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What is Sterling Silver?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sterling silver is often characterized as pure silver, when in fact it is a silver alloy. Pure silver, also called fine silver, is defined as 99.9% pure silver, but is too soft for most uses. Sterling contains 92.5% silver, with the remaining 7.5% being another metal, most often copper. The addition of the less costly metal - often called a base metal - serves to harden the resulting alloy so that the metal can be cast into shapes that it will retain with use.

Sterling silver is marked with a stamp on the bottom of the piece. The shape of the stamp varies from country to country, and in the US from manufacturer to manufacturer.

One of the most common uses of sterling is in making fine tableware. This typically includes utensils - knives, forks, and spoons - as well as coffee and tea service sets, with silver trays. A set of formal silverware might include several different types of forks which would only be used in the place setting if the meal called for them - a seafood fork, for example, is a tiny, usually three-pronged fork used for oysters, clams, and so on. Spoons can range from the tiny demitasse spoon to the soup spoon, with larger serving spoons completing the collection.

Sterling silver tarnishes simply by being in contact with the air. Pure silver is, like gold, impervious to tarnish, or oxidation on the surface. It is the alloy metal which attracts the tarnish. Rub your thumb over an apparently shiny piece of sterling. You may find a dull smudge on your skin that indicates that the sterling silver is beginning to tarnish.

Your sterling silver can be kept polished simply by buffing with a cotton cloth regularly. Sterling silver that has been stored away unused for a period of time might develop a significant layer of tarnish and need a polishing paste. Before you employ the paste and elbow grease, try the following butler's trick.

Line the bottom of the sink or a dishpan with tin foil, and fill with hot water. Add some salt and baking soda. Proportions aren't critical here, just throw in a couple teaspoons of each. Next, put the silver into the water, with the pieces touching each other and the tin foil. The tarnish will be pulled off the silver to the foil - in cases of heavy tarnish, you will be able to see it flaking off. Leave in for no more than five minutes, rinse and dry.

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Discussion Comments

By anon990664 — On May 04, 2015

925 means that the piece is 92.5 percent pure silver with the remaining 7.5 percent being either copper, aluminum, or some other metal alloy. If you are looking for genuine silver jewelry, 925 silver is best and this means that your piece will be providing the beauty that has made silver as in demand as it is, while ensuring it isn’t too soft.

By anon989495 — On Mar 09, 2015

I have a ring that states 925FA9. Does anyone know what this stands for?

By anon952307 — On May 20, 2014

What is a "Pure Guido Silver" fork worth?

By anon356205 — On Nov 22, 2013

Silver is under $20 an ounce and that is for fine silver. Sterling silver is only .925 or so silver. Places that buy silver and gold jewelry are only paying 65 to 75 percent of what they get from the refinery.

One troy ounce of sterling silver will likely get you $13 to $15 at one of these gold and silver places. To even get an ounce of sterling silver, you typically need a heavy chain or a chain with a heavy pendant. Most pendants can range from .01 ozt .50 ozt depending on the weight.

I'm not sure what you have, but selling it anywhere but to a friend or another person who wants the item for anything other than scrap refining will probably get you $3 to $8.

By nextcorrea — On Dec 11, 2012

I have a nice little sterling silver pendant that I have been considering selling.

Where can I get the best price for it? Should I visit a jeweler or try to set something up online?

By tigers88 — On Dec 10, 2012

My husband and I wear sterling silver rings rather than the traditional gold wedding band. When we went to pick out rings both of us loved the way that the silver rings looked. We are pretty traditional, but not absolutely committed to doing everything exactly the same way as everyone else. So we went with silver rings and I know that neither of us regrets it.

By profess — On Dec 10, 2012
I have a few pieces of sterling silver jewelry that belonged to my mom and got passed down to me when she died.

It is beautiful jewelry but really not my style. It is very big and ornate looking.

But even though I almost never wear it, I could never bear to sell it. It is not quite an heirloom, but it is something close.

By anon252712 — On Mar 06, 2012

Why do people use sterling silver in jewelry products?

By anon225482 — On Oct 27, 2011

What do mean by sterling silver? If we want to melt the sterling silver how much silver will we get?

By opa1935 — On Mar 06, 2011

Have a set of silver flatware from Europe with 100 stamped into the handle of knives, spoon etc. Does anyone know about these markings?

By anon48895 — On Oct 15, 2009

Even with the above test, will you be able to tell if the piece is an overlay? Wouldn't you have to go all the way through the overlay silver?

By anon31553 — On May 07, 2009

pure silver does tarnish easily. The sulphur (present in the air) and (high) humidity always do that to silver. Store your jewelry in airtight bags.

By ram1919 — On Mar 01, 2009

my question is, my sterling silver set, 66pc. in a chest never tarnishes,why?(my set is towle)

By anon18304 — On Sep 18, 2008

How do you tell if a piece is Silver or simply base metal with a overlay or plating?

Cover your work area with newspaper so that no acid is spilled on your counter top or table top. Place your testing stone on the newspaper and place the item out of the way so that no test acid gets splattered on it. Scratching the test stone with the edge of the item is probably the best area to test. The scratch doesn't leave large scars on the surface of the item this way. When scratching the item on the test stone, make sure you push with a little bit of force in order to leave tiny pieces of silver on the stone. You will notice there is a streak on the test stone when you have scratched it correctly. After scratching the test stone simply drop one drop of test acid on the streak of metal left on the test stone. Look for change in color. When testing silver, you want the streak to change in the following manner: Dark Red = 925 Silver; Brown = 800 Silver and Green = 500 Silver.

Filing a groove in the piece is another method of testing an item of silver. Simply file a groove in an inconspicuous location on the piece. Drop one drop of test acid for silver on the piece and wait for the change. Testing the piece itself is possible with the silver solution but it has a tendency to dull the finish and leave a stain where the acid was place. So this method is not recommended on fine pieces.

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