Sterling silver is a high purity silver alloy made from 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper. On its own, silver is a soft metal, so it dents and scratches easily. Alloying silver with other metals makes it harder and more durable, without sacrificing its dazzling white color.
This combination of beauty and practicality is what makes sterling silver 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 101
1. 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 the Norman King Henry II to adopt a standardized sterling silver 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.
2. 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.
3. What Is Sterling Silver Used For?
Though sterling silver is no longer used as an official currency by any country, it remains in high demand for jewelry and ornamental items.
Some practical items can also be made from sterling silver. These include high-end utensils, flatware, candlesticks, and even some musical instruments such as flutes.
4. Is Sterling Silver Shiny?
Yes. Silver is one of the shiniest metals in the world, more reflective even than gold. Copper is also a lustrous metal. Since most sterling silver is made from silver and copper, it is impressively shiny.
However, like all jewelry metals, sterling silver becomes duller with the passage of time. But this is normal, and nothing to worry about. Getting your sterling silver cleaned or polished will make it shine like new again.
Sterling Silver Jewelry Buying Advice
5. Is Sterling Silver Jewelry Hypoallergenic?
Yes. As most 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 silver jewelry is causing your skin to become red or itchy, the most likely explanation is that it contains nickel, which some people cannot tolerate well. This could mean that your jewelry is not real sterling silver.
Alternatively, the jewelry may be real sterling silver, but the alloy contains nickel instead of (or as well as) copper. Using metals other than copper in sterling silver alloys is permitted, provided the silver content does not fall below 92.5%.
6. 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 are base and not precious.
At the time of updating this article (March 2023), silver is trading at around $22 USD per ounce. Nickel and zinc, two white base metals that are often used for cheap imitation silver jewelry, can be bought for around 71 cents and 9 cents per ounce, respectively.
That’s why you can find rings at dollar stores that are silver-colored, but a real sterling silver ring often costs at least $20 to $50, 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 silver rings 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 $998 per ounce, and gold is even higher at around $1,900 per ounce.
7. How Do You Identify Genuine Sterling Silver?
Real sterling silver 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 silver per thousand (or expressed as a percentage, 92.5%).
Quality stamps are also known as fineness marks. They are usually placed somewhere unobtrusive, such as on the inside band of a ring, or the clasp of a necklace.
You can even find these stamps on what may appear to be gold jewelry, which discloses that the item is actually made from sterling silver with a thin gold coating on top.
8. Is Sterling Silver Always Marked?
Unlike in other countries such as the United Kingdom, sterling silver jewelry sold in the United States doesn’t have to bear a quality 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 items. This disclosure is often done via printed marketing materials. Or on eCommerce stores, by stating the fineness of a piece of jewelry on its product page.
Unfortunately, some vendors will lie about whether their pieces are real sterling silver, even going so far as to put a sterling fineness mark on what is actually fake silver jewelry. Do your due diligence and research the reputation of the vendor before purchasing.
Sterling Silver Maintenance & Care
9. Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?
Yes. Sterling silver tarnishes more readily than pure silver because it contains copper, which is a more reactive metal than silver. Tarnishing occurs when the metals in the sterling silver alloy react with atmospheric chemicals to form dull, discolored areas on its surface.
It can take years for jewelry to develop tarnish, but the presence of moisture and heat accelerates the process. So do many everyday chemicals, such as the chlorine in tap water, and the sulfates found in many skincare and haircare products.
While it’s impossible to completely prevent your jewelry from exposure to all of these things, you can still take some 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.
10. Does Sterling Silver Scratch?
Yes. Sterling silver is harder than pure silver, but like all jewelry metals, it does get scratched and dented through normal wear and tear.
Sterling silver is more difficult to damage than pure silver, as the addition of copper forms a more durable alloy than silver alone. But it is still a relatively soft metal, and more prone to scratches than the harder alloys used for gold and platinum jewelry.
11. How Do You Make Sterling Silver Look New Again?
If your sterling silver 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, they all risk causing damage to your jewelry.
For instance, a common home 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 your jewelry, 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 wrote an article that compares sterling with the 10 other kinds of silver used to make jewelry.