If you’re in the researching phase of your silver jewelry journey, you might be asking yourself questions like: What is the best quality silver? Does silver tarnish? And how do the various types of silver used to make jewelry compare to each other?
To help you to make an informed choice about your next silver purchase, this guide explains the pros, cons, and properties of the 11 most well-known varieties of silver used in jewelry.
Types of Silver Alloys
Silver has been prized as a beautiful, dazzling metal for thousands of years, at times valued even more highly than gold. Silver jewelry produced in antiquity was rarely 100% pure silver, and this remains true today. Most silver used in jewelry is alloyed (mixed) with other metals.
Combining silver with base metals results in an alloy that’s stronger and more durable than pure silver alone. These alloying metals are harder and cheaper than silver – meaning that the more silver content in an alloy, the softer and more expensive it is.
Often (but not always), a genuine silver product is stamped with a quality mark to show the amount of silver used in its manufacture.
1. Fine Silver
This is the purest form of silver you can buy. Fine silver, also known as pure silver, is a hypoallergenic metal with 99.9% silver content. The remaining 0.1% consists of trace elements, usually copper. If these trace elements exceed 0.1%, the metal can’t be called fine silver.
While every type of silver will eventually tarnish, fine silver’s high purity gives it more tarnish resistance than silver alloys with higher amounts of copper, such as sterling silver.
Pure silver jewelry is far less commonplace than sterling silver jewelry. As well as being more expensive than sterling, fine silver is a soft material that’s prone to scratches and dents, so it’s not the best type of silver for jewelry.
If you’re a fan of fine silver jewelry, earrings and necklaces are the safest bet. Rings and bracelets are prone to higher wear and tear due to your hands coming into everyday contact with hard objects like door handles, keys, and smartphones.
Common Fine Silver Quality Stamp Marks:
- 999 (meaning 999/1000 parts, or 99.9% silver)
See also: The Complete Guide to Pure Silver
2. Sterling Silver
Sterling silver is by far the most popular type of silver used in jewelry making. The sterling silver alloy has a rich history, being used both for minting coins, and for the creation of ornamental items, for around a thousand years.
Traditionally composed of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper, sterling silver is harder and relatively affordable compared to purer silver metals. The trade-off is that this copper content makes sterling silver more susceptible to tarnishing.
Like fine silver, sterling silver is considered hypoallergenic. Though a small percentage of the population is mildly sensitive to copper, the amount of copper in sterling silver jewelry is quite low. This means that most (if not all) people can wear it without issue.
Common Sterling Silver Quality Stamp Marks:
- Sterling, Ster, STG, or SS
- 925 (meaning 925/1000 parts, or 92.5% silver)
- The Lion Passant (a heraldic lion used as a symbol for sterling silver)
See also: Essential Facts About Sterling Silver
3. Non-Tarnish Silver
Non-tarnish silver refers to various silver alloys that have increased tarnish resistance compared to sterling and other types of silver.
However, despite being commonly marketed as non-tarnish silver, a truly tarnish-proof silver alloy has yet to be developed. The non-tarnish silver available today would be more correctly described as tarnish-resistant.
Tarnish-resistant alloys are sterling grade (92.5% silver content) or higher. But unlike traditional sterling, they substitute part of their copper content with other metals. The element germanium, known for its ability to protect against silver tarnishing, is typically one of the metals used.
While tarnish-resistant silver jewelry tends to cost slightly more than jewelry made from regular sterling silver, it also requires less maintenance.
Modern non-tarnish alloys include:
- Argentium – Either 93.5% or 96% silver, with a proprietary blend of germanium, zinc, boron and copper making up the remainder. Argentium silver is the most well-known tarnish resistant alloy.
- Silvadium – 93% silver, 7% palladium, with trace amounts of germanium.
- Sterlium – 93% silver, 4% zinc, 3% copper, with trace amounts of germanium.
- Sterilite – 92.5% silver, with a remainder of copper, tin, zinc, silica, and sometimes germanium.
Common Non-Tarnish Silver Quality Stamp Marks:
In addition to the primary sterling silver quality marks, second marks on non-tarnish alloys can feature:
- Argentium, Silvadium, Sterlium, or Sterilite
- A winged unicorn (official trademark of the patented argentium silver alloy)
4. Britannia Silver
Britannia silver is an alloy with at least 95.83% pure silver content. The base metal making up the remainder is usually copper.
The Britannia standard was introduced as a legal requirement for all silver items made in England in the 17th century. The new law was aimed at preventing sterling silver coinage, which had lower silver content, from being melted down and used to make silverware.
But due to producing softer and less sturdy items than sterling silver, the Britannia alloy was unpopular, and the law was eventually rescinded.
Some modern jewelers, particularly in the United Kingdom, still offer silver pieces made from Britannia. This type of silver alloy is rarely available in the United States.
Common Britannia Quality Stamp Marks:
- 958 (meaning 958/1000 parts, or 95.8% silver)
- A figure of Britannia (a traditional goddess personification of Britain)
5. Coin Silver
Consisting of 90% silver and 10% copper, coin silver historically got both its composition and its name from United States silver coins. Silversmiths would melt down these coins and use the metal to make jewelry and other products.
This durable silver coin alloy was also referred to as standard silver, or by the informal term “one nine fine”. Though coin silver is harder than sterling due to being 10% copper, this composition also makes it duller and more susceptible to tarnishing.
As time passed, most coins in the USA stopped being made from real silver. With no silver coin supply, coin silver jewelry disappeared from the market. Coin silver has since been largely replaced by sterling silver.
You can still find coin silver items by digging around vintage jewelry and antiques stores. Their value usually comes more from their age and rarity, rather than from their silver content.
Common Coin Silver Quality Stamp Marks:
- Coin or Pure Coin
- 900 (meaning 900/1000 parts, or 90% silver)
6. European Silver
European silver, also known as continental silver, isn’t any one type of silver alloy. It’s a collective term referring to the many different non-sterling silver grades that were traditionally used across continental Europe.
Continental grades of silver are less common today, since sterling silver has become the leading silver alloy for jewelry making around the world. However, jewelers in some European regions continue to produce pieces according to their traditional silver standards.
European silver has dozens of different quality stamp marks. For more information, check out the extensive silver stamp records collated at the Silver Collection website.
Types of Silver Coatings
Jewelry doesn’t have to be crafted from a solid silver alloy to benefit from a shiny silver appearance. Instead, it can be made from an affordable base metal and then coated with a layer of silver.
To create silver-filled metal, a relatively thick layer of silver is mechanically bonded to an underlying base metal, usually brass. Instead of an alloy, this produces a layered metal that’s only silver on the outside.
The layered metal used for silver-filled jewelry pieces consists of between 5% and 10% silver, usually sterling quality silver. This corresponds to the precious metal percentage composition of gold-filled jewelry, which is 5% to 10% gold alloy by weight.
While this might not seem like much, silver-filled is actually the best and thickest silver surface coating used in jewelry. If properly cared for, it can take many years for the outer layer to wear off and reveal the base metal underneath.
Silver-filled metal shouldn’t be confused with gold vermeil, which is made by electroplating a thin layer of gold alloy over sterling silver.
Common Silver-Filled Quality Stamp Marks:
- Silver-Filled or SF
- 1/20 (meaning 1/20 parts, or 5% silver)
- 1/10 (meaning 1/10 parts, or 10% silver)
8. Silver Plated
Silver plated costume jewelry is produced by dipping base metal pieces into a liquid silver plating solution, which is then passed through with an electric current. This electroplating process bonds a microscopically thin outer layer of silver to the items.
Because the silver plating is so insubstantial, plated jewelry isn’t built to withstand regular wear. The silver layer quickly rubs off, allowing the exposed base metal to tarnish and cause further discoloration.
On the plus side, silver plated jewelry is very inexpensive compared to items made from solid silver alloy. Much like gold plated jewelry, it will still look like the real thing for the first few wears, making it a good choice for experimenting with new trends and styles.
Common Silver Plated Quality Stamp Marks:
- Silverplate, Silver Plated, or SP
- Quadruple Plate (meaning 4x thin layers of silver)
- EP (Electroplated) or EPNS (Electroplated Nickel Silver)
Types of Fake Silver
Not all metals that look silver, are silver. In fact, some non-precious metal alloys are commonly referred to as silver in the jewelry trade, even though they contain zero silver content.
This is when it helps to be a well-informed consumer, so you don’t overpay for a cheap metal alloy piece that unscrupulous vendors may encourage you to believe is made from real silver.
9. Tibetan Silver
Despite the name, “Tibetan silver” is neither silver nor from Tibet. The term refers to costume jewelry made from a tin or nickel alloy, or various other cheap silver-colored metals. These metal alloys are deliberately dull instead of shiny to give them a “vintage” silver appearance.
Many Tibetan jewelry pieces feature intricate detailing. Eastern scripts and patterns, spiritual symbols, and mythological animals are common motifs. Sometimes a black finish is applied to highlight these details, which also gives the metal an oxidized antique look.
Nickel, copper, tin, and zinc are the most common metals used to make Tibetan-style costume jewelry. However, toxic metals including lead, arsenic, and cadmium have also been found in some of these products. Jewelry containing harmful metals is usually produced in countries where consumer safety regulations aren’t strongly enforced.
To be safe, check before buying that the item was made in a region with strong consumer protection laws. If the vendor can’t provide documentation to verify the item’s metal content and source country, you might want to give it a pass.
10. Tribal Silver
Tibetan and tribal silver are largely interchangeable terms in the costume jewelry market. Both have no silver content, and both might not be free from lead or other dangerous metals.
Practically, the only difference between these two metals is in how they’re marketed. A piece of jewelry may be described as either, depending on whether the seller thinks it meets vague consumer expectations around how “tribal” or “Tibetan” jewelry should look.
For example, products with designs and motifs associated with African or Native American cultures are often referred to as tribal silver. Similarly, pieces that feature Eastern and Buddhist patterns and symbols are likely to be sold as Tibetan silver.
11. Nickel Silver
Nickel silver is also known as German silver and Alpaca silver. Under these and several other names, the alloy contains 0% silver. Nickel silver alloys are typically formulated from a mixture of copper, zinc, and nickel.
Its high nickel content makes this metal alloy a no-go for some people. Approximately 17% of women and 3% of men are allergic to nickel. Saying that, the majority of people will be able to wear a nickel alloy without any issues.
The advantages of nickel silver are that it’s cheap, durable, and easy to shape into jewelry compared to other alloys which may be too brittle or too soft.
For these reasons, nickel silver is very commonly found in fashion and costume jewelry, as a finished product or with a thin plating of real silver on top.
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