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Is All That Shines Really Sterling Silver?

sterling silver tea service
This tea and coffee service, although unmarked, has been attributed to the Philadelphia silversmith Christian Wiltberger. It belonged to Eleanor Parke (Nelly) Custis (1779–1852), granddaughter of Martha Washington. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whether it's a piece of jewelry or your grandmother's antique tea set, an object deemed "real" silver might not in fact be 100 percent silver. Although nearly pure silver exists — about 99.9 percent is possible — pure silver is significantly less useful on its own than when it is mixed with another metal. The closer to pure silver gets, the softer it gets too. In fact, you could easily bend 99.9 percent pure silver with your hands.

Because malleability is usually not what consumers are looking for in a fork or a necklace, metalsmiths have been creating silver alloys for centuries, instead. The formula that has been the standard for real silver for more than half a millennium, at least according to Britain, is what has become known as sterling silver.

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What Is Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is a mixture of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent another metal — typically copper — according to Steve Nelson, owner, Nelson & Nelson Antiques in Manhattan. The addition of the copper hardens soft silver, so it can be both thin and durable. Zinc and nickel may also be used to make sterling silver. And while it may seem that adding one of these could diminish silver's shine, sterling silver is known for its bright, white-gray look.

"The color of sterling is very good," Nelson says. "Older pieces are going to have a patina on them. It develops over time [into] a softer color." The patina is actually a lot of micro-scratches, but to the naked eye, they display as a softer appearance. Thanks to the addition of copper or another metal, silver can last indefinitely.

Consider the rare silver petal-lobed stem cup from the Ming Dynasty, which spanned the 14th through 17th centuries. Or the George III sterling silver sweetmeat dishes from the late 18th century.

sterling silver
This pair of miniature tapersticks by British silversmith David Clayton dates to ca. 1720–30.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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History of Sterling Silver

If there is no question about sterling silver's ability to last, there may be one about how the specific 92.5 percent formula became the standard or how it came to be called sterling.

By about the 12th century in England, silver coins were called "Easterlings," a word later abbreviated to "sterling." In 1300, King Edward I made the definition official by declaring that sterling silver had to be 92.5 percent pure silver and should be marked by "guardians of the craft."

So the Brits formed the Goldsmith's Company to control silver and hallmarks — basically to standardize sterling. They did it because artisans at the time were crafting silver objects and declaring they met a certain percentage, when in fact they did not, Nelson explains.

"They were making substandard silver," he says. Nelson says that in the early days of the Goldsmith's Company, the late Middle Ages, if a smith put a sterling standard mark on a piece that wasn't at least 92.5 percent silver, they could be put to death. Today, the Goldsmith's Company is one of the oldest guilds in London, after receiving its royal charter in 1327. (They don't put silversmiths to death anymore, though.)

That didn't mean that all silver being produced during that time maxed out at 92.5 percent. Other formulas were possible, like 950 silver — that's 95 percent — but items with a higher percentage of silver had to be thicker and heavier to make them strong enough.

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Sterling Silver Hallmarks

Knowing whether your silver is sterling, something purer or not quite up to snuff is easy enough in theory. Just look for the hallmark. These were added in Britain and later around the world. They will be marked somewhere on the piece, typically the bottom.

If the sterling silver was made in the United States, look for the word "sterling" or "925." But English — and French hallmarks — get more complicated.

The English started noting sterling standard about 500 years ago, Nelson explains. And the hallmarks don't just denote sterling-ness, they also detail where and when the silver was made. For example, a lion's head hallmark symbolizes that the sterling is English, but where it was made is noted with other animals or symbols.

For instance, sterling marked with a leopard head hallmark was made in London, while pieces with an anchor mark would have been produced in Birmingham, England. Each year was assigned a different letter, too, and when it was time to repeat the alphabet, a new font was used. Maker's marks began as other symbols but shifted to the maker's initials in the 17th century.

French silver was made in 950 and 800 versions — that's 95 percent or 80 percent silver — and is marked accordingly. A Minerva head with a No. 1 would identify a piece as 950, while the No. 2 showed it to be of the lesser quality, according to Nelson.

But those are just a couple of the examples. Other countries from Denmark to China put their own marks on silver, whether it's sterling or not. The process of learning and understanding the myriad silver marks might last longer than the silver itself.

sterling silver
This sterling silver fruit knife made by William Needham shows several different hallmarks and a maker's mark. (From left) The first mark is for the assay office, which tests for the silver's purity. The lion passant mark shows it is 92.5 percent silver. The final mark is a date letter, which tells when it was assayed and is likely close to the date the knife was made. Next to these are the initials WN for William Needham, or the maker's mark.
Beeches Vintage

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How Much Is Sterling Worth?

With so much variety of sterling on the market, the values vary considerably. But Nelson says when it comes to antiques, typically English silver is more valuable. In fact, there's not a lot of antique American sterling on the market because before 1860, most of the silver made in the U.S. was 90 percent, which would disqualify it as sterling.

Nicknamed "coin silver," this alloy was necessitated because Americans did not have a consistent source of silver. In order to craft silver objects, the smiths melted existing objects, including coins, that were 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper, and made something new.

Even less valuable is that silver tea set your grandmother told you was sterling but is actually silver plate. Plating is covering a material with a thin coating of another. In the case of silver plating, that would often be copper with a thin coat of silver. And guess what? Silver plated items come with a whole other set of hallmarks.

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What Is Made of Sterling Silver?

Many of the items that were traditionally made from sterling silver still are. That might mean household items like centerpieces, candlesticks, trays, and jewelry and watches. You can also find sterling silver on modern dog collars. Of course, silverware got its name from its relationship with silver — both sterling and plated — although today most of us dine with less valuable flatware.

"They may be a different style because over time the styles changed," says Nelson. Nevertheless, today's sterling silver suits more decorative purposes than some historic uses.

Another place you'll find silver today is in electronics, although it's not sterling, but the pure 99.9 percent kind. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2013, 35 percent of silver in the United States was used for electronics and electrical purposes.

And sorry to disappoint, but you won't be able to melt your coins for a new silver necklace because after 1964, even 90 percent silver was no longer used for coins, save a short run of half dollars.

sterling silver
Sterling silver jewelry is hugely popular and looks great when mounted with turquoise stones.
Reid Dalland/Shutterstock

To keep sterling silver looking like the 18th-century day it was smelt, use a soft polishing cloth on pieces that are not tarnished. Otherwise, clean it with a silver polish paste and sponge or rag, and then rinse with warm water to dissolve any remaining paste from the decorative areas.

Do this every few months or whenever you notice it starting to yellow, advises Nelson. It should be easy to clean if it's yellow, but if you let it go black, you'll need to use more elbow grease.

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