Silver is considered to be a precious metal and is the most plentiful of all metals falling into this category. It has long been used to fashion serving pieces, decorative items, jewelry, and a host of other goods. It is indicated as .999 in its pure form, but silver is actually too soft to be used for manufacture without mixing it with other metals. When metals are combined they are referenced as alloys. Thus most silver, including sterling, falls into the alloy category.
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. Also, keep in mind that for an item to be deemed sterling, 92.5 percent of the metal content in the alloy must be pure silver. This is why many sterling silver items are marked .925.
Common Silver Alloys and Their Markings
Here are some of the most common types of silver alloys, along with an explanation of silverplate, with information on how they are often marked:
- Brittania Silver or 950: Brittania silver is an alloy made of 95 percent silver, which exceeds the requirement for sterling silver. It is most often marked 950. This silver will be slightly softer than sterling pieces marked 925 or simply sterling.
- Coin Silver or 900: Since it is only 90 percent silver, this alloy cannot be referenced as sterling. Marks include 900, coin, and standard.
- European Silver or 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 percent silver content respectively.
- Sterling Silver or 925: This is the standard for silver meaning that a silver item is at least 92.5 percent 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.
- 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 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 indicating the silver content but it 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 test as sterling using traditional acid testing. Use a magnet to determine if base metal is present in these cases. 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, which can sometimes be confused with sterling silver, but 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 two percent 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 silver plating.
- 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 a high shine like metals with silver content. Marks include German Silver and E.P.N.S (electroplated nickel silver). Originating in Germany, as the name implies, it was used as a less expensive substitute for sterling, primarily in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
- Nickel Silver: 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.