This article looks at the difference between the various metals used for jewelry that include the word “silver” or are often mistaken for silver. It is a companion piece to our article on gold and gold jewelry. If you buy silver jewelry for collectible purposes, business purposes or simply because it’s beautiful, it is important to know exactly what you are buying. The purpose of this guide is to prepare you, as a consumer, when shopping for silver jewelry.
Before getting into jewelry specifics, it’s good to have a grasp on some of the fundamentals of silver. Silver, like gold, is an elemental metal. This means that pure silver is made up of nothing but silver atoms (represented on the periodic table by the symbol Ag). Other examples of elemental metals include copper, aluminum, platinum, iron and lead.
In its pure elemental form, silver has a white metallic appearance. It also has a high luster (shiny), is very soft (scratches easily) and is quite malleable (can be hammered into different shapes). When people discuss the “price of silver” or “spot price of silver” or “silver bullion prices” they are referring to pure elemental silver, or more exactly, 99.9% pure silver.
“Pure” metals, like elemental silver or elemental copper, are distinguished from metal alloys – which are metals made up of two “pure metals”. For example, brass is an alloy that is made up of copper and zinc. To make brass, copper and zinc are melted together. Likewise, one can make various silver alloys by combing silver with other elemental metals.
Silver jewelry can be made from near pure silver (99.9% silver known as “fine silver”) or one of any number of alloys. Fine silver (99.9%) jewelry is somewhat uncommon. The most common silver alloy used in jewelry today is “Sterling” silver, which consists of 92.5% silver and 7.5% some other metal (often copper, but sometimes zinc). The majority of silver jewelry in the United States, and most developed nations, is made from “Sterling” (92.5%) or finer silver.
Fineness Marks and Hallmarks
Because different alloys of silver contain different percentages of pure silver, it is important to know which alloy was used to make a piece of jewelry. For several hundred years now, most major silver manufacturing countries use what are known as “fineness marks”, “hallmarks” or a combination of both.
A fineness mark is a mark put on a piece of jewelry to indicate the percentage of pure silver it contains. There are two common types of fineness marks for silver – word marks and numerical marks. The numerical marks usually represent the number of parts of pure silver out of 1000 contained in a piece of silver. For example, Sterling silver is 92.5% silver or 925 out of 1000 parts silver. This simply means that by weight, the piece is 925 parts silver and 75 parts some other metal. Therefore the “shorthand” mark “925” is used to indicate that something is sterling silver. Other common numerical marks include:
800 (80% silver or 800/1000)
830 (83%silver of 830/1000)
835 (83.5% silver or 835/1000)
900 (90% silver or 900/1000)
950 (95% silver or 950/1000)
980 (98% silver or 980/1000)
999 (99.9% silver or 999/1000)
As mentioned above, fineness can also be indicated by a word. The two most common words encountered in the United States are “Sterling” and “Coin”. Sterling is, as discussed above, 92.5% silver.
“Coin” means that the item is 90% silver. The term “coin” is a reference to early coins which were made out of 90% silver. It is very unusual to see the mark “Coin” on pieces made after 1900. Some silver jewelry is marked just “silver”. This is common on British territory (e.g. Chinese export silver) pieces and indicates “Sterling Silver”. Also, there are several abbreviations for Sterling Silver in use now or in the past including:
“SS” (this mark can be confusing because a lot of stainless steel is also marked SS)
“Stg. Sil.” (example photo below)
U.S. Law (and the law of most developed countries) prohibits the marking of any non-silver item with a silver purity mark. (See, for example, 15 U.S.C. 8 S. 296). However, a set of stamps to make these marks can be purchased online for about $20.00 —- by anyone. Therefore, the fineness mark can only be trusted as much as the person who put it there.
Unlike a fineness mark, a hallmark is a mark that indicates that an official (usually a local assayer) in a particular country guarantees that the item is made from a certain percentage of silver. While hallmarks can also be counterfeited, it is somewhat unusual. Hallmarks usually consist of a picture or a combination of a picture and text. Pictures used are often of local or historically important animals, current or prior rulers / sovereigns and certain plants.
The United States does not use hallmarks. However, many countries with far greater histories of silver-smithing employ or did employ at one time, a complex hallmarking system. There are a number of excellent guides available on the internet that can assist you in identifying a particular hallmark. Our favorite is 925-1000.com. Set forth below is a common example of a hallmark previously used in Mexico and often encountered on vintage silver jewelry found at U.S. Fleamarkets, Yard Sales, and Estate Sales.
This Mexican Mark is meant to represent an eagle. It really does not look anything like an eagle in most examples. Be weary of eagle head marks on Mexican jewelry. Those are counterfeit marks and are quite common on tourist bangles.
If you encounter an item that is not marked with a fineness mark or hallmark, or an item that does have such a mark but you suspect is not silver, you will need to test the item or have it tested by someone else. With experience, it will become less and less necessary to test such items. See our article on testing silver for more info (to be published on or about June 15,2014) or simply google “silver testing”.
Silver Plate and Silver Filled Jewelry
In addition to real silver jewelry, there are two common substitutes that use small amounts of silver to mimic the real thing: Silver Plated Jewelry and Silver Filled Jewelry. There is nothing wrong with this type of jewelry – as long as it’s not marked or sold as real silver jewelry.
Silver Plated jewelry is NOT real silver. It is brass, copper or other metal jewelry that has a very thin layer of silver applied on the surface. There is no calculable value to the amount of silver in silver plated jewelry so it should be judged on its aesthetic, artistic and collectible qualities rather than its inherent metal value. Most silver plated jewelry in the marketplace today is electro-plated. Electroplating is a chemical process where a base metal item (e.g. a copper brooch) is placed in an electrolytic solution and connected to the “cathode” end of an electrical circuit (e.g. a large battery). A piece of silver is connected to the “anode” end of the circuit and then placed in the solution apart from the copper piece. Electrical current carries tiny silver “cations” from the silver bar to the surface of the copper piece. With sufficient time, a thin layer of silver forms over the copper piece. Once the process is complete, the copper piece appears to be made from silver.
Silver Plated jewelry often does not have any mark on it anywhere that would indicate it was silver plated. Occasionally you will, however, see the following marks:
“SP” – meaning Silver Plate
“Plate” – more common on flatware and table pieces
“EP” – meaning electroplated
“Quadruple Plate” – allegedly meaning the piece went through electrolysis four times
“EPNS” – meaning electroplated nickel silver
“S80” – this is a mark that appears on a lot of Chinese silver colored jewelry that is often also marked 925. This is not silver jewelry. It is merely plated with “925” Sterling Silver. S80 Silver is apparently a plating compound in many emerging market countries.
Sometimes the silver plate mark is confusingly blended with marks that look like hallmarks. This is especially common on pieces imported from Britain and Holland. Do not be fooled by these marks. An example appears below. Another confusing mark on silver plated pieces is the name of a manufacturer that includes the word “silver” such as “International Silver Co.” or “American Silver Co.”. These names do not mean that the item is silver. Rather if there is no mark indicating purity on the piece (e.g. 925 of “Sterling” or a hallmark), then the piece is almost certainly silver plated.
Silver Filled jewelry is jewelry that is made by taking two thin sheets of silver and pressing between them a sheet of brass, copper or other base metal. It is not very common. It is akin to “gold filled” jewelry. Silver Filled jewelry has a quantifiable amount of silver in it (often 1/5th by weight but also as low as 1/20th). Silver Filled jewelry goes in and out of use based on the spot price of silver. When silver becomes expensive, silver filled jewelry gets more popular. Common marks for silver filled jewelry are:
“1/5th Sterling” (sometimes consisting of only one sheet of silver on top of brass, copper etc.).
“Sterling Cap” (always consisting of only one sheet of silver on top of brass, copper etc.).
Nickel Silver goes by many names and often looks exactly like silver to the untrained eye. However, the one thing it’s not, is silver. Nickel Silver contains absolutely NO silver — zilch, zero, nada. It is a metal alloy formed by combining copper, nickel and zinc. Except when newly polished, it has a luster and often “greens” (oxidizes) with age. It is very common in Mexican and Latin American tourist pieces where it is sometimes termed Alpaca.
Other common names and marks on Nickel Silver jewelry include:
EPNS (electroplated nickel silver)
There is nothing wrong with Nickel Silver jewelry and some of it is quite beautiful. However, it’s important to know you are buying nickel silver and not real silver. We are especially fond of early Mexican Alpaca jewelry that quite often features genuine gemstones. It has become a nice collectible in its own right and is much more affordable than silver jewelry.
There exist countless other “silver” colored metals and even plastics that can be mistaken for real silver. When in doubt, have the items tested by a professional or learn to test silver yourself. In time, you will be able to distinguish all of these substitutes based solely on weight, look and feel. Please feel to free ask any questions or suggest additional details that might make this post more effective. Thanks as always for reading out blog!