Sterling Silver vs. Silver

For years, your silver necklace has shimmered at formal events, dazzling onlookers with its smooth elegance and giving you the confidence to shine in every ballroom you enter.

There’s just one thing you’re not confident about: whether your favorite necklace is pure silver or sterling silver.

In addition to helping you value your necklace, knowing the answer to this question can help you understand your jewelry’s durability, resistance to tarnishing and any potential allergens. 

From history to value, let’s dive into the differences between sterling silver vs silver so that you can turn heads with all of your silver jewelry for decades to come. 

Bold Knot Ring, Sterling Silver

What is Pure or Fine Silver?

Since its discovery and widespread adoption nearly 5,000 years ago, silver has continued to be a prized and precious metal. Today, silver is used in jewelry, as well as in:

  • Dental fillings
  • Electronics
  • Currency
  • Cars
  • Musical instruments

To be classified as “pure silver,” the silver must be 99.9% pure. If a silver object contains less than 99.9% pure silver, the object is said to be a silver alloy. These alloys include Britannia silver, coin silver and sterling silver.

What is Sterling Silver?

Pure genuine silver, silver plated, silver filled – the few titles you’ve heard pertaining to silver jewelry and other items. One in particular, sterling silver, shines bright. Favored by kings, queens and merchants since at least the 12th century, sterling silver is a silver alloy containing 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals. 

We’ll get into the reasons for the addition of the other metals in a bit, but for now, know that most sterling silver contains copper. Other popular sterling silver metals include:

  • Zinc
  • Platinum
  • Boron
  • Germanium

Although it may seem like adulterating pure silver with other metals is the jewelry equivalent of wearing two different types of shoes, adding additional metals helps make the jewelry as strong as its glimmering history. The more real silver content, the softer the jewelry piece will be. So when a sterling silver product contains real silver mixed with other metals, it becomes more durable.

History of Sterling Silver

While sterling silver has been known to metallurgists for almost a millennia, what is less well-known is the alloy’s etymological history.

According to most experts, the word “sterling” was likely applied to a specific metal alloy as far back as the late 11th century. However, it wasn’t until the 13th century that the term gained popularity.

Experts now believe the origins of the term can be traced back to one (or both) of the following:

  • The small stars on Norman currency – Known for their poetic and musical contributions, the Normans valued beautiful images—even on their currency. Some scholars believe that the word “sterling” originated from the engravings of small stars on Norman coins.
  • The region where the alloy was first used – The first recorded uses of sterling silver occurred in a Germanic region known to the medieval world as “The Easterling.”Legend has it that England’s King Henry II was so impressed with the alloy’s durability and quality that he adopted the currency for his country, changing the name from “the coin of the Easterlings” to “the sterling.”

Regardless of how the term originated, one thing is clear: sterling silver has dominated the history books. From currency to dinner forks, brass instruments to cufflinks, sterling silver has stood the test of time.

Although sterling silver is extremely popular, it’s just one of several silver alloys. Other common silver alloys include:

  • Coin silver (90% silver)
  • Britannia silver (95% Silver)
  • European silver (80% silver)
  • Silverplate (minimal silver)

Because these alloys contain different pure silver percentages, knowing the alloy’s type is vital. The last thing you want is to sell your sterling silver bracelet for the price of a less-valuable European silver bracelet.

Enter: hallmarking.

Spotting Quality Through Hallmarking: How the Silver Standard is Set

Originating soon after King Henry II adopted the sterling silver coins, hallmarking refers to the practice of ascertaining the quality of silver before imprinting the metal with several markings. 

While these markings differ by country, many hallmarking systems imprint silver pieces with the following:

  • A purity marking – Many countries such as England and Ireland first stamp the metal with a purity marking. While some regions simply stamp the percentage of pure silver (i.e. “800” for European silver) onto the metal, other areas may stamp more elaborate designs to indicate the piece’s purity.
  • A letter to indicate the date – In addition to a purity marking, hallmarking offices typically stamp a letter onto the piece to indicate the date. 
  • A symbol to indicate the manufacturing city – The location where the piece is manufactured is often just as important as the date of manufacturing. That’s because some cities like Birmingham, England are well-respected for their silver production. As a result, a symbol is usually stamped onto sterling silver to indicate its place of production.

While these markings are common, they’re by no means universal. In the U.S., for instance, no national hallmarking system has ever been used extensively. Instead, some sterling silver pieces simply have “925”  engraved into them to indicate the purity percentage.

Now that you know the history of sterling silver and the hallmarking system, let’s explore the differences between silver vs sterling silver.

The Differences Between Sterling Silver and Pure Silver

But what exactly is the difference between sterling silver vs silver jewelry besides the silver content in it? While sterling silver and pure silver look alike, they’re actually quite different—and not just in terms of composition.

Sterling silver differs from its pure silver cousin in the following important ways:

  • Value
  • Durability
  • Resistance to tarnish
  • Versatility
  • Allergens

Let’s look at each metric in more detail.

Value

Fine silver is generally more valuable than sterling silver, and current silver exchanges dictate its price. To find the going rate of fine silver, simply consult a silver exchange. 

Like sterling silver, fine silver is priced according to the ounce. The price of fine silver becomes essential when gauging the value of your sterling silver.

Calculating the value of your sterling silver isn’t the most complicated operation in the world, but it does involve taking the following steps:

  1. Find the current price of silver per ounce. To do this, consult one of the several currency exchanges.
  1. Measure your sterling silver, and convert the measurement to ounces if your scale only displays grams.
  1. Multiply your sterling silver’s weight by the silver’s purity marking. In the case of true sterling silver, this means multiplying your piece’s weight by .925.
  1. Once you know the amount of pure silver your piece contains, multiply the weight of your fine silver by the going rate of silver. Voila! You now have an idea of your sterling silver’s value.

Although fine silver is more valuable than sterling silver, this doesn’t mean sterling silver has little value. In fact, sterling silver is quite valuable—both extrinsically and intrinsically. 

Durability

One of the main reasons alloys were invented in the first place is durability. On its own, pure silver is soft and malleable. As a result, you can easily bend and damage pure silver just from general wear, and for that reason, silver alloy is added.

Sterling silver, however, is much tougher than fine silver, a characteristic elevated by its inclusion of sturdy metals like copper and zinc.

In fact, sterling silver’s toughness is a primary reason why it has been used extensively as jewelry while fine silver pieces have mostly been relegated to China cabinets.

Resistance to Tarnish

If sterling silver is tougher than fine silver, it’s also less resistant to tarnishing, also known as discoloration. 

That’s because the other metals in sterling silver, most notably copper, are more susceptible to the elements. Wearing your sterling silver necklace to the beach, for instance, can make your piece shimmer with the greenness of seaweed—not the luster of glimmering silver.

Fortunately, ridding your sterling silver of discoloration is, in most cases, a fairly straightforward process, involving just a little elbow grease, water and baking soda. Once you learn how to clean sterling silver jewelry, you can keep the tarnish away from your favorite pieces.  

Versatility

If you’re only planning to wear sterling silver as jewelry, you probably don’t care much for its industrial applications.

However, sterling silver’s durability makes it the ideal metal for many activities and components including:

  • Kitchenware
  • Surgical technologies
  • Musical instruments
  • Flatware
  • Software equipment

Even if you only use sterling silver for its aesthetic beauty, the alloy’s durability and versatility allow you to repurpose your old sterling silver. 

For instance, long after you’ve stopped serving tea and sandwiches on your sterling silver serving tray, you can transform the tray into a posh place for keys and other pocket items.

Allergens

When it comes to sterling silver pros and cons, one of the cons is that it’s not hypoallergenic. While pure silver is hypoallergenic, sterling silver can cause allergic reactions if you’re allergic to the other metals included in the piece.

For example, copper contact has been known to infrequently lead to allergic contact dermatitis. Zinc contact can also lead to allergic reactions, although, like copper reactions, this is rare.

Diamond Nexus: Your Sterling Silver Headquarters

When choosing your next stunning silver jewelry piece, you’ll want to know if the piece that catches your eye is composed of pure, genuine silver or sterling silver.

While both metals have their merits, sterling silver jewelry is more durable, making it the ideal choice for bracelets, necklaces, and all things beautiful. 

This is especially true if you’re searching for your next piece at a jewelry company as sterling as its silver. A place like Diamond Nexus.

For over 15 years, Diamond Nexus has featured the best in lab-created diamond simulants, especially the Nexus Diamond™ Alternative. We’re also known for our scintillating sterling silver—from our gorgeously-starry Starburst Ring to our sublime Solitaire Circle Necklace.

Visit us today for your next sterling silver showstopper.

Sources:

CHEMEUROPE.  Sterling silver. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Sterling_silver.html

Science Notes. Sterling Silver vs. Silver. https://sciencenotes.org/what-is-sterling-silver/

The Diamond Gurus. Pure Silver vs. Sterling Silver: Which is Better? https://www.dmia.net/pure-silver-vs-sterling-silver/#google_vignette

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