What are Nickel Silver, German Silver and Alpaca?

Don't Be Fooled by These Silver-colored Metals

Five German Silver Purses, c. late 1890s
Five German Silver Purses, c. late 1890s. Morphy Auctions

So you find a piece of jewelry or an old metal object for a good price that looks a lot like silver. Being an astute picker, you look for clues to identify the piece and discover that it’s marked nickel silver, German silver or alpaca. But does that mean your item is really some form of old silver? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

There are times when antique dealers and collectors are misinformed and they reference these objects as true silver when selling them or teaching others about what's what in the world of collecting.

This sort of error in attribution has even been noted on television programs related to antiques and collectibles. Read on to find out the difference between nickel silver, also known as German silver, and alpaca in comparison to true sterling silver. 

What is Nickel Silver and German Silver?

The terms “nickel silver” and “German silver” actually refer to the same substance, but items made of this metal are not really silver at all. Nickel or German “silver” is a white alloy containing copper, zinc and nickel. It contains no actual silver.

This type of metal was developed in Germany in the late 1800s as a less expensive substitute for silver. While antiques and collectibles marked nickel silver or German silver might hold some value because of the form, as in the instance of an antique cigar case or old purses (like the examples shown here), items marked nickel or German silver cannot be scrapped for cash.

In most instances, they are far less valuable than similar objects made of sterling silver.

What is Alpaca?

Jewelry items with a gray metallic finish, not quite as shiny as sterling silver, are often found marked alpaca. This type of alloy, sometimes spelled alpacca, also indicates a metal containing copper, zinc, and nickel along with tin.

These items are often decorated with abalone insets or other stones. While they can be nice looking, they don’t hold a lot of value being made of this inexpensive silver substitute.

These pieces are often of Mexican or South American origin. Other larger decorative objects can also be marked alpaca. This substance can sometimes be used as a base metal for silver plated wares as well. Alpaca is also referred to as “new silver” from time to time. Like nickel silver, alpaca has no actual silver content and no scrap value.

Other Types of "Silver" That Fall Short

There are a number of other types of "silver" that don't measure up to sterling. If you run across a piece marked 800 or 900, for instance, those aren't considered to be sterling silver either, although they do have more silver content than nickel silver and alpaca.

Keep in mind that these type of alloys contain 80 to 90 percent silver, so they fall short of the sterling standard of 925. Sometimes 900 silver is referenced as coin silver or standard silver, while 800 silver might be called European silver. 

Additionally, items that are silver plated should not be referenced as sterling. Many antiques and collectibles are marked so they can easily be identified as silver plate with marks that contain signal wording such as "quadruple plate." 

Learning More About Sterling Silver Antiques and Collectibles

Looking at the Basic Guide to Understanding Silver Marks and Terms, collectors learn that silver is the most abundant of the precious metals. It has been used for centuries to craft everything from adornments to eating utensils. It is not at its purest, however, when used for those purposes because it would be too soft to stand up to everyday wear. Silver must be mixed with other non-precious metals to make it stronger, so even the silver making up a true sterling object is considered to be an alloy.

For an object to be called sterling silver, it must be made of an alloy including 92.5 percent silver. Those items are often marked .925 or "sterling." Another type of alloy sometimes called Brittania Silver will be marked 950 because it has 95 percent silver content.

It actually exceeds the qualification for sterling silver.

So, bottom line, if an item does not have at least 92.5 percent silver content, it is incorrect to call it sterling. These false forms of silver sometimes get mislabeled, however, so be sure to look for correct markings before paying top dollar for something evaluated as sterling in an antique shop or at auction.