When most people hear the words silver and sterling silver, they think these terms refer to the same kind of metal. However, sterling silver and pure silver are not interchangeable terms. The difference boils down to the amount of pure silver present in the metal. Let’s break down the similarities and differences between sterling silver and silver.
What is Sterling Silver and Pure Silver?
Pure silver, also called fine silver, consists of 99.9% silver and .1% trace elements. As a metal for jewelry, it is very soft and malleable, easily losing shape and wearing out. Pure silver is not recommended for use in jewelry because of this reason. To combat this problem, silver is combined with other metals to create stronger alloys.
One such alloy is sterling silver, which comprises 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of other metals, commonly copper, nickel or zinc. This strict standard followed in the USA was established in the 1300s and made popular by Tiffany & Co in the 1900s. Sterling silver is much more durable than pure silver and is ideal for use in jewelry.
Identifying Sterling Silver vs Silver
Jewelry made of genuine silver should carry certain stamps, known as hallmarks, that help to identify the silver. The mark for fine silver is 999. Sterling silver can be identified by several different hallmarks, with the most common being 925. Some other hallmarks for sterling silver are STER, STERLING, STG or Sterling Silver.
In other parts of the world, such strict standards do not exist for sterling silver. In Europe, metal with pure silver as low as 80% can be sold as sterling silver and so you may see the stamp 800 on the metal. Always inquire about the percentage of the silver if in doubt, especially when buying from overseas.
These hallmarks are often stamped in tiny letters and numbers on some part of the silver. You may require a jeweler’s loupe or microscope to see these stamps but they are the quickest way to check if your silver is actually silver.
The Durability of Sterling Silver vs Silver
Sterling silver is highly durable and can last a lifetime. It can easily be polished to smooth away scuffs and scratches and restored to its original luster. Repairing and resizing sterling silver is also cost effective and relatively easy. However, sterling silver tends to tarnish when exposed to moisture and air and requires frequent polishing. This is caused by copper content in the alloy which reacts with the elements and oxidizes.
Pure silver is not durable in the use of jewelry, although it can be used in jewelry such as earrings and pendants (i.e., items that don’t get much exposure to rough wear) without issue. Fine silver also doesn’t tend to tarnish even when in contact with moisture and air.
Are Both These Metals Hypoallergenic?
Pure silver is hypoallergenic and does not irritate skin. However, sometimes sterling silver can contain nickel, which is a common allergen. This can cause irritations, which people then wrongly attribute to the silver. If you have skin sensitivities, inquire about the metals in the alloy prior to purchasing.
Sterling Silver vs Silver Value
Pure silver is somewhat more expensive than sterling silver as it contains a higher amount of silver. The metals used in sterling silver alloys are not valuable and do not add to the overall worth of the metal. However, the difference in price is slight.
If you are in doubt regarding the purity of your silver jewelry, you can take it to a professional to have the piece tested. The Acid Test is commonly conducted to determine the purity of silver. If the silver reacts to the acid and changes color, it has a purity percentage that is below 92.5%.
Before You Buy
Always check whether the silver is genuine prior to buying. Look for the hallmarks, which should be clearly marked. Inquire from the vendors whether it is in fact sterling silver and ask any questions about the alloys. If the price point seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are many unscrupulous vendors who pass off inferior silver alloys in place of sterling silver.
Also note that there are many other varieties of silver, which vary in the content of silver they contain. Some of these are Britannia silver, coin silver, German silver, nickel silver, tribal silver and Mexican silver. Silver plate is also another type of silver but is made by electroplating a thin coating of silver onto a base metal, such as copper. Silver plate is not valuable, unlike sterling silver and fine silver, and over time wears off.