Silver is one of the coveted precious metals on the market, so it’s important to understand what you’re buying — whether it’s for a piece of jewelry, kitchenware, or a collectible.
Though the description on these items will promote it’s made of silver, neglecting to determine the exact type of silver can be a costly mistake.
That’s because two of the most common designations for these products are silver and sterling silver.
In this article, we’ll provide an overview of pure silver and sterling silver, compare the two across their primary characteristics, and discuss how to test if a precious metal is real silver.
What is Pure Silver?
Pure silver is 99.9% silver. The remaining 0.1% is a trace element because 100% pure silver doesn’t exist. It’s often considered second to gold but is still valuable for its brilliant and bright appearance that can be used to make fine jewelry and art and for other decorative purposes.
Silver is mined around the world, but more than half comes from the Americas (mostly Mexico and Peru), with China, Australia, and Russia also contributing to the global supply.
Most silver is actually mined during the process of searching for other metals such as lead, copper, and zinc.
It’s often thought pure silver makes the most valuable jewelry compared to pieces made with other types of silver. After all, if the jewelry has the highest percentage of the rare metal, it should cost more.
Instead, pure silver is a soft, malleable metal that doesn’t work as well for high-end jewelry. The piece would lack durability. If you’re looking for a piece of fine jewelry, it’s not recommended you buy one that is 99.9% silver.
What is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver consists of 92.5% pure silver, and the remaining 7.5% is a harder metal such as nickel, zinc, or copper. The compound is far more durable, so it solves the issue of pure silver being too malleable to make fine jewelry.
If you’re purchasing plates, silverware, coffee sets, or fine jewelry made of silver, it’s likely sterling silver. You shouldn’t view this use of sterling silver over pure silver as resulting in diminished quality. It actually improves the functionality.
Sterling silver maintains the bright, brilliant aesthetic of pure silver while adding strength needed to wear or use the pieces for years to come.
Comparing Pure Silver vs. Sterling Silver
Pure silver and sterling silver are 92.5% the same, but that other 7.5% transforms sterling silver into a metal that has many different characteristics, including its composition, how to identify it, how much it tarnishes, and more.
Let’s explore each of these distinguishing features.
The composition of pure and sterling silver is the distinguishing feature. Pure silver is 99.9% silver, while sterling silver contains 7.5% additional metals. Those metals are added to pure silver after the refining process.
When you’re shopping for items made of silver, you’ll often see them stamped with numbers or letters. This stamp is referred to as a hallmark and helps the buyer identify the metal.
Sterling silver is often stamped with one of the following:
- 925 Silver
These all mean the same thing — it’s made with sterling silver. This is true even if the piece looks gold. That’s because sterling silver is often plated with gold. It’s a way for the buyer to obtain a piece of jewelry that looks gold but has the benefits of sterling silver, namely it’s lower price.
For pure silver, you may see it stamped with 999 or FS.
Pure silver is far more soft and malleable than sterling silver. This is the primary reason other metals are added to make sterling silver.
Artists and jewelry manufacturers find it difficult to create durable pieces with pure silver. It’s tougher to form into exact shapes and is easily damaged, bent, and misshapen. Even if crafted into the right form, it’s more likely to lose its shape eventually, especially with daily use.
Pure silver and sterling silver have different uses. Pure silver isn’t used as often in making fine jewelry, but it does have industrial and electrical applications.
When it comes to jewelry and everyday household items, they’re far more likely to be made with sterling silver. It’s the perfect combination of durability and a lower cost while also having the bright appearance of silver.
So if you’re shopping for utensils, plates, a new necklace, or a bracelet, you’ll likely find them made of sterling silver.
It should also be noted some of these items are labeled as “silver plated.” This means the item is made from another metal, which is then coated with a thin layer of sterling silver. This top layer can wear off easily, giving it a faded appearance.
Tarnishing is a result of moisture and gasses in the air reacting with the precious metal and causing the top layer to fade and appear dirty.
When comparing pure silver versus sterling silver in the area of tarnishing, pure silver is the winner.
That’s because pure silver has minimal tarnish, but the metals added to make sterling silver do tarnish. Copper is mostly to blame because it experiences discoloration with too much exposure, and this imperfection can appear on the surface.
But even sterling silver made with nickel and zinc will tarnish, so it’s difficult to avoid.
Even though both will tarnish to some degree, there are proactive steps you can take to care for them:
- Store it in a cool, dry place to avoid contact with moisture in the air
- Don’t wear the jewelry while showering or swimming
- Remove them when using lotion, fragrances, or other cosmetics
These recommendations apply to both silver and sterling silver.
To clean sterling silver, it’s best to use warm water and a mild bar of soap. Liquid soap has the potential to leave a film, which causes a dull finish. Rub the sterling silver with a soft toothbrush or cloth, and gently pat it dry.
To polish it and remove tarnish, use a silver polishing cloth, which is specifically designed to remove the tarnish but keep its signature shine.
To clean pure silver, it’s best to avoid the dishwasher. That’s because many commercial detergents will cause black spots, leaving them potentially more dirty than they were to begin.
The easiest method is hand-washing it with a mild dishwashing soap and then drying with a soft cloth, but a more thorough clean can be achieved with vinegar.
Durability is a key factor in comparing pure silver versus sterling silver. Most pieces made with precious metals come with a hefty price tag, so you need to know if it’s expected to last for years even if used often.
One reason kitchenware and jewelry is made from sterling silver and not pure silver is sterling silver is more durable. Pure silver is too soft to be considered a durable metal, so creating the compound of sterling silver solves this problem.
Pure silver has a higher percentage of silver, so it costs more than sterling silver. When you’re only dealing with 92.5% pure silver, as in the case of sterling, you can reduce the cost by filling in the rest with less expensive metals.
It’s less valuable but is still the foundation for many quality pieces of jewelry and items used every day around the house.
You should always ensure you don’t have allergies to any precious metals before using them, but it’s more likely for someone to have an allergic reaction to sterling silver because pure silver is considered hypoallergenic.
The problem with sterling silver is generally nickel, which causes some people to have a skin reaction.
How to Test for Real Silver
If you’re trying to determine if a piece of jewelry is pure silver or sterling silver, and it isn’t stamped with the corresponding symbol, there are a few ways to test if it’s real silver.
For the first test, you’ll need a magnet. If the magnet attaches to the metal, it likely isn’t real silver, or the item is silver plated over another metal. Silver isn’t the only metal that isn’t magnetic, so this isn’t a guaranteed method.
The next test involves chlorine bleach. Put a tiny drop on the piece, and see if it turns brown or black. If so, that means it’s likely silver or has a silver plating.
To remove the bleach and prevent discoloration, rinse the metal and wipe it with a polishing cloth.
Another test is the easiest option because it doesn’t require any additional materials. Smell the metal, and if it has a sulfur or metallic fragrance, it’s probably pure silver and not sterling silver.
For the most certain result, try a silver acid test. Find a place on the metal where you can make a small scratch. It’s essential because you’re testing the underlying metal.
Apply a drop of acid to the scratched area and assess the color that appears. Most tests use the following colors:
- Brighter Red: Fine silver
- Darker Red: Sterling silver
- Brown : 800 silver
- Green : 500 silver
- Yellow: Tin or lead
- Dark brown: Brass
- Blue: Nickel
It’s important you correctly identify the metal, because the cost and quality significantly differs between them. If you think you’re buying pure silver, but it’s actually sterling silver, you’ll likely overpay for the piece.
Two pieces of jewelry or kitchenware might look the same, but if one is pure silver and the other is sterling silver, their price, composition, durability, and more are significantly different. That’s why as a consumer, you should understand their unique makeup and when you’d want to buy one over the other.
Always check the hallmark often stamped on the piece, so you know if it’s real silver or it’s also combined with other metals.
The most popular material used for most items you buy will be sterling silver, and you can be confident it has superior performance and longevity compared to its pure counterpart.