Silver, sterling silver, pure silver…
It’s all the same thing, isn’t it?
Well, no, actually it isn’t – far from it.
While these different silver terms are often used interchangeably, they are significantly different. And understanding the differences between the types of silvers is imperative, especially if you’re looking to buy sterling silver jewelry or another variety.
So what does sterling silver mean and how does it differ from pure silver?
Let’s find out below.
What Is Sterling Silver?
As an alloy, sterling silver is created when pure silver is mixed with another metal – most commonly, copper. Other metals that may be used include zinc or nickel.
So how pure is sterling silver?
It’s 92.5% pure silver. This is the optimum percentage to ensure there’s enough silver present but that the other 7.5% of metal will make the compound less soft and more durable.
And it’s this malleability and lack of durability which are why you don’t tend to find fine silver jewelry made from pure silver.
Pure silver is often too soft to use to make jewelry. Made up of 99.9% silver (plus a trace of other elements), pure silver easily wears out and loses its shape.
Therefore, while sterling silver is an alloy, you can still be assured of its quality, particularly when opting for it in jewelry.
You’ll just want to avoid “coin silver,” which contains an even lower level of silver purity (90% or less), and according to U.S. standards cannot be considered sterling silver.
How Do You Tell the Difference Between Silver and Sterling Silver?
To help users identify the silver in an item, certain stamps (aka hallmarks) should be used as a symbol of their authenticity. Fine silver is marked with a 999 stamp (the percentage of silver found within it).
Can you guess what sterling silver’s marked with, then?
You got it! 925.
However, while 925 (or 92.5 or .925) is the most common, you may also find the brandings:
- Sterling Silver
Equally, sterling silver quality can be different in other parts of the world.
So while the U.S. will only allow something to be deemed “sterling silver” if it contains 92.5% silver, in parts of Europe, metal with a purity level of 80% may be referred to as sterling silver.
In these cases, you’ll often find a stamp of 800 on the metal to confirm this purity (or lack of). That’s why, if you are looking for sterling silver jewelry online and it’s coming from a country outside of the EU, you should question its purity beforehand.
For example, in Germany, sterling silver can contain as little as 80% of silver and in Russia, it can contain less than 90%.
Where will you find the stamp that confirms how pure your sterling silver is?
They’ll be found on the silver itself (i.e. not on any other materials contained within the jewelry) and you may need to use a microscope or jeweler’s loupe to find it.
For necklaces, check the clasp or the back of any pendants. For rings, check the inside of the ring. And for bracelets, check the inside, too.
Which is More Durable: Sterling Silver Jewelry or Pure Silver Jewelry?
As we’ve already seen, sterling silver is an incredibly durable material which means it can last forever. It’s easy to restore its original appearance, too. All it takes is some polishing to remove the scratches and scuffs it may have gathered through use.
Equally, you can resize and repair sterling silver quite easily and without too much cost.
In stark contrast, pure silver jewelry is not durable. However, it may be used in pendants and earrings that aren’t exposed to too much wear and tear.
Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?
Unfortunately, sterling silver is more prone to tarnishing than pure silver. This is due to the alloys in the silver that may react with various elements in the air, e.g. oxygen.
As the metal oxidizes it’ll take on the tarnished, dull appearance. Because fine silver doesn’t contain these other components, it won’t tarnish, even when it’s constantly exposed to the air and moisture.
Thankfully, it couldn’t be easier to keep sterling silver clean.
How to Clean Sterling Silver
There are a number of different ways you can keep your sterling silver clean, including shop-bought solutions that you soak the item in for a specific amount of time.
Some people also use different at-home methods including simple soap and water, baking soda and water, lemon juice and olive oil, and baking soda and vinegar.
You can also ward off tarnish by:
- Placing your sterling silver in its own compartment or a cloth pouch in your jewelry box. This prevents it from rubbing on other items of jewelry
- Ensuring it isn’t exposed to chemicals like chlorine, ammonia, and bleach.
- Wearing your sterling silver jewelry as much as possible. The oils from your skin can actually help maintain the shiny, clean appearance of your sterling silver
Is Sterling Silver Hypoallergenic?
Pure silver won’t irritate your skin because it’s hypoallergenic. However, due to the alloys sterling silver can contain, it isn’t always hypoallergenic.
For example, nickel is a common culprit for allergens and can cause a reaction to the wearer’s skin. But it’s important to note that it’s not the silver that’s causing this, it’s the nickel (or other alloys).
Therefore, if you do have a sensitivity to a certain metal, it’s worth enquiring what alloy has been used in the sterling silver before you purchase.
Which is More Valuable, Sterling Silver or Pure Silver?
It probably goes without saying that because pure silver has a higher purity level, it is quite a bit more expensive than sterling silver.
The metals used to create sterling silver aren’t of great value so they don’t add to the metal’s overall value.
But sometimes, the difference between the two will only be a fraction.
Nevertheless, if you are unsure how pure your silver jewelry is, and you can’t locate the right markings, you could take it to your local jewelers to be tested.
Jewelers commonly use what’s known as the Acid Test.
To conduct this test, the jeweler will take a very small shaving from the item of jewelry before putting it in acid. If the color of the acid changes, this means the silver is less than 92.5% pure.
What Is the Best Sterling Silver?
When it comes to women’s silver jewelry, the best is the 925 sterling silver variety. While it may be nice to have a pure silver piece of jewelry, this is something you’d have to wear with lots of care and couldn’t wear all the time.
Sterling silver pieces are made to last a lifetime and with the right care, they’ll look just as good as the day you bought them!
Just take care when purchasing sterling silver to ensure you’re getting the grade you’re looking for. Always check for the hallmark and that you’re not being sold a different variety of silver, e.g. silver plated, nickel silver, or coin silver.
Do you prefer sterling silver jewelry over other metals? If so, why?
Please leave your comments below!