For centuries, silver has been revered as a precious metal with sentimental significance (it is the traditional gift for a 25th anniversary), but when we visit the local jewelry counter and see the term “Sterling Silver,” what is it we are looking at? Is it fine silver? Is it faux silver? It's a good idea to brush up on the basics before buying.
Called the Queen of Metals, silver has been a symbol of prosperity and an accessory of affluence since prehistoric times. While its origins remain one of the world’s great mysteries, historians agree that by 3,100 B.C. silver was already revered by Egyptians and was closely tied to the worship of the goddess Isis.
The history of the word "sterling" is also relatively unknown. A popular theory suggests that in the 12th century, eastern Germans bought English cattle with silver coins dubbed "Easterlings." Eventually, these coins were accepted as a standard of English currency. From there, the name was supposedly abbreviated to "Sterling."
Today, the term “Sterling” is used to refer to the highest grade of silver metal.
The vast majority of the world’s silver ore is mined in Mexico, followed by Peru, Australia, China and Poland. The United States and Canada are seventh and eighth, respectively.
Pure silver is very soft and extremely malleable, making it perfect in intricate designs and embellishments, but not as practical for bigger pieces like rings, necklaces or chains. For durability, silver is often combined with another metal alloy (usually copper). In order for this hybrid metal to be classified as Sterling Silver, it must be composed of 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent alloy. This ratio of 925 parts silver and 75 parts metal per 1,000 is a strict and enforced formula.
Being aware of other silver types and their composition can be useful if you come across any of them:
Fine silver, which has a silver content of 99.9 percent or higher, is a premium class of silver. It is primarily used for international commerce in the form of bullion bars.
Britannia silver, which has a silver content of at least 95.84 percent, is a grade higher than sterling silver and is typically denoted by a stamp of “958” or sometimes the symbol of Britannia.
Mexican silver, which consists of at least 95 percent pure silver and 5 percent copper, is a premium form of metal not presently in wide distribution.
Coin silver, which consists of 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper, was once widely used as flatware in the United States between 1820 and 1868. Until 1964, this was still used in U.S. currency.
German silver, which consists of 80 percent silver, is used for flatware and ornamental accents.
It is important to care for your sterling silver. To do that you must clean it regularly. There are many products available for cleaning sterling silver. However, if the jewelry has precious gems, be cautious because these chemical-based cleaners can harm and tarnish jewels. If in doubt, use the old-school method of soapy water and cotton swabs. After you clean your jewelry, polish with a soft cloth and place in a box or container to avoid tarnish. 3M no-tarnish strips can help avoid tarnish during non-use. These strips are easy to put inside your jewelry box and must be replaced about twice a year.
When you are considering the purchase of a piece of sterling silver, be sure to look for quality marks. These will verify that the piece is, in fact, sterling. Quality marks include: sterling, ster, .925 and sterling silver.