What Is Sterling Silver & How Is It Different From Pure Silver Jewelry?

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Silver has long been one of the most popular materials used by humans. Throughout human history, our society has used silver to produce coins, high-status homewares, mirrors, cars, electronics, medicine, and more. The jewelry-making industry also uses silver to craft timeless pieces symbolizing prosperity and 25 years of marriage.

If you’re a jewelry lover, there is no doubt that you’ve either purchased or at least browsed silver jewelry. As such, you may have noticed some stores selling both real silver and sterling silver items.

There is a big difference between sterling silver and pure silver jewelry. We will explain that and everything you need to know about sterling silver jewelry in this article.

What Is Sterling Silver Jewelry?

Let’s start by exploring what sterling silver jewelry is. Sterling silver is simply an alloyed form of pure silver. Also called 925 silver, sterling silver pieces are made up of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals, including copper or zinc. That being said, sterling silver does not always have 92.5% of pure silver components. In some countries, the percentage of silver in jewelry pieces is lower than 92.5%.

Contrary to some beliefs, sterling silver is still real silver. As mentioned, it’s just a mixture of pure silver and some precious metals to make the material durable but easy to mold.

Difference Between Sterling Silver and Pure Silver

Silky knot bracelet in sterling silver by Blue Nile

Whereas sterling silver is an alloy made of a mixture of silver and other metals, pure silver is 99.9% silver. In this form, the metal is soft and pliable, making it unsuitable for handmade jewelry.

In line with that, many jewelers prefer sterling silver over pure silver as it is easier to mold. The material is also more durable and can look good for a lifetime. Additionally, gemstones are easier to set and are less likely to move or pop out of a 925 silver setting.

Aside from durability, there are other numerous advantages to purchasing sterling silver jewelry, including:

  • Great value. Sterling silver is extremely durable even if it is much less expensive than gold or platinum jewelry.
  • Hypoallergenic. Sterling silver is perfect for people with sensitive skin, especially those whose skin gets irritated when it is exposed to other metals.
  • Long-lasting. With proper care and cleaning, sterling silver jewelry can last a lifetime.

Taking Care of Sterling Silver Jewelry

Intertwined oval hoop earrings in sterling silver by Blue Nile

The longevity of sterling silver jewelry is dependent on proper wearing and caring habits. Here are a few suggestions.

Wearing Habits

  1. Wear the jewelry often. Believe it or not, the more you wear your sterling silver jewelry, the cleaner it will stay. This is because our skin secretes natural oils that help keep the jewelry piece shiny.
  2. Take off your jewelry when doing chores. This is very important especially if you’re using household cleaners and detergents as they can cause tarnish.
  3. Avoid exposing your jewelry to direct sunlight. Much like household cleaners, sunlight can also tarnish your jewelry.
  4. Put your jewelry on after everything else. Products like make-up and lotions can also hasten the tarnishing process.

Cleaning habits

  1. Soap and water. Most times, using silver cleaners is not necessary. Try cleaning your jewelry using soap and water first before using other methods.
  2. Baking soda and water. Replacing soap with baking soda paste will give you a deeper clean. Use a clean cloth or a toothbrush to clean your jewelry piece.
  3. White vinegar and baking soda. If your jewelry is showing signs of tarnish, you can soak it in a white vinegar-baking soda mixture for a few hours. Rinse it with water after.

One of the most common misconceptions about cleaning silver is the use of toothpaste. Many claim toothpaste is effective in cleaning sterling silver pieces. This is not entirely a lie as it was an effective solution in the past. However, many toothpaste brands nowadays use ingredients that could be harmful to silver jewelry. As such, we recommend either using one of the cleaning techniques mentioned above or bringing your piece to a professional jeweler.

How To Know If Your Jewelry Is Real Silver

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In most cases, silver jewelry will be hallmarked or stamped with 925 or 999. Jewelry with the 925 stamp means it’s made of sterling silver while a 999 marking means it’s pure silver. Other jewelry pieces also bear the stamps SS or FS. In this case, SS stands for sterling silver, and FS for fine silver.

That being said, not all silver jewelry has a pure silver or sterling silver stamp as marks are not legal requirements in all countries. This can make it harder for you to distinguish between pure and sterling silver jewelry. Fortunately, there are other ways to determine if a piece is made of sterling silver, including:

  • Hold a magnet to the jewelry piece. If it sticks, the jewelry is not made of sterling silver.
  • Smell the piece. Sterling silver jewelry pieces do not have a strong metallic scent. If it smells of metal, then the piece is not made of sterling silver.
  • If you’re feeling brave, dab a tiny amount of chlorine bleach on your silver piece. If it turns brown or black, then it’s made of silver.

That being said, we highly recommend not using the last method. While you can use a polishing cloth and silver dip to try to remove the discoloration, there is no guarantee that you can completely remove it. On that note, this is also why it is never a good idea to wear sterling silver jewelry in the swimming pool.

On Nickel Silver and German Silver

Sterling silver is not the only variation of silver jewelry being sold in the market. Some stores also sell nickel silver or German silver. While the cheaper price tag may make it more tempting to buy, we advise against it. Despite having the word ‘silver’ in its name, neither nickel nor German silver contain any traces of silver.

Nickel silver is an alloy made of metals like copper and nickel. German silver, on the other hand, contains zinc. Both materials can cause allergies and skin rashes over time.

Frequently Asked Questions On Sterling Silver

What is the difference between sterling silver vs pure silver?

The less pure sterling silver is made of 92.5% silver and another precious metal. Conversely, fine silver items are made of 99.9% silver.

What are other varieties of silver items?

There is nickel silver, German silver, coin silver (used to make coins), Britannia silver (a silver alloy used to make British coins), and silver plated. All of these are considered silver alloys but the sterling silver alloy remains the most popular and widely used.

Is sterling silver real silver?

Sterling silver is still silver. It still contains over 90% silver mixed with other alloy metals to make it durable.

How to distinguish real sterling silver?

Most true sterling silver pieces have the 925 or SS silver hallmarks.

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