Sterling silver is among the most beautiful metals. It has a cool metallic sheen and reflective properties that catch the light in a lovely way. It is a small wonder that sterling silver has been used in fine jewelry, precious family silverware, elegant serving trays, vases, and other decorative accents. There many fine examples of antique sterling silver out there, some of which have been passed down in families for generations. Of course, there is also a great number of items out there that pass for sterling silver. If you have recently inherited some silver or are considering purchasing some silver, you may be wondering if it is genuine sterling silver. In this article, we will explore the questions, “what is sterling silver,” and, “how to identify sterling silver”. Determining if an item is genuine sterling silver is key to determining its value.
What is sterling silver?
The first thing you need to know is that sterling silver is different than pure silver. If something is advertised as pure silver that means it has 99% silver in it, as pure as you can get because 100% silver with no impurities doesn’t exist. The thing is, pure silver is extremely soft and malleable. It is too soft and that is where sterling silver comes in. Sterling silver is a silver alloy that is made by mixing pure silver with another metal, usually, copper, thought zinc, and nickel are sometimes used.
Sterling silver is usually 92.5% pure silver with 7.5% of the mixture being copper or another metal. Sterling silver is also sometimes coated with pure silver, but should still be labeled as sterling silver. Also, if something is labeled as sterling silver plated that means that the item is made of another metal such a copper or nickel and simply coated with a layer of sterling silver. This layer wears away over time.
How to Identify Sterling Silver?
The first thing to look for is sterling silver markings. If you are looking at an item and think it is sterling silver check for a mark of the manufacturer or silversmith. It indicates the purity of the silver and sometimes identifies the maker and date of manufacture. International sellers will stamp silver as 925, 900, or 800 to indicate the purity level of the sterling silver. Sterling silver has a purity level of 92.5% or higher.
There are several other tests you can perform to determine if an item is sterling silver. Most precious metals, including silver, are nonmagnetic. If you use a magnet on pure silver it exhibits only weak magnetic effects. Other metals, such as iron, copper, nickel, or zinc, are magnetic. If a magnet is strongly attracted to and sticks to an item then it is not high enough in silver to be sterling. Silver is also odorless. If you smell a scent of sulfur or a distinct metallic scent, then the item is not high in silver.
You can do some surface testing of the item to determine if it is sterling silver. Silver oxidizes and tarnishes. It requires polishing on a regular basis. If you do the polish test and polish the item with a white cloth, it will probably leave a black residue on the cloth if it is sterling silver. Lack of oxidation or rust could indicate the item is made from a different metal than silver. You can also do a scratch test and see if the item has flakes of silver plating that come off and reveal a different metal underneath. Also, if you take flakes of the item and put them in acid, the acid’s color will stay the same if it is silver. Lastly, silver has the highest thermal conductivity of any metal or alloy. If you take an ice cube and place it on the item it will melt faster than normal if the item is sterling silver. Using these techniques will give you high confidence that the item in question is genuine sterling silver.