The difference between silver and sterling silver

Learn the difference between silver and sterling silver because it's not equal

Learn the difference between silver and sterling silver because it’s not equal

Everywhere I look, in malls and in catalogs, I see silver jewelry. Well, it looks silver. And the copy or the tag says it?s silver. But what does that mean? Is silver the same as sterling silver? And if not, what?s the difference between silver and sterling silver besides the name?

Sometimes silver is just a color

We all grew up with boxes of crayons. And in the bigger boxes, there was always a gold, a copper and a silver crayon. But we probably knew those labels were just about the color. Or if we didn?t, mom or dad or a teacher taught us that lesson early on.

Unfortunately when it comes to jewelry, some people forget the lessons of crayon box.  And they think that any jewelry labeled ?silver? is, well, made of silver. In fact, marketers count on that which is why they use that description.

The truth is that sometimes ?silver? jewelry is silver in color only. 

If it?s an inexpensive piece of jewelry, the metal is probably nickel, a much cheaper silver-colored material that looks good, but can irritate many people?s skin.  On the plus side, silver-colored nickel doesn?t tarnish the way real silver will, which makes it a popular choice for low cost items.

Another common ?silver? material for jewelry is surgical steel. Like nickel, this metal is durable and doesn?t tarnish. But its non-reactive properties make it an ideal option for hypo-allergenic jewelry, and of course for surgical instruments where an allergic reaction can be life threatening.


Sometimes silver is just on the surface

The next level (or step up) in ?silver? jewelry is silver plate.  Here, a thin layer of real silver is electroplated onto the surface of jewelry made of copper, nickel or a blend of several metals. So you do have real silver?just not a lot of it.

If it?s done well, with a thick enough coat, silver plate is a good choice for costume jewelry, special occasion flatware, picture frames and silver serving pieces like teapots and sugar bowls. Silver plated pieces need to be cared for carefully to avoid scratching through the plating, so it?s not the best option for jewelry you plan to wear every day or a serving tray you would use each morning.  

And then there is sterling silver

Sterling silver refers to jewelry, flatware, home decor items or anything else made from 92.5% silver. The remaining 7.5% is another metal or alloy (copper is the most common choice.)  That number (925) is stamped onto the inside or bottom of items made from certified sterling. Items marked with a 900 stamp (90% silver) are said to be coin silver. And although an 825 stamp (82.5% silver) mark is often sold as sterling, it does not in fact meet the legal definition. 

So why is 92.5% the standard and not pure silver? 

As lovely as it might be, pure silver (defined as 99.9% silver or higher) is too soft to hold its shape. Items made from pure silver would quickly crush and bend out of shape, making them a poor choice for any decorative or household use. 

But what about white gold? 

Although white gold looks like sterling silver, it only contains at most only small amounts of silver…or may contain no silver at all. White gold is gold mixed with other light colored metals such as palladium, platinum and manganese. The result is an alloy that looks like silver or platinum, but without the tarnish issues of silver or the price of pure platinum.