Sterling silver is a silver alloy made from 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper. It’s also known as 925 sterling silver, referring to its composition of 925 parts silver per thousand.
Because silver is a soft metal, it dents and scratches easily. Alloying (mixing) silver with other metals makes it harder and more durable, which is why most silver items are made from alloys instead of from pure silver.
925 sterling silver is by far the most popular type of silver used in jewelry. Read on to discover more about its history and properties, how to care for it, and what you need to know before purchasing.
Sterling Silver Basics
What’s the Difference Between Sterling Silver and Silver?
The difference between sterling silver and silver is the amount of silver content in the alloy.
- If an alloy is 92.5% silver, it’s called sterling silver.
- If an alloy is 99.9% silver or higher, it’s referred to as fine silver, pure silver, or simply silver.
Fine silver is the purest form that silver can take, as it’s not possible to refine silver to 100% purity. At 99.9% or more silver content, fine silver still contains 0.01% trace elements of other periodic table elements.
In the sterling silver vs. fine silver debate, sterling comes out ahead as the ideal option for jewelry. It’s far better at resisting damage, while still displaying the signature brightness of fine silver.
When Was Sterling Silver Invented?
Probably in the 12th century when the Hanseatic League, an alliance of five German towns, first minted sterling silver coins of 950 parts silver and 75 parts copper.
The League traded regularly with England, where their sterling coinage impressed the English with its quality and reliability. This led King Henry II to adopt a standardized sterling currency for England. A later king, Edward I, enacted a statute that no silversmith could produce silver items that were beneath the sterling purity grade.
In the following centuries, the sterling standard spread to other parts of Europe, and then on into the New World.
What Does “Sterling” Mean?
The word “sterling” is thought to come from “steorling”, an Old English word meaning “coin with a star”. Stars were stamped on some pennies produced by King Henry II’s mint.
Another theory is that “sterling” derives from “Easterling”, referring to the Germans who brought the new silver standard from the east into England.
What Is Sterling Silver Used For?
Though 925 sterling silver is no longer used as an official currency by any country, it remains in high demand for jewelry, accessories, and ornamental items.
Some practical items can also be made from sterling. These include high-end utensils, flatware, candlesticks, and even some musical instruments such as flutes.
Is Sterling Silver Shiny?
Yes. Pure silver is the shiniest metal in the world, more reflective even than gold. Copper is also a highly reflective metal. Since sterling silver is made from pure silver and copper, it’s impressively shiny.
However, like all jewelry metals, sterling becomes duller with the passage of time. But this is normal, and nothing to worry about. Getting your silver cleaned or polished will make it shine like new again.
Sterling Silver Jewelry Buying Advice
Is Sterling Silver Jewelry Hypoallergenic?
Yes. As most 925 sterling silver is an alloy of silver and copper, most people can wear it without any problems. Allergies to silver are practically unheard of, and reports of copper sensitivity are likewise very low.
If your sterling silver jewelry is causing your skin to become red or itchy, the most likely reason is that it contains nickel, which some people can’t tolerate well. This could mean that the jewelry isn’t real sterling.
Alternatively, the jewelry may be real sterling silver, but the alloy contains nickel instead of (or as well as) copper. Using alloy metals other than copper is permitted, provided the silver amount doesn’t fall below 92.5%.
Is Sterling Silver Expensive?
Yes and no. Sterling silver contains 92.5% pure silver content, and silver is a precious metal. Therefore, sterling silver is expensive compared to most metals, as most metals aren’t precious.
Silver is currently trading at around $24 USD per ounce on the commodities market. Nickel and zinc, two white base metals used to make nickel silver (a type of cheap imitation silver alloy), can be bought for around 64 cents and 7 cents per ounce, respectively.
That’s why you can find nickel silver rings at dollar stores that are silver-colored, but a real sterling ring often costs at least $20, and usually more if the design is intricate or uses a lot of metal.
Brand recognition and vendor overheads also affect the price of silver jewelry. At famous high-end stores like Tiffany’s, for example, sterling and fine silver rings can go into the hundreds of dollars.
But while silver is expensive compared to base metals, it’s by far the most affordable of the precious metals. For instance, platinum is currently trading at around $980 per ounce, and gold is even higher at around $1,915 per ounce.
How Do You Identify Genuine Sterling Silver?
Real sterling jewelry often features a quality stamp such as Sterling Silver, Sterling, Ster, or 925. The 925 stamp refers to sterling silver’s requirement to contain 925 parts pure silver per thousand (or expressed as a percentage, 92.5%).
Likewise, fine silver items may have a 999 mark to indicate an alloy composition of 999 parts per thousand (or 99.9%) pure silver.
If you find a 925 mark on what looks like gold jewelry, it means that the item is actually made from gold vermeil, which is sterling silver with a thin gold coating on top.
Quality stamps are also known as fineness marks. They are usually placed in an unobtrusive location, such as on the inside band of a ring, or the clasp of a necklace.
Is Sterling Silver Always Marked?
Unlike in other countries such as the United Kingdom, sterling jewelry sold in the United States doesn’t have to bear a sterling silver stamp. Many pieces still do, but it’s not a legal requirement.
Though quality stamping is optional, jewelers must still disclose the precious metal content of their silver products. This disclosure is often done via printed documentation or marketing materials. Or on eCommerce websites, by stating the fineness of a piece of jewelry on its product page.
Where Can You Buy Sterling Silver Jewelry?
You can shop for sterling jewelry at many physical and online jewelry stores, in the form of rings, necklace chains, pendants, earrings, bracelets, and charms. Sterling can be formed into almost any kind of metal jewelry design, which is why it’s been a staple of jewelry making through centuries of human history.
Finding sterling silver jewelry is therefore as easy as making a few Google searches. Before buying, do your due diligence and check that the store has verified independent reviews and a good reputation for quality.
If buying online, make sure the website is built with a secure checkout, as this protects personal information such as your name and email address from unauthorized access. Reputable stores should also offer shipping with package protection, and have a risk-free returns policy.
Stores that specialize in wedding jewelry may not carry fine silver or sterling products, as silver wedding jewelry is an unconventional choice. Gold is the more traditional metal for wedding rings and engagement rings, especially yellow gold and white gold. Platinum and rose gold are also popular.
Sterling Silver Maintenance & Care
Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?
Yes. Sterling silver tarnishes more easily than fine silver because it contains copper, which is a more reactive metal than silver. Tarnishing occurs when the metals in the sterling alloy react with sulfur and other chemicals in the atmosphere to form dull, discolored areas on its surface.
It can take weeks, months, or years for sterling jewelry to develop tarnish, but the presence of moisture and heat accelerates the process. So do many everyday chemicals, such as the trace amounts of chlorine in tap water, and the sulfates found in many skincare and haircare products.
While it’s impossible to completely prevent your sterling from exposure to all of these things, you can still take precautions. For instance, try to avoid showering or swimming while you’re wearing it.
After you take your jewelry off, wipe it down with a soft cloth to remove any deodorant, perfume, makeup, or atmospheric chemicals that may have gathered on its surface. Then, make sure you store it somewhere that’s cool, dark, and dry.
Does Sterling Silver Turn Green?
Yes, sterling silver can sometimes form a green patina on its surface. This is a type of tarnishing, and tarnishing on sterling is normal and removable. It doesn’t mean that your silver is fake or low quality.
A sterling alloy turning green is the result of a series of reactions between its copper content and various chemicals in the air.
Sterling can also sometimes turn yellow, brown, black, blue, or even purple. It depends on the types of chemicals it’s exposed to, and the sequence of the chemical reactions that take place.
Does Sterling Silver Rust?
No. Sterling is made of silver and copper, neither of which are capable of rusting. Iron is the only metal that rusts.
Does Sterling Silver Get Scratched?
Yes. Like yellow gold, white gold, rose gold, and platinum, sterling silver gets scratched and dented through normal wear and tear.
Sterling is more difficult to damage than fine silver, as the addition of copper forms a more durable alloy than pure silver alone. But it’s still a relatively soft metal, and more prone to scratches than the harder alloys used for gold and platinum jewelry.
How Do You Make Sterling Silver Shine Again?
If your sterling jewelry has become tarnished, or is sporting some unsightly scratches, then don’t panic – these are both fixable problems. Tarnish can be removed, and scratches can be polished out.
Whether your silver is tarnished or scratched, the best way to restore it to like-new condition is to take it to a jeweler for professional treatment. Though there are numerous DIY methods for removing tarnish and scratches, many of them risk causing damage to your jewelry.
For instance, a common DIY remedy for cleaning tarnished sterling is to place it in a dish lined with aluminum foil and filled with solution of hot water and baking soda. A chemical reaction strips the tarnish from the silver and transfers it to the aluminum.
Which sounds pretty neat – except that some of the silver is also stripped along with the tarnish. This leaves small pits on the surface of the metal, reducing its shine.
If your jewelry is relatively inexpensive, or you don’t care about it lasting a lifetime, then at-home maintenance could still be a cheaper and more convenient option. But if your jewelry is valuable, antique, or holds sentimental meaning, then you should always engage a professional to do the cleaning or polishing for you.
Thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed learning about sterling silver. If you’re interested, we also have an article that compares sterling with the 10 other kinds of silver used to make jewelry.