The Secrets of Silver Sterling

Silver (Symbol Ag) is perhaps the more mysterious of our precious metals in the sense that most people understand, to some extent, the difference between 14K gold and 24K gold. Still, few truly understand the difference between sterling silver and pure silver, and few know that there are other jewelry-grade silver alloys on the market.

Sterling silver moon pendant with Saturn chain by Blue Nile

A Brief History of Jewelry Making vs. Silver

Archaeologists have found evidence of silver as far back as 3000 BC in Sumerian cities and 3400 BC in Ancient Egypt. Silver coins have been discovered in Athens and other cities that traded around the Mediterranean Sea as silver coins were some of the very first metals that were used to make coins.

Sterling silver infinity chain bracelet by Blue Nile

Interesting Facts About Regular Silver

Silver is closely associated with the moon. This seems to be because silver, like the moon, reflects light. In fact, it is the element on the periodic table that is most reflective. Silver has a crystal structure that is cubic. Another mineral that has a cubic crystalline structure is the diamond.

Furthermore, silver is highly resistant to bacteria, making it a fantastic addition to a medical kit. It is so effective, in fact, that bacteria are not able to develop a resistance to it the way it might to antibiotic medication.

Sterling silver rope circle stud earrings by Blue Nile

Sterling Silver vs. Pure Silver

The main difference between pure silver and sterling silver is that sterling silver is an alloy, meaning it comprises of more than one elemental metal.

Pure Silver

Fine silver and pure silver are actually the same thing. This kind of silver has 99.9% silver, and the other .1% is inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. Although this prospect might sound appealing, it is actually problematic. Pure silver is extremely soft and is not really a good option for jewels as a whole. That being said, some people like the idea of pure silver jewelry, so some jewelers will make earrings and necklaces of pure silver. It is not advised to invest in rings and bracelets like this because pure silver is just not hard enough to handle the increased shocks suffered by jewelry worn on the hands.

Pure silver is marked with 999, .999, or 99.9. This type of silver is notably duller than sterling silver, even when polished. It is also extremely easy to mold and can be fused without the use of a soldering iron. However, it does not tarnish very easily because it is not an alloy.

Sterling silver knot bracelet by Blue Nile

Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is a silver alloy, meaning that it consists mostly of silver (about 92.5%) which is mixed with copper and some other metal, ordinarily something like zinc or, more commonly, nickel. This makes sterling silver much stronger and harder than fine silver, making it suitable for daily wear. This is means that sterling silver is made of 92.5 pure silver and 7.5 other metals, usually copper. Purity lower than 925, such as German silver, can still be suitable for your jewelry collection but is slightly less durable in terms of tarnishing.

The 92.5 pure silver and 7.5 other metals ratio is an American standard, so jewelers elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, can be held to other standards.

Sterling silver is marked 925, .925, or 92.5. These are according to US standards. Other areas of the world might have different standards related to the purity of silver and silver alloys. The nickel in some sterling silver alloys is an allergen which makes it unsuitable for people with metal allergies or sensitive skin. That being said, 925 silver tends to be free of nickel.

Sterling silver blue topaz cabochon key pendant by Blue Nile

How and Why Does Silver Tarnish?

Sterling silver notably tarnishes quicker and easier than pure silver does. This happens because the other metals in sterling silver react to ozone in the atmosphere. Other chemicals that can cause tarnishing in silver are humidity, cosmetics, household cleaners, salty air or saltwater, sweat, sulfur, and chlorine.

Interestingly, although sterling silver is subject to tarnishing, it does not rust due to the other metals in its alloy. Even mixtures weaker in silver than sterling, such as coin silver, will not rust, although tarnishing in silver alloys is common.

Sterling silver silky knot bracelet by Blue Nile

Argentium Silver and Non-Tarnish Alloys

This type of silver is actually quite new on the market. It contains an additional alloy called germanium which makes this kind of silver very resistant to tarnish. It also makes sterling silver even harder. Overall, this type of alloy requires less maintenance, but under extreme conditions and over long periods of time, it can still tarnish. Argentium is still rare and far more expensive than sterling silver.

Sterling silver crescent moon charm necklace with blue topaz star by Blue Nile

Silver Plate

Sometimes sterling silver is plated with pure silver to make it shinier. However, you can also find jewelry made of other metals that are plated with a layer of sterling silver. This type of jewelry is not considered fine and is not suited to daily wear because the plating will wear over time.

The most common base metal in silver-plated jewelry is brass. This means that the main piece of jewelry is made entirely of brass, but it is coated in a thin layer of silver, sometimes sterling silver, but more often fine silver.

Sterling silver Saturn chain bracelet by Blue Nile

Sterling Silver Jewelry

First and foremost, we must state clearly and definitely that sterling silver is real silver jewelry. Furthermore, sterling silver jewelry is best worn daily as it tends to darken and lose its luster when left in a box somewhere. Storage does not do silver jewelry any good unless you are going to do something that exposes your silver jewelry to elements that will tarnish it.

While 925 silver is held to a strict standard, other countries may offer a difference in silver content, but even combinations as low as 80% silver can still make high-quality silver jewelry.

Sterling silver open heart pendant by Blue Nile

Testing the Purity of Silver

Before you attempt to test any jewelry, start by checking the label. Does it indicate sterling silver or pure silver?

There is also an acid test that is done with nitric acid, but other tests are safer, so we will not be going into more details about the acid test as we suggest attempting a safer test first. Also, remember that plated silver jewelry can also test positive for genuine silver if the plating is high quality.

Ice Cube Test

This test is better suited to silver pieces with relatively large flat surfaces, so it might not work on most jewelry pieces. Regardless, if you do have silver that you want to test with this method, you will place the silver on a flat surface and then place an ice cube on top of the silver piece. The ice cube will melt notably faster when in contact with silver than it would at room temperature when not in contact with silver.

Bleach Test

This is not a test that many people like to perform on their jewelry, but if you are conservative enough in how much bleach is used, you should be able to clean any tarnish marks off your jewelry after the test is complete.

Both pure silver and sterling silver will be tarnished when you place a drop of bleach on the jewelry piece. It will make a black mark.

Magnet Test

Silver has a very low reaction to magnetic fields, so if you bring a strong magnet to your jewelry and it sticks pretty firmly, then it is likely not silver, not even sterling silver.

Ring Test

Silver will make a melodic ringing sound when bumped against another silver item and will ring like a bell when dropped. The purer the ringing sound, the purer the silver.

Caring for any Silver Jewelry

While pure silver should not be worn daily, sterling silver does not do well in storage. It should only be stored if you are going to do something that will result in the tarnishing of the sterling silver jewelry. When you have to store silver jewelry, it is best to store it in a dry place in a special pocket or box where it will not rub or dump against over metals or gemstones.

Try never to clean fine silver or sterling silver jewelry with harsh chemicals like toothpaste, lemon juice, or baking soda. It is best to store your jewelry when you are cleaning the house or working in the garden. Also, when you are bathing or showering or if you are going to swim (in a pool or the ocean) or use a hot tub. Store your jewelry when you are going to the gym or doing some kind of impact sport or when you are cooking. And remember to remove your jewelry when you apply skin and hair products or makeup.

Cleaning with a Special Silver Cleaner

Some jewelers sell special cleaning solutions for different metals. If you are planning on using a special cleaner like this, you should follow the instructions given on the packaging of the cleaning solution.

Usually, you would apply a little bit of the cleaner to a very soft cloth that will not scratch the jewelry. You then gently polish the jewelry with the cloth and then rinse it off under warm water reasonably thoroughly.

Once all of the solution is rinsed off, you should dry the jewelry by blotting it down with a soft cloth. This is where you will notice that the jewelry is now shinier and less tarnished.

Cleaning with Household Supplies

You can clean your silver with mild household cleaners if you prefer. We would recommend normal dish soap (that does not contain a high concentration of lemon juice). You would place a few drops of this dish soap into warm water and later it up.

The jewelry should be soaked for up to 10 minutes and then lightly and carefully brushed with a soft-bristle toothbrush to dislodge dirt from crevices. Once you are satisfied that the piece is clean, you can rinse the jewelry thoroughly under warm water.

Lastly, you can blot dry the jewelry with a microfiber cloth. It is preferable that you not use a paper towel as it is rough enough to scratch the soft silver jewelry.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is sterling silver real silver?

Yes, sterling silver is real. Unlike sterling silver, fine silver is extremely soft and quickly loses its shape and scratches. For this reason, fine silver is rarely used in jewelry. Sterling silver is a much more popular choice because the small amount of copper that it contains makes the metal stronger and more resilient to damage.

Is sterling silver good quality?

Yes, sterling silver jewelry is of excellent quality. It requires more maintenance than pure fine silver but is more robust and harder to damage. Copper, nickel, silver, zinc, and other trace metals can be found in silver sterling.

Is sterling silver expensive?

Sterling silver is comparatively cheap when considering the price of gold jewelry or platinum. Silver-plated jewelry will be even more affordable, but it cannot be worn daily. For this fact, sterling silver makes a better choice to add to your jewelry collection than silver-plated jewelry simply because sterling silver items are more durable and, therefore, better value for money.

What does 925 silver mean?

925 Silver refers to an American standard for silver content is true sterling silver. It simply means that sterling silver items should contact at least 92.5% silver content; the rest is usually a mix of mostly copper and some nickel. Purity lower than that can be found in European markets.

If the sterling silver jewelry is stamped “925” or something similar, it means that the sterling silver jewelry is a high-quality choice held to the American standard. If the jeweler making sterling silver jewelry has a lower silver content and higher copper content, then it is likely something like German silver.

Can I put on silver plated jewelry every day?

We do not advise wearing silver plated jewelry every day.

Some might feel that silver-plated earrings can be worn daily because they are more protected than rings, but we have to remember that even earrings will come into contact with the ozone in the air and with sweat on your skin while will making the silver-plated layer rub off quicker. Rings will degrade faster, which is why silver plating in jewelry making is more common in items like necklaces and earrings, but this does not make it suitable for everyday use.

Will 925 silver scratch next to my other rings?

Sterling silver might be durable, but it is not a match to certain hard gems like diamonds, sapphire, or moissanite. Choosing sterling silver is a personal preference to yellow gold or alternative metal colors. However, 925 silver might get damaged to be subject to other marks when in contact with a metal like platinum or a stone like a diamond.

Practically, when considering sterling silver vs. silver-plated vs. silver, we should remember that silver plating will rub off, and higher purity silver is far less durable. Sterling silver is an alloy, and the copper in this alloy makes it pretty durable. That being said, even guaranteed purity stamped sterling silver vs. other jewels will eventually result in damage.

What is the purity of stamped sterling silver vs. coin silver?

Coin grade silver might have a lower purity than sterling silver vs. even most European metal grades for sterling. However, this varies largely between different coins.


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