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We are often asked in the shop if something marked as ‘sterling silver’ is actually real silver.
Not only does there seem to be some confusion about sterling silver but we also get asked what is the difference between “sterling silver” and “925 sterling silver”.
What exactly does the ‘925’ mean?
The answer is actually quite straightforward, so we thought we’d write a blog to clear up any confusion.
What is Silver?
Platinum, palladium and gold can be used as silver alloys. But this has the disadvantage of making the piece more costly.
Therefore, copper is often the metal of choice used in silver alloys – this is most often what is used to create Sterling Silver.
A rather marvellous and recent creation of Argentium Silver, where pure silver has been alloyed with a metal called Germanium, has resulted in what has been classed as a purer silver with many advantages over Sterling Silver.
Sterling Silver is created when pure silver is alloyed with other metals in a specific quantity.
This quantity comprises 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals (alloys).
It is these specific quantities that define the metal as ‘Sterling Silver‘ – hence the name 925 Sterling Silver.
925 Sterling Silver
925 Sterling silver is simply 92.5% pure silver with 7.5% alloys.
Therefore, 925 sterling silver is sterling silver and vice versa – both mean the same thing and there is no difference between the two.
925 on silver
But here’s where it gets a little confusing! Whist a 925 on silver mark indicates this item is sterling silver – unless it has a full hallmark, there is no guarantee that it is real silver.
Without the other marks that make up a full hallmark (we talk about this below), there is no guarantee the metal is what the mark says it is. An unscrupulous person could purchase a 925 stamp and stamp any metal with it.
But, even reputable jewellery creators, will often not fully hallmark an item that is under 7.78g in weight as it’s just not cost-effective to go to this added expense for a lightweight silver item with no added gemstones. If they did they’d have to factor the cost of the hallmarking into the product which would push the price up for the consumer.
Some jewellery manufacturers and designers will hallmark every item of silver, even those under 7.78g, as it offers the prestige, quality assurance and protects their reputation of their brand.
The Grading of Precious Metals
Most precious metals used in jewellery making today, including gold, silver, platinum and palladium, are alloys. This makes the material more workable, stronger and better-wearing.
Therefore, a grading system was devised so as to standardise these alloys, so that everyone could know what a piece is made of.
The system indicates the percentage amount of pure, noble metal vs the alloy in the material. The decimal point is removed from the figure.
So, for instance, the 925 in Sterling Silver means the material contains 92.5% pure silver and the rest (7.5%) are alloys.
To guarantee the standard of jewellery and the metal it is made of, jewellery is stamped with a Hallmark.
This means that the item of jewellery has been tested and the quality of the item is guaranteed to be what it states it is.
A hallmark is a label, if you like, stating clearly that it is of a certain quality.
We cover much more about hallmarks in our blog here, but as long as the piece of jewellery being sold as sterling silver weighs over 7.78 grammes, it must, by law, have a hallmark to prove it is silver.
The hallmark will consist of a minimum of three ‘marks‘ described below (there may be other marks). These will be:
- The Maker’s/Sponsor’s Mark,
- The Assay Office Mark, and
- The Fineness Mark.
A Maker’s Mark will look a bit like this:
The Assay Office in which the item was tested and stamped with the hallmark, could be one of four in the UK, which look like this:
There will also be the mark which shows the item is 925 Sterling Silver, which will be stamped with the number 925.
There are other silver hallmarks, but sterling silver is 925 and it will appear like this:
Is Sterling Silver Real Silver?
Yes, sterling silver is real silver and will make up all of the ‘silver jewellery pieces you see in a jeweller’s window.
However, it is not pure silver and, as we’ve explained, almost no jewellery is made from pure silver.
Why Is It Called "Sterling" Silver?
We can’t be sure why exactly why the word ‘sterling’ is used. There are two conflicting stories around the possible origins.
One is that it was from the Old English ‘Steorling’ meaning “little star” as stars often appeared on the early coins which were made of silver.
The other explanation was that it was named after an area of East Germany called “The Osterlings” which translated is, “Easterlings”.
The people there engaged in a lot of commerce with England and always dealt in their local currency which happened to be coins made of 92.5% silver. This tender became known as the coins of the ‘Easterlings’ which was shortened over time to just ‘sterlings’.
Is Adding An Alloy to Pure Silver An Advantage?
Well, the answer to this is yes and no.
Adding an alloy to pure silver helps with the strength and malleability of the metal. Therefore, the creation of beautiful pieces of jewellery, tableware and other items can be crafted from sterling silver, which would not be possible to do from pure silver.
Mixing pure silver with other metals means stunning items can be created.
But, depending on what alloy is used, this can lead to some problems.
Copper is often the alloy of choice in Sterling Silver and the presence of copper leads tarnishing and something called Firestain which is a real problem for those making items in silver and needs removing when it occurs.
These problems can, and are, overcome though but it just adds to the time and therefore costs in creating beautiful jewellery.
Does Real Silver Tarnish?
In a word, yes!
Tarnish occurs on sterling silver on exposure to air or perspiration. It is caused by a chemical reaction of hydrogen sulfide on the surface of the silver.
This is the reason why silver needs to be cleaned with a jewellery cloth or jewellery dip to return it to its former glory (which it does, beautifully).
Tarnishing of silver is perfectly normal and does not mean the item is not real silver.
How to Tell If Something is Made From Sterling Silver?
1. The Hallmark
As detailed above, you should look for the hallmark and fineness mark of 925. It should be stamped on the inside of the ring, for instance, or by the catch on a bracelet or necklace.
If the item weighs less than 7.78 g it does not need a full hallmark but will often still be stamped 925.
But if the piece is not hallmarked what should you look for?
2. Test With A Magnet
Silver is not magnetic, so it won’t be attracted to a magnet. Do bear in mind though, that often the spring inside of the catch is made from other metals so this will be attracted to the magnet.
A silver-plated item, which has a covering of silver over base-metal, will be attracted to a strong magnet.
3. Test with Nitric Acid
(but don’t try this at home!)
If a drop of Nitric Acid is placed on something which isn’t silver it will fizz and turn a different colour – from brown to green.
This is how a jeweller will test if an item is made from solid silver. We don’t advise you to try this at home unless to take extreme care, wear gloves and glasses and follow the instructions carefully.
The jeweller will file away a little of the surface of the item, and test the metal underneath the surface (in case the piece is silver plated only) by placing a drop of acid on the metal.
Not Reliable or Recommended – Test With A White Cloth
You may read that you can test if something is silver by wiping it with a white cloth – they say silver will leave a black mark on the cloth (from surface oxidation)!
We think that a lot of metals will leave a mark on the cloth, including silver plate, so we don’t recommend this method at all.
The Best Way to Care For Sterling Silver
We recommend not letting the tarnish build-up on your silver jewellery. Clean with a silver Cleaning Cloth regularly and store in a sealed plastic back or soft cloth.
We use both of the Cleaning Cloths above every day in our shop. They have the advantage of being able to clean other metals, too.
We hope this has cleared up any confusion that you may have had around 925 Sterling Silver.
You should now be able to check what you need to look for to guarantee whether an item is really made of Sterling Silver and what it means when it is.