Whether in the form of jewelry, tableware, or decorative items, people typically have a hard time differentiating sterling silver from silver-plated metal items.
The distinction between them is quite significant because if the item in question is indeed genuine solid silver, its higher price would then be justified, which would not be the case for silver-plated metal items.
Let us explore the two materials and in what ways they differ.
Everything About Sterling Silver
In the sense defined by European laws, sterling silver is a solid silver that is only recognized as a precious metal if it contains at least 80% of pure silver in mass.
It would not be possible to make an item out of only pure silver, as the material is too soft. It is thus essential to combine it with a harder metal, to make the silver more resistant and less sensitive to marks. Copper is one of the 'other metals' most often used, and sometimes zinc.
Sterling Silver Hallmarks
There are several grades of solid silver with hallmarks for each. Sterling silver's mark is 925 silver.
For instance, this Mexican sterling silver water pitcher by the silversmith Alfredo Ortega has a hallmark of title 925:
Indeed, the hallmark on the silver item specifies the amount of pure silver used for its manufacture, which automatically signifies that the item is made of real silver as opposed to being silver-plated.
The most common are Silver 800 (80% silver), Silver 925 (92.5%) also known as sterling silver, Silver 950 (95% silver), and Silver 999 (99% silver).
Here’s an example of an 800 sterling silver mark, on this charming 19th century German sterling silver basket finely chiseled with a handle in the form of a ribbon.
Accordingly, '925 silver' means that the product is composed of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals.
One of the top manufacturers of sterling silver worldwide is Christofle, who are highly celebrated for their cutlery, such as the following set consisting of 110 pieces.
Everything About Silver-Plated Metal
Silver-plated metal refers to a metal object (usually copper and bronze) covered with a thin layer of silver. The coating process is called electrolysis: the process consists of immersing the metal item in a solution containing silver ions and circulating a current that will cause the deposition of these ions on the item in hand.
The deposited layer must be at least 10 microns thick and can be up to several tenths of a millimeter of silver.
The thickness of the silver layer can range from a few microns to tens of millimeters. The amount of silver that is used to cover the metal surface is thus extremely little.
Silver-plated Metal Hallmarks
Like gold-plated metal, silver-plated items are marked with a square punch that includes an engraved number corresponding to the rate of silver used to plate the object, or in some cases its whole series (if it’s a cutlery set for instance).
For instance, if it's a 12-piece cutlery set, the number corresponds to the mass of silver used to silver 12 pieces. That is, the number in the square punch represents the amount of silver used for the 12 pieces of cutlery. Example: 84gr means 84 grams used for 12 pieces of cutlery or about 7 grams of silver per piece.
For single pieces: The number corresponds to the mass of silver used to silver the piece (typically between 1gr and 30gr for unique pieces).
Key Distinctions between Sterling Silver and Silver-Plated
Sterling silver items are more expensive than silver-plated metal, and rightfully so. The value of silver actually changes as it is related to the silver ‘spot price’, which is the value of the metal at a specific point in time.
Silver-plated items are much lighter than authentic solid silver and can be recognized by weighing them. The distinction can even be made by weighing them with just your hands.
Wear and tear quickly reveal the true nature of the jewel, and sterling silver certainly has a longer lifespan than silver-plated items.
Solid silver (which includes sterling) has particular oxidation, it blackens after several months in contact with the air, but a good cleaning is enough to give it back all its shine!
In case of shock and deep scratches, it is possible to brush solid silver (which includes sterling) and then polish it to give it back its original aspect. You can even consider modifying it by cutting it, welding it, or integrating other stones.
Silver-plated metal does not blacken much, but with a certain amount of time, shocks, and rubbing, the surface layer of silver-plated items can disappear and reveal the base metal of the item.
For instance, like this silver-plated bowl that has clearly sustained some wear and tear:
Sterling silver and silver-plated items are differentiated by their composition, and therefore as mentioned above, each has its hallmark.
When struck, silver produces a clear, lingering sound, while silver metal will have a duller, "heavier" sound.
Solid silver is softer than silver-plated, so if your object is deformed or has a soft consistency, it is probably solid silver. Silver metal is more rigid and quite hard to deform.
Some metals are not magnetic, and like gold, zinc, aluminum and tin, silver is one of them. So, if you bring a magnet close to your object and it is attracted, you will know right away that it is not silver but surely steel, or even silver-plated metal.
To make is easier, here’s a table summarizing the key differences between sterling silver and silver-plated metal.
Diverse uses of Silver
Although silver and silver-plated metal are very often used in jewelry and tableware, they have many other uses in different fields. Let's take a closer look at their various uses.
Medical field: Silver has antibacterial properties and is used for treatments such as creams and bandages, as well as for certain medical equipment and tools.
Industrial field: Silver is also the strongest of all elements for electricity and heat, with exceptional conductivity qualities which is why it is used in some batteries, in solar and photovoltaic panels. It is actually a silver paste that is used in solar panels.
Monetary field: Along with gold, platinum, and palladium, silver is a precious metal. Investing in silver is attractive because of its accessibility and its relatively lower cost, allowing you to invest in precious metals. For instance, sterling silver coins are great and popular investments.
As mentioned above, silver darkens when it comes into contact with air. If you want to preserve your silver coins while avoiding this blackening, simply place each object in newspaper, enclose it in a plastic bag, draining the air as much as possible and then put it in a closed place. The goal is to limit the contact of the silverware with the ambient air to avoid oxidation.
We hope you now have all the tools and information to distinguish sterling silver from silver-plated metal.