with a quality or fineness stamp, which clearly states the jewellery's precious metal content. Common sterling silver markers include:

  • Sterling
  • Sterling silver
  • Ster
  • 92.5
  • .925
  • 925

Look for the mark in an inconspicuous place, such as on hooks, clasps or closures. If your product is fine silver, it contains 99.9 per cent silver — the quality stamp should say .999, 999 or 99.9.

Typically, you can rely on the mark to tell you the exact silver content of your piece. However, if you're sceptical, there are a few ways to test the silver content of your jewellery. First, hold it up to a magnet — sterling silver should not be magnetic. So if the piece strongly sticks to a magnet, it can't be silver.

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Other methods include the ice, ring, acid and bleach tests. However, the best way to see if your piece is high-quality sterling silver is to consult with an expert jeweller. They can tell you the exact worth and quality of your jewellery, and they won't accidentally damage your piece in the process.

Is Sterling Silver Worth as Much as Pure Silver?

The value of sterling silver is not quite as high as the value of pure silver, but it's not worth significantly less. For example, imagine you have a brooch that's in really bad condition. Even though it isn't attractive as a piece of jewellery, you wonder how much the silver in it is worth. You can compare the value of the brooch, which weighs half an ounce, based on whether it is pure silver or sterling silver. Remember, this value will change constantly, so this example only reflects silver values at a set point in time.

  • If the brooch is half an ounce of pure silver, it could be worth about $11.50.
  • If the brooch is half an ounce of sterling silver, or 92.5% pure silver, it could be worth about $10.67.

Is Sterling Silver Cheap or Good Quality?

Whether or not you consider sterling silver to be a desirable jewellery material is mostly a matter of personal preference and the other materials to which you're comparing it. Sterling silver is less valuable than other white-coloured precious metals like white gold, palladium, and platinum. So if you're expecting one of these metals and have jewellery made of sterling silver, you may not be satisfied. However, sterling silver is far higher quality and more valuable than base metals like nickel or steel.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sterling Silver

Durable and Light. The added metals in sterling silver make it an incredibly durable material — it's even stronger than gold. In addition to its lightweight, this quality makes it an ideal choice for jewellery that will be worn daily or often.

Sterling silver is defined as a metal alloy (blend) containing at least 92.5% silver. The most common sterling alloy is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.

Sterling silver isn't as valuable compared to other precious metals, at least not in its base form. A small piece of sterling silver that hasn't been transformed into anything has a value similar to that of spot silver, but it could be worth a lot more depending on its application.

Fine silver has a higher purity percentage of silver, making it more expensive than the less pure sterling silver. However, sterling silver is much more durable compared to fine silver because of the added metal alloys. This can help your piece last and stay looking the best it possibly can for longer.

Most of the sterling silver jewellery has some sort of plating because silver itself turns yellow over time. The most expensive way of finishing sterling silver jewellery is using Rhodium. Rhodium is a precious metal that is even more expensive than silver.

How Does Sterling Silver Compare To Pure Silver?

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1. Appearance

Although sterling silver is mixed with other metals, it looks the same as lustrous fine silver, which is part of the reason that copper is the most popular metal to mix with silver. Copper gives the maximum alloy durability without affecting its stunning tone. So if you're concerned that sterling silver won't retain the same shining glow and colour of fine silver, you can put your worries aside — even to a trained jeweller, and it's not easy to tell the two metals apart by appearance alone.

2. Strength

Pure silver is a soft, malleable metal — it has never been known for its strength or sturdiness. This quality makes it a very impractical choice for any functional item — coins, table wear and jewellery need to hold their shapes to be useful.

Sterling silver has all of silver's beauty without its weakness. Able to hold its shape, sterling silver has been formed into everything from intricate serving platters to diamond tiaras. It allows the silver to be used, not just admired.

3. Price

Pure silver is more expensive than a sterling alloy, which means that to design jewellery, and artisan must invest more in initial materials. This requirement significantly raises the price of the final product, making silver a less practical option for commercial jewellery making.

Alternately, sterling silver is an affordable metal. Combined with its increased strength, this characteristic makes it an excellent choice for a wide range of applications.

4. Maintenance

Tarnishing is a chemical reaction that gradually darkens and dulls metals. For example, exposure to sulphur in air and water creates a coating of tarnish on the surface of the metal, resulting in a loss of brightness and shine.

Pure silver, like pure gold, is not a very reactive metal. It doesn't react with oxygen or water, and as a result, it doesn't easily tarnish. However, sterling silver is more sensitive to air and water than fine silver, making it prone to tarnishing. So while sterling silver is more functional than pure silver, it requires a little more care to stay in pristine condition.

Sterling silver is one of the most popular jewellery materials on the market for a reason. With its sophisticated sheen and beautiful cool colouring, sterling silver jewellery is stylish and timeless. So whether you already own some sterling pieces or are shopping for something new, it helps to know a bit about this unique precious metal.

To complicate the matter even more, several silver-coloured metals used in jewellery contain no silver at all. Terms like nickel silver, German silver, alpaca, and paktong indicate alloys that might look like silver to the untrained eye but are comprised of metals like nickel, copper, and zinc. Alpaca and nickel-based "silvers" are often used in barrettes, pillboxes, and costume jewellery.

The beautiful bright and warm colouring of sterling silver will suit almost anyone.

In addition, those with sensitive skins are highly unlikely to have an adverse effect from it, unlike with lesser metals. Plus, of course, it's significantly lower cost compared to metals like gold and platinum mean you can easily invest in lots of gorgeous silver jewellery.

 

Like gold, silver will also maintain its value - and possibly even increase in value - over time compared to other commodities. It is also endlessly recyclable, and the metal can be reused in many forms.

On top of those benefits, having silver jewellery in your collection will add to its classiness, value, longevity and versatility. Silver jewellery is a truly excellent choice.

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