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 different 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 and cons of the 11 most popular varieties of silver used in jewelry.
Types of Silver Alloys
Silver has been prized as a beautiful, dazzling metal for thousands of years, but even jewelry produced in antiquity was rarely 100% pure silver. Most silver used in jewelry is alloyed (mixed) with other metals in order to make it harder.
The metals alloyed with silver are usually non-precious, otherwise known as base, whereas silver is a soft precious metal. This means that the more silver content an alloy has, the softer and more expensive it is.
Often (but not always), a genuine silver product is marked with a quality stamp to show the amount of silver used to make it.
1. Fine Silver
This is the purest form of silver you can buy. Fine silver is hypoallergenic and has 99.9% pure silver content. The remaining 0.1% consists of trace elements, usually copper. If these trace elements exceed 0.1%, the metal cannot be called fine silver.
While every type of silver will eventually tarnish, fine silver’s high purity makes it resist tarnishing much more easily than types of silver bearing a lower quality stamp.
Compared to sterling quality grades of silver, fine silver jewelry is far less common in the market. 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 making jewelry.
Still, some people do prefer the bright, silvery-white color of fine silver jewelry pieces. While they’re harder and more durable, lower purity alloys are grayer in color, and don’t reflect as much light.
Earrings are probably the best type of jewelry product for fans of fine silver. Other types such as rings, bracelets, and necklace chains are subjected to higher wear and tear than earrings, which means they’re more easily damaged when made from a metal as soft as fine silver.
Common Fine Silver Quality Stamp Marks:
- .999 (meaning 999/1000 parts, or 99.9% silver)
2. Sterling Silver
Sterling silver is by far the most popular type of silver used in jewelry. This silver quality grade 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% silver and 7.5% copper, sterling is harder and relatively affordable compared to purer types of silver metals. While less bright in color than fine silver, sterling silver is still lustrous and beautiful.
Its higher copper content makes this alloy more likely to tarnish as time goes by, however. You can prevent surface tarnish forming on your sterling by regularly polishing it with a soft cloth, and keeping it away from moisture.
Like fine silver, sterling is considered a hypoallergenic metal. Though a small percentage of the population is mildly sensitive to copper, the amount of copper in sterling silver 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)
3. Non-Tarnish Silver
First developed in the 1990s, non-tarnish silver is relatively new to the jewelry market. These sterling quality alloys of minimum 92.5% silver content do not easily tarnish, because they substitute part of their remaining copper with other metals.
Germanium is typically included in these new types of silver alloys, as this metal absorbs and nullifies atmospheric chemicals that cause silver to tarnish over time.
But despite being commonly marketed as non-tarnish alloys, a truly tarnish-proof silver alloy has yet to be developed. Thus, the non-tarnish alloys available today would be more correctly described as tarnish-resistant.
Non-tarnish alloys tend to cost slightly more than sterling silver, but they also require much less polishing and upkeep.
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 is the most well-known non-tarnish silver available on the market.
- 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 usual sterling silver marks, pieces made from 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 at least 95.83% pure silver. The base metal making up the remaining part of the alloy is typically copper.
The Britannia silver stamp was made a legal requirement for silver-wrought products in England in the 17th century. The new law was aimed at preventing sterling silver coins, with their lower silver content, from being melted down and used to make silverware.
But due to producing softer and less sturdy items than sterling silver, Britannia was unpopular with many people, and the law was eventually rescinded.
Some modern jewelers, particularly in the United Kingdom market, still offer pieces made from Britannia silver. However, this type of silver is rarely available to buy in the United States.
Common Britannia Silver Quality Stamp Marks:
- .958 (meaning 958/1000 parts, or 95.8% silver)
- A figure of Britannia (a traditional goddess personification of Britain used as a quality stamp)
5. Coin Silver
Consisting of 90% silver and 10% copper, coin silver historically got both its composition and its name from US silver coins. Silversmiths would melt down these coins to be used in jewelry and other items.
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 prone to tarnish.
As time passed, most US coins 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.
However, you can still find older or antique jewelry pieces made from coin silver. Their value often comes more from their age and rarity 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, or continental silver as it’s also known, is not any one silver quality standard like fine, sterling, or Britannia grade silver.
Rather, these terms refer to the many different types of silver used to make jewelry in continental Europe. Historically, the names were applied to differentiate these continental alloys from those more commonly used in jewelry in Britain and the United States.
The purity, color, and durability of European silver alloys can vary widely. Many don’t contain enough silver to meet the sterling quality stamp, while some contain more. Examples include French silver (95% or 80% silver) and Dutch silver (83.5% or 80% silver).
These types of silver are not as common in the market today, since sterling silver has become the leading alloy for silver jewelry. However, jewelers in some European regions continue to produce pieces according to their traditional silver quality standards.
European silver has dozens of different quality stamp marks. For more information, we recommend checking 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 is 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 doesn’t seem a large amount, silver-filled is actually the best and thickest type of silver surface coating available. If layered metal products are properly cared for, it can take many years for the outer coating to wear off and reveal the base metal underneath.
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 jewelry is produced by dipping pieces made from base metals into a liquid silver plating solution, which gives them a microscopically thin outer layer of silver.
Because this plating is so insubstantial, silver plated jewelry is not built to withstand regular wear. This low quality type of silver plating quickly rubs off, allowing the exposed base metal to tarnish and cause further discoloration.
On the plus side, silver plated items are very inexpensive compared to other types of silver jewelry metals. They will still look like the real thing for the first few wears, which means they’re 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 types of silver in the jewelry trade, even though they contain no silver content and don’t bear a quality stamp.
This is when it helps to be a well-informed consumer, so you don’t overpay for a cheap metal alloy piece that ignorant or unscrupulous vendors may encourage you to believe is made from silver.
9. Tibetan Silver
Despite the name, “Tibetan silver” is neither silver nor from Tibet. The term refers to costume quality jewelry made from various cheap silver-colored alloys. These metal alloys are deliberately dull instead of shiny to give them a vintage silver appearance, and are mostly manufactured in China.
Many Tibetan silver 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.
Of the base metals typically used in jewelry sold as Tibetan silver, nickel, copper, tin, and zinc are the most common. 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 are not strongly enforced. It’s safer to choose a supplier from the United States, Britain, Australia, or another country with strong consumer protection laws.
10. Tribal Silver
Tribal silver and Tibetan silver are largely interchangeable terms in the jewelry market. Both have no silver content, and might not be free from lead or other dangerous metals. Be wary of purchasing either Tibetan or tribal silver jewelry made in countries without rigorous consumer safety standards.
Practically, the only difference between these two metal alloys is in how they are marketed. A piece of jewelry may be described as either if 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 is 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’s standard formulation range is approximately 60% copper, 20% zinc, and 20% 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 nickel silver without any issues.
The advantages of nickel silver are that it’s cheap, durable, and easy to shape into jewelry pieces compared to other alloys which may be too brittle or too soft.
For these reasons, nickel silver is very commonly found in costume and fashion quality jewelry, as a finished product or with a thin plating of real silver material.
If you found this article about the different types of silver used in jewelry useful, please share it with others. You might also enjoy our guide to types of gold.