You may have encountered items made of a mysterious substance called German silver and wondered what, exactly, makes this metal different from regular silver. Though this metal resembles sterling or elemental silver, German silver is really an alloy favored for the fact that its lustrous appearance belies its makeup of less expensive metal components.
Contrary to what the name suggests, German silver does not actually contain any silver at all. Rather, this metal alloy was given its name because it closely resembles real silver in sheen and texture. German silver is really made from a combination of mostly copper, mixed with zinc and nickel. This is why another common name for German silver is, “nickel silver.”
Since German silver is mostly copper, it has the physical properties of copper, such as malleability, strength, and sheen. It is also highly conductive. In addition to being forged, the metal is often cold hammered, sawed and shaped from commercially-produced sheets.
German silver resembles sterling silver in appearance, a metal which also contains copper. In fact, the formulation of German silver was created in an attempt to make a silvery copper alloy with the strongest possible visual resemblance to sterling silver or elemental silver.
Differences in the formula of German silver have to do with variations in the ratios of the metals. The most common ratio of metals for German silver is three fifths copper, one fifth nickel and one fifth zinc. Some versions of this alloy may have slightly different ratios of these metals, and some may be made with only copper and nickel, and no zinc.
German silver is a favored metal for use in the construction of musical instruments and parts of instruments, notably flutes, and the keys of clarinets. German silver is also used as a less costly alternative to sterling silver in jewelry, housewares and some electronics.