Sterling silver is versatile, sophisticated and timeless, and this beautiful alloy more than deserves its place as one of the most loved precious metals. But most people aren’t sure what makes this metal so special. So what exactly is sterling silver, and how does it compare to pure silver and other popular metals? How does it suit the individual needs of jewelers, designers and consumers?
We’ve compiled this complete guide to sterling silver jewelry to answer all of your questions about this versatile and lovely metal. Keep reading to learn more about sterling silver along with the many benefits of adding a piece to your jewelry collection.
What is sterling silver?
Silver: A Soft Dilemma
Buried in the earth’s crust, silver has been recognized around the world as a precious and valuable metal. We have mined, worn and marveled at it since it was first discovered. Used initially for currency and intricate jewelry, silver has historically been a signifier of wealth and status — expressions like ” born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth” or “served on a silver platter” illustrate the metal’s wealthy connotations.
Metalsmiths also had some problems with silver. Pure silver is an incredibly soft metal, and although it’s beautiful, it isn’t practical for items that see any kind of use, such as home goods or often-worn jewelry. To be functional, silver’s malleability needed to be strengthened with another, stronger metal.
Sterling Silver: A Beautiful Solution
An alloy is a mixture of two or more different types of metals. The metals are heated to a liquid state and then poured together, forming a new material with properties from each metal.
No one knows for sure when the first silver alloy was created, but we do know that it was widely used by the 11th century. The Norman Penny, issued in Britain by William the Conqueror in 1083, was made from a silver alloy. In some of the coin’s earliest designs, two small stars floated above the king’s shoulders — in Old English, the word steorling translates as “like a little star,” which is one possible origin of the word sterling.
When Europeans discovered the Americas, they also stumbled upon its rich silver mines. Central and South America rose as the largest silver-producing regions in the world, and silversmiths took advantage of the new market. After strengthening the silver with copper or another metal, artisans fashioned almost any item you can think of from sterling silver, including perfume bottles, utensils, medical equipment, jewelry and musical instruments.
Today, sterling silver is one of the most commonly used metals in high-end and high-quality jewelry and accessories. But not just any silver alloy is labeled as sterling — true sterling silver must have a set amount of silver content. Sterling silver is made almost completely from pure silver. Exactly 92.5 percent of the alloy must be silver, and the remaining 7.5 percent comes from other metals, most commonly copper. This slight addition of another metal gives silver strength and durability without affecting its gorgeous, white-gray appearance.
The easiest way to tell if a piece is sterling silver is to look for a quality stamp. According to international standards, all sterling silver should be marked with a quality or fineness stamp, which clearly states the precious metal content of the jewelry. Common sterling silver markers include:
Sterling / Sterling silver / Ster / 92.5 / .925 / 925
Look for the mark in an inconspicuous place, such as on hooks, clasps or closures. If your product is fine silver, it contains 99.9 percent silver — the quality stamp should say .999, 999 or 99.9.
Typically, you can rely on the mark to tell you the exact silver content of your piece. If you’re skeptical, there are a few ways to test the silver content of your jewelry. First, hold it up to a magnet — sterling silver should not be magnetic. If the piece strongly sticks to a magnet, it can’t be silver.
Other methods include the ice, ring, acid and bleach tests. However, the best way to see if your piece is high-quality sterling silver is to consult with an expert jeweler. They can tell you the exact worth and quality of your jewelry, and they won’t accidentally damage your piece in the process.
HOW DOES STERLING SILVER COMPARE TO PURE SILVER?
Sterling silver is almost completely made of pure silver, with a small addition of another metal for durability. But how does sterling silver compare to fine silver?
Although sterling silver is mixed with other metals, it looks the same as lustrous fine silver, which is part of the reason that copper is the most popular metal to mix with silver. Copper gives the alloy maximum durability without affecting its stunning tone. If you’re concerned that sterling silver won’t retain the same shining glow and color of fine silver, you can put your worries aside — even to a trained jeweler, it’s not easy to tell the two metals apart by appearance alone.
Pure silver is a soft, malleable metal — it has never been known for its strength or sturdiness. This quality makes it a very impractical choice for any functional item — coins, table wear and jewelry need to hold their shapes to be useful.
Sterling silver has all of silver’s beauty without its weakness. Able to hold its shape, sterling silver has been formed into everything from intricate serving platters to diamond tiaras. It allows silver to be used, not just admired.
Pure silver is more expensive than a sterling alloy, which means that to design jewelry, an artisan must invest more in initial materials. This requirement significantly raises the price of the final product, making silver a less practical option for commercial jewelry making.
Alternately, sterling silver is an affordable metal. When combined with its increased strength, this characteristic makes it an excellent choice for a wide range of applications.
Tarnishing is a chemical reaction that gradually darkens and dulls metals. Exposure to sulfur in air and water creates a coating of tarnish on the surface of the metal, resulting in a loss of brightness and shine.
Pure silver, like pure gold, is not a very reactive metal. It doesn’t react with oxygen or water, and as a result, it doesn’t easily tarnish. Sterling silver is more sensitive to air and water than fine silver, which makes it prone to tarnishing. While sterling silver is more functional than pure silver, it requires a little more care to stay in pristine condition.
If your beautiful sterling silver piece begins to show signs of tarnishing, don’t worry — sterling silver is easy to clean! For more information, be sure to ask Red Nymph a complete guide on cleaning sterling silver jewelry
HOW DOES STERLING SILVER COMPARE TO OTHER METALS?
In jewelry making, the three most common precious metals are silver, gold and platinum. As a type of silver, sterling silver is considered a precious metal alloy, and it’s often compared to other precious metals. Here’s a brief look at how silver holds up against sister metals white gold and platinum.
Appearance: Especially when dealing with white gold, the three metals can have a similar shimmering, gray appearance. However, sterling silver typically has a brighter tone than the other two metals.
Functionality: Platinum is considered a soft metal and scratches or damages easily. Both white gold and sterling silver are much stronger metals, although white gold is slightly more scratch-resistant than silver.
Affordability: Sterling silver is the least expensive of the precious metals, making it a more affordable option for those who want high-quality, beautiful jewelry without a painful price tag.
Weight: The lightest of the precious metals, sterling silver is not a heavy material. While some people like the feel of substantial jewelry like platinum and gold, sterling silver’s lightness makes it a practical choice for daily use when you don’t want to be weighed down by heavy pieces.
Maintenance: Because it’s vulnerable to tarnishing, sterling silver requires more care to maintain than other precious metals. While tarnishing is easy to prevent and clean, this characteristic of silver makes it less popular for pieces like engagement rings.
Sterling silver can more than hold its own against the other top precious metals on the market — lovely, functional and affordable, a piece of sterling silver jewelry will compare well against white gold and even platinum pieces.
WHY IS STERLING SILVER GREAT FOR JEWELRY?
What makes sterling silver such a great material for jewelry? Here are some of the characteristics that make it such an attractive material for jewelers and designers.
1) Durable and Light
The added metals in sterling silver make it an incredibly durable material — it’s even stronger than gold. In addition to its light weight, this quality makes it an ideal choice for jewelry that will be worn daily or often. Below is a quick look at how sterling silver’s durability works with four of the most common types of jewelry — necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings.
Necklaces: In necklaces, sterling silver provides a strong material that will not scratch or dent easily. Light enough to wear all day but durable enough to resist wear and tear, a sterling silver necklace is a practical choice that will last for years to come.
Earrings: Few things are as frustrating as new earrings getting warped out of shape. Sterling silver earrings are beautiful, elegant and tough enough to resist bending.
Bracelets: Whether you love a stackables, bangles or intricate cuffs, a tasteful bracelet can add glam to any wardrobe — but if your bracelet gets bent or dented, the appeal is quickly gone. Fortunately, the durability of sterling silver makes for tough bracelets that will resist bending and scratches, so you can wear them all day without worry.
Rings: When we wear rings, we need them to hold up to daily use. Sterling silver rings are strong and lightweight, and they’ll hold their shape even when worn all day.
Properly cared for, sterling silver jewelry can last for a lifetime, bringing beauty to your collection for decades.
Sterling silver is an affordable and workable metal, which means that it gives jewelers and designers greater artistic freedom. They can experiment with new styles and keep up with the latest trends — whether you’re searching for a grand statement piece or delicate and on-trend jewelry, you’re sure to find something in sterling silver that suits your style.
Sweet lockets, swirling rings, one-of-a-kind charm necklaces and exquisite cuffs are just a few of the thousands of sterling silver options available. And because sterling silver is readily available and easy to work with, many jewelers will design customized pieces to fit your exact specifications. Sterling silver allows you to create the piece of jewelry you’ve been dreaming about without breaking your budget.
3) Easily Finished
Just because a piece of jewelry is made from sterling silver doesn’t mean will tarnish. Sterling silver can be readily coated or plated with anti-tarnishing agents, giving it an extra edge against wear.
Sterling silver is easily polished or coated in rhodium, which makes it tarnish-resistant and gives it a lovely, high-gloss finish. While rhodium-finished items take extra work to resize or rework, the added coat is worth it if you don’t want to worry about tarnishing. Some jewelers will plate sterling silver with pure silver — the extra layer of silver helps the piece resist tarnishing and adds extra brightness to the jewelry.
REASONS TO CHOOSE STERLING SILVER JEWELRY
Sterling silver makes an attractive material for jewelers and designers — but what about your personal jewelry collection? Below, we’ve listed our top five reasons to include sterling silver pieces in your regular jewelry rotation. From its hypoallergenic qualities to wide accessibility, sterling silver jewelry is a must-have for any collection.
Up to 10 percent of people are allergic to nickel, but the percentage can reach 20 percent in women due to exposure to the metal through jewelry. A nickel allergy can result in frustrating symptoms, such as irritated and itchy skin and scabbing.
Other inexpensive metals like brass can also cause an allergic skin reaction, causing redness, swelling and blisters. Even if you’ve never experienced a reaction, the threat of a nickel or brass allergy is enough to make most people steer clear of the metals.
Sterling silver, made from 92.5 percent fine silver, is a perfect hypoallergenic alternative. It’s much less likely to cause an allergic reaction than nickel or brass, which means you can wear pieces of sterling silver jewelry without risk of infection or irritation. This quality is especially important when wearing accessories like earrings, which remain in constant contact with the skin.
2) Increased Strength
As we’ve discussed throughout this guide, sterling silver is considerably stronger than pure silver as well as other precious metals such as gold. Scratch-resistant and durable for generations, sterling silver can cast for a lifetime.
The quality and longevity of a sterling silver piece are incredible, especially considering its comparative affordability. Sterling silver jewelry will hold its shape even with daily use, which makes it a perfect go-to option in a jewelry collection. If you love the gleaming look of silver but dislike constantly bending your bracelets back into shape, a sterling silver bangle will be a breath of fresh air.
Besides lasting through daily wear, a well-cared-for piece of sterling silver jewelry can last through generations of use. Who knows — your beautiful new sterling silver piece could become your family’s next treasured heirloom!
3) High Customization Potential
Because sterling silver is easy to work with, designers are free to experiment, which means you can find timeless and classy pieces as well as fun and whimsical accessories. With sterling silver jewelry, you can also easily personalize an item — maybe you want a necklace stamped or engraved with your children’s initials, or you want your grandchild’s birthstone to be the focal point of the piece. Workable and affordable, customized sterling silver pieces are effortlessly individualized to suit any occasion.
Sterling silver also allows you to keep up with the newest fashion trends without spending a fortune. Because of its popularity and classic appeal, sterling silver will always be “in,” and craftsmen are constantly creating new designs to fit with current trends.
The options for a piece of sterling silver are endless, and with such a wide range of choices and artistic expression available, you can personalize your jewelry collection to express your beautiful and unique personality.
4) Incredible Versatility
Like gray is considered a neutral color, silver is a well-established neutral metal. As a result, silver jewelry is appropriate no matter the occasion.