Of the various minerals categorized as precious metals, silver is the most plentiful. It has long been used to fashion serving pieces, decorative items, jewelry, and a host of other goods. Most silver items include a stamp to indicate the purity of the silver being used. Items containing the purest forms of silver would be labeled .999, but in reality, silver is too soft to be used in manufacture unless it is mixed with other metals. When metals are combined, they are known as alloys. Thus, most silver, including items that known as sterling silver, fall into the alloy category. For an item to be deemed sterling silver, 92.5% of the metal content in the alloy must be pure silver. Hence, many sterling silver items are labeled .925.
There are many different terms used to describe various alloys sold as silver. Some of them contain no silver at all, so it’s prudent to understand these terms when investing in antiques or collectibles.
Common Silver Alloys and Their Markings
Here are some of the most common types of silver alloys, with information on how they are often marked:
- Brittania silver (950): Brittania silver is an alloy made of 95% silver, which exceeds the requirement for sterling silver. It is most often marked 950. This silver qualifies as sterling, but it is slightly softer than sterling pieces marked 925 or simply sterling.
- Sterling silver (925): This is the standard for silver, identifying a silver item that is at least 92.5% silver mixed with copper to give it strength. Marks on these pieces include 925 or Sterling. Any mark indicating a higher silver content, such as 950, would also qualify as sterling.
- Coin silver (900): Since it is only 90% silver, this alloy cannot be referenced as sterling. Items made from this alloy may include marks such as 900, Coin, and Standard.
- European silver (800): Sometimes referenced as continental silver, this is another non-sterling type of silver alloy. Marks can include 800, 825, 830, or 850, indicating 80, 82.5, 83, and 85% silver content, respectively.
- Silverplate: The silver content in silverplated wares is minimal. A silverplate marking, sometimes incorporated into a manufacturer’s mark, indicates that the item was made by electroplating a base metal with a relatively thin coating of silver. When items are marked Quadruple Plate, this indicates four layers of silver were applied to the item over the base metal. These are higher in quality and less likely to wear down to the base metal with polishing over time. Since silverplate does tarnish like true silver, it requires cleaning from time to time to keep its shine.
When an item is not marked to identify its silver content but still tarnishes like silver, there is a very good chance it is a silverplated piece. This is especially true with jewelry. If the plating is thick, the item may even test as sterling under traditional acid testing. In these instances, you can use a magnet to determine if a base metal. A magnet will firmly stick to a silverplated item, but it will not adhere to sterling silver.
Other Silver-Colored Wares
Many collectible items are made of silver-colored metal that can sometimes be confused with sterling silver, but which have little or no silver content in them. These are far less valuable than items made of sterling silver. Examples include:
- Alpaca: While it is sometimes referenced as “new silver,” this gray-colored alloy has only 2% silver content mixed with copper, zinc, and nickel. Items of Mexican or South American origin emulating silver can be found with the Alpaca mark. Alpaca does not polish to a high shine like sterling silver. It can also be used as a base for silverplating.
- German silver: This silver-colored metal actually contains no silver at all. It is an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc. It will not polish to the high shine possible with silver alloys. Marks include German Silver and E.P.N.S (electroplated nickel silver). Originating in Germany, it was used as a less expensive substitute for sterling, primarily in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
- Nickel silver: This is another silver-colored material with the same metal content as German silver. It is a mixed metal alloy with no silver content, used around the same time frame as German silver to simulate more expensive sterling silver. Items made of this substance are marked nickel silver.