Throughout the ages, silver has captivated people the world over with its dazzling shine and beauty.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the history and characteristics of silver, as well as the pros and cons of using pure silver as a jewelry metal, and how pure silver compares to sterling silver and other precious metals.
What is Pure Silver?
Silver is an element of the periodic table. Its chemical symbol Ag derives from its Latin name argentum, which translates to “shiny” or “white.”
While it sometimes occurs within the Earth’s crust in its native form, most silver is found as part of metallic alloys or mineral ores, and is extracted from these through mining and refining processes.
Pure silver, also known by the terms fine silver or 999 silver, is the type of silver that’s been refined to 99.9% silver content, with the remaining 0.1% being trace amounts of other metals. This is typically the highest level of purity that silver can achieve.
The Origins and Early Uses of Silver
Like its fellow precious metals yellow gold and platinum, silver came into being as a result of stars exploding or colliding. Cosmic silver particles were part of the huge cloud of dust and gas which formed the Earth and the rest of the solar system, which is why silver exists on our planet today.
Evidence of silver use by humans dates back as far as 4400 BCE in Egypt. Ancient silver-working was also practiced in regions including Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Mediterranean Europe, East Asia, and North and South America.
In the 6th century BCE, the first mass-produced coinage was made from silver (gold coins didn’t come into wide circulation until two centuries later). Silver was also used to make decorative and ceremonial objects such as jewelry, ornaments, and religious cult figurines, as well practical items such as tableware.
Characteristics of Silver
While more abundant than gold or platinum, silver is still a rare precious metal. Its relative scarcity contributes to its perceived value, and pure silver bars and coins are often purchased as investments. Outside of investing and jewelry making, silver is also in demand for applications such as electronics, solar panels, medical equipment, and other modern technologies.
In its pure form, silver is a very soft metal, rating only 2.5 to 3 out of 10 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness. For this reason, most silver jewelry is not made from pure silver. The most popular silver used for jewelry is sterling silver, a less pure but harder alloy containing 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals (usually copper).
Known for its bright white metallic appearance, silver is the metal that’s best at reflecting visible light. Its natural high luster makes silver a valuable material not only for making jewelry and decorative objects, but also for plating mirrors.
Silver is generally resistant to most forms of corrosion. However, silver is vulnerable to tarnishing, which happens when the metal forms a layer of dark silver sulfide through reacting with sulfur compounds in the air. Tarnish can be removed to restore the silver to its original color and shine.
Silver has high malleability and a relatively low melting point of 1,763°F (962°C). These qualities mean silver can be readily formed into a variety of jewelry designs and shapes. Compared to more brittle, higher melting point metals like platinum, silver is an easier material for jewelers and metalsmiths to work with.
How To Tell If Something Is Pure Silver
Fine silver items are often marked with the number 999 to indicate their silver purity of 99.9%. Likewise, a sterling silver stamp of 925 indicates 92.5% silver content, meaning that 7.5% of the alloy is copper or some other metal. In some countries, symbols are used instead of (or as well as) numeric markings.
At-home silver testing kits are readily available online. They typically involve using a stone to scratch off a small amount of metal from a silver item (ideally from an inconspicuous place!), then applying a drop of acid to the scratched-off metal sample. The acid’s color after reacting with the metal sample determines how much silver content it has, if any.
Note that different acids produce different colors when reacting with silver, so the color for a positive test result will depend on what type of acid your testing kit uses. The kit’s instructions will tell you which color to look for.
Silver isn’t attracted to magnets. If your item is attracted to a strong magnet placed near it, its alloy has enough magnetic metal content (such as nickel or cobalt) that it can’t be pure silver. However, this test isn’t foolproof, as sterling silver and some other silver-colored alloys are also not attracted to magnets.
If you’re unsure about the purity of a silver item or want to confirm its authenticity, it’s always best to consult with a professional appraiser or jeweler. They can examine the item, perform appropriate scans and tests, and provide you with accurate information.
Difference Between Pure Silver and Sterling Silver
While pure silver and sterling silver are generally indistinguishable to the naked eye, there are a few important distinctions between them.
As noted earlier, pure silver has silver content of 99.9% or higher. Compared to sterling silver items, objects made from fine silver are more prone to scratches, dents, and deformation. The purity of fine silver also makes it marginally more expensive than sterling silver.
Sterling silver is also a high purity alloy, consisting of 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals (typically copper). This combination results in a harder and more durable material that retains many of the desirable characteristics of fine silver, while being more suitable for jewelry making.
The downside is that sterling silver jewelry tarnishes more easily than fine silver jewelry. This is because sterling silver alloys nearly always contain copper, and copper is more apt to react with atmospheric chemicals than silver.
However, the advantages offered by the sterling silver alloy far outweigh the cons, which is why most silver jewelry is made from sterling silver.
Comparison to Other Silver Metals
Apart from fine silver and sterling silver, you may also encounter other types of silver jewelry metals. Be careful when buying silver jewelry, as not all silver-colored metals have the same purity, and some don’t contain any silver content at all.
Non-tarnish silver, also known as tarnish-resistant silver, is an alloy that contains silver and other metals designed to minimize tarnishing. These alloys often contain a small amount of germanium, which increases their tarnish resistance. While non-tarnish silver is not as pure as fine silver, it provides the benefit of lower maintenance and prolonged shine.
Coin silver refers to an alloy typically composed of 90% silver and 10% copper, which was historically used in the production of United States silver coins. Coin silver is less pure than fine silver and is more prone to tarnishing. It’s rarely used to make modern jewelry items, having been largely replaced by sterling silver.
Nickel silver, also known as German silver or Alpaca silver, is an alloy that contains no actual silver. It is composed of copper, nickel, and zinc, and its silver-like appearance is a result of the nickel content. It’s primarily used in costume jewelry due to its durability and affordability, and should not be mistaken for fine silver.
Silver plated items consist of base metals electroplated with a thin layer of silver alloy. Compared to fine silver jewelry, items with silver plating have far lower value and less resistance to tarnishing. They also tend not to last as long, as the silver plating can wear off over time and expose the base metal underneath.
See also: The Top 11 Different Types of Silver
Difference Between Pure Silver, Platinum, and White Gold
Apart from silver, the other popular white metals used for jewelry making are platinum and white gold. We go into detail on the pros and cons of these two metals in our article on platinum vs. white gold, but here are the key takeaways below.
Like silver, platinum is a natural element. Most platinum jewelry is made from alloys that contain small amounts of other white metals. Platinum alloys tend to be high purity, with 95% and 90% platinum content being the most common.
White gold is not a natural element. It’s an alloy created by combining pure gold with white metals such as palladium, nickel, or silver. The purity of white gold is measured using the karat gold system, with 14 karat (58.3% gold) and 18 karat (75% gold) being the standard karatages used for fine jewelry.
Silver and platinum are both naturally white metals and look very similar to each other. Polished silver appears brighter than polished platinum because it reflects more visible light, but visually telling the difference becomes much harder when looking at pieces that have been scratched, scuffed, or otherwise dulled.
White gold is the least white of the three. Almost all white gold carries a warm tint of yellow, beige, or gray due to the presence of pure yellow gold in the alloy. White gold is often plated with rhodium, the brightest and whitest of the platinum group metals, to cover up any off-white tones.
Comparing pure silver vs. white gold and platinum: silver is the softer metal, so it’s more vulnerable to scratching and denting. It’s also more malleable and less durable, meaning it’s more likely to get bent out of shape and will wear down faster through metal loss.
Comparing white gold and platinum directly: white gold resists scratching and denting better than platinum due to its greater hardness, while platinum is longer-lasting than white gold due its greater durability. Because it’s less malleable than white gold, platinum is also better at holding precious stones securely.
Pure gold is priced much more highly than pure silver. This makes white gold jewelry more expensive than silver jewelry due to its gold content. Rhodium plating can also add slightly to the price of white gold jewelry.
Platinum jewelry is more expensive than both because of its greater density. Although the cost of pure gold is currently higher than the cost of pure platinum, platinum weighs more than gold. This means it takes more platinum by weight to make a piece of jewelry than it does to make that same piece from white gold. Platinum jewelry alloys are also higher in purity than white gold ones, which makes them more valuable.
As noted earlier, pure silver’s softness makes it highly liable to scratches, dents, and deformation, which is why it isn’t often used in jewelry making. Fine silver is also apt to tarnish over time, albeit not as quickly as sterling silver.
If you do choose to buy fine silver jewelry, earrings and necklaces are the more practical choices. Rings and bracelets will become damaged much faster through your hands holding or knocking against hard objects like smartphones, utensils and door handles.
White gold is easier to maintain than pure silver. Its greater hardness and durability protects it from everyday damage, and it rarely tarnishes unless the alloy’s carat value is less than 14k.
If your white gold piece has rhodium plating, it will offer additional protection against scratches and dents. However, the tradeoff is that rhodium plating wears off and needs to be periodically replated at a cost of about $60 to $120 per treatment.
Platinum is also easier to maintain than fine silver, but more difficult than white gold. While it doesn’t tarnish, platinum gets scratched easily, and so needs regular polishing to maintain its shine.
Silver and platinum are both considered hypoallergenic metals, making either a suitable choice for those with metal allergies or sensitive skin.
However, white gold may cause allergic reactions depending on its alloy composition, particularly when nickel is present.
Other FAQs About Pure Silver
What is pure silver called?
Pure silver is also known as fine silver, 999 silver, and three nines fine silver. These terms refer to the fact that this high purity silver grade contains 99.9% silver, plus trace amounts of other metals.
Is 925 silver pure silver?
No, 925 silver is another name for sterling silver. The term derives from the fact that sterling silver has only 92.5% silver content. As such, it’s not classified as pure or fine. To be considered fine silver, an alloy must be at least 99.9% pure.
Does 100% pure silver exist?
Technically, no. While a silver alloy that is at least 99.9% pure can be called pure silver, it’s currently not possible to remove 100% of all impurities from silver. The highest purity silver alloy made so far is 99.999% pure, and was produced by the Royal Silver Company of Bolivia.
Is pure silver hypoallergenic?
Yes, pure silver is generally considered hypoallergenic. This makes it a suitable choice for individuals with sensitive skin or metal allergies. In fact, both pure and sterling silver are hypoallergenic.
Is pure silver expensive?
Compared to lower purity grades of silver such as sterling silver? Yes, pure silver is slightly more expensive because it has higher silver content. Compared to other precious metals? No, silver is much less rare and much less costly than gold and platinum.
Thanks for reading! Now that you’ve learned all about pure silver, why not expand your knowledge further by checking out our guide to sterling silver?