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Silver in Jewelry

Silver is a white metallic element, harder than gold, softer than copper and second only to gold in malleability and ductility. Represented on the Periodic Table of the Elements by the symbol Ag, silver is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. Silver is considered one of the noble metals because of its excellent resistance to oxidation.

The major use of silver besides coinage throughout most of history was in the manufacture of jewelry and other general-use items, and this continues to be a major use today. Examples include table silver for cutlery, for which silver is highly suited due to its antibacterial properties. Western concert flutes are usually plated with or made out of sterling silver; in fact, most silverware is only silver-plated rather than made out of pure silver; the silver is normally put in place by electroplating. Silver-plated glass (as opposed to metal) is used for mirrors, vacuum flasks, and Christmas tree decorations.

Silver is relatively inexpensive today when you compare it to other precious metals like gold or platinum. This could lure one into believing that it isn’t an important metal. That is a false assumption! At times throughout history silver was valued more highly than gold. When you examine the quantities of silver used in jewelry, its use outweighs all other precious metals by a large factor. This versatile white metal also triggered far more technological advances in the field of mining and metallurgy than it’s other precious metallic cousins. Entire economies have depended on its availability and the access to silver deposits has swung wars and as a result history. Silver is without doubt one of the most important metals in use by mankind.

In recent years silver has been the go-to metal for manufactured, low-cost jewelry. Affordable and easy to work with, brands have become accustomed to using silver in the most creative of ways. For some, the metal has been ideal for chunkier, bolder designs while others have opted for comparatively tiny, collectible charms. Mostly, silver has had a healthy demand and a healthy market to match. Because pure silver is very soft, most silver used for these purposes is alloyed with copper to harden it enough to maintain the desired shape and details imparted to it. One drawback is the easy tarnishing of silver in the presence of hydrogen sulfide and its derivatives. Electrolytically refined pure silver plating is effective at increasing resistance to tarnishing. The usual solutions for restoring the luster of tarnished silver are dipping baths that reduce the silver sulfide surface to metallic silver, and cleaning off the layer of tarnish with a paste; the latter approach also has the welcome side effect of polishing the silver concurrently. A simple chemical approach to removal of the sulfide tarnish is to bring silver items into contact with aluminium foil whilst immersed in water containing a conducting salt, such as sodium chloride.

Silver Alloys and Purity Test in Jewelry

There are many types of silver available on the market today. It is important to be familiar with the competing metals in the marketplace in order to educate your customers about silver quality standards and alternatives in the industry. Don’t assume you are buying sterling silver jewelry supplies when something is called “silver.”

Customers need to understand that silver used in jewelry is usually an alloy which means a metal mixture of two or more elements from the periodic table. Silver is a noble metal and in its elemental form, it’s soft and easy to sculpt. However, silver also easily rusts. For this reason it’s been mixed with other metals over the centuries to make it more durable and available to use in many goods. The ratio of silver to other metals, and the type of other metals used, impact the price of silver jewelry. Scientists are always working on a new way to synthesize silver to improve its use. This is why there are so many types of silver out there.

A lot of finished silver jewelry will have a quality stamp somewhere on the piece. This is the quickest way to identify quality. There are cases of fraudulent marking but they are fairly rare. These tiny markings may only be legible under magnification. However, jewelry items or components are only required to bear a stamp when there is a surface area available. For that reason, small findings and components are often unstamped even though they are quality alloys. Quality stamp standards are described in the sections below. The color of silver is also highly valued, so sometimes you’ll come across alloys that look like silver but are made of other metals altogether. All these types are used in jewelry, so knowing the differences can help you make informed choices when purchasing.

The silver we wear is almost always mixed with a small amount of other metals (often copper), because pure silver is too soft for most types of jewelry. The most common of these mixtures, or alloys, is called sterling silver. Sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent other metals, although other proportions exist with different names. Sterling silver will usually be stamped with the number 925, although sometimes it may also have the word ‘sterling’ or ‘sterling silver’ to prove its authenticity. The three-digit number indicates that the sterling silver is 925 parts silver to 75 parts of another metal, or 925 parts silver out of every 1000 parts.

There are some tests to determine the silver content in an alloy. One test is to use a strong magnet (preferably a rare-earth neodymium magnet). If the magnet joins strongly to the metal, then it’s not silver or the piece may only be silver plated over a base metal. However, there are other metals that are not magnetic, so this is not a definitive test. If you’re feeling brave you can also dab a tiny amount of chlorine bleach on the metal in an inconspicuous place and watch for a reaction. Silver (including silver plating) will generally turn brown or black in the presence of bleach. Rinse the metal well afterwards and use a polishing cloth or silver dip to try to remove the discoloration.

X- ray testing is non-destructive but requires expensive equipment. Jewelry must be sent to a lab for x-ray testing. This test is relatively accurate on most silver items. The machine can be fooled by layered metals and some types of plating, so the accuracy is approximate. Assay testing is a destructive test that is more accurate. In this test, at least .5 grams of metal are melted down so the alloyed elements and ratios can be accurately measured. Neither of these tests are a practical option for consumers looking for a quick test at home. Instead, consumers are advised to buy silver from reputable manufacturers that are honestly disclosing details on their materials.

Types of Silver

1. Fine or “Pure” Silver

This is the truest type of silver available in jewelry. You’ll see them labeled as “.999” which tells you that the item is 99.9% silver. You may also see an “FS” which stands for “fine silver.” This form of silver is as close as you can get to elemental silver in jewelry. Fine silver has a distinctive white luster and is hypoallergenic. But pure silver is soft, which means it’s easily scratched and loses its shape over time. Because of this, it’s best used in jewelry that doesn’t see a lot of action or come into contact with things. For example, earrings or a pendant on a necklace would be better suited for fine silver than a ring or bracelet.

2. Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is one of the most widely used forms of silver. This is because it has the desired luster and is also durable. You’ll see it labeled as “.925” or “.925 STG,” “STG,” “STERLING” or “STER.” Sterling silver contains 92.5% elemental silver. The other 7.5% of the silver is made of other metals, like copper and nickel. You’ll sometimes see them described as alloy metals. Sterling silver is relatively soft, which makes it malleable like pure silver. But its malleability also makes it scratch easily. This is why you’ll often find it “plated” with rhodium to be stronger. The rhodium finish and planting also help lessen the amount of tarnishing. This makes it perfect for jewelry pieces that see a lot of action, like these rings from Dreamland Jewelry. The good thing is that tarnish is generally easy to remove and manage with routine cleaning.

3. Argentium Silver Jewelry

Argentium is a brand of silver alloy. It’s made to be more durable and resistant to rust than sterling silver. This type of silver is usually combined with other metals like germanium and copper. It’s considered to be the new sterling silver. What’s also interesting about it is that it can actually contain more pure silver than sterling silver. It comes in two grades “.932” and “.96.” This means that Argentium silver can be up to 96% pure silver. Authentic Argentium silver jewelry will be labeled as “Argentium.” If it doesn’t have this stamp, it’s likely a knock-off or a type of sterling silver. Authentic Argentium does not contain nickel and is also hypoallergenic. The only downside to Argentium is that it’s more expensive than other types of silver. It’s also harder to find.

4. German Silver

German silver, also known as nickel silver, is popular for jewelry and home items; however, the material does not contain actual silver. Copper, zinc and nickel are mixed together to form various alloys that resemble silver in color. It is used to create a variety of products, from hair accessories to musical instruments. Antique jewelry and decorative household items often have a plating of real silver over the alloy base of nickel silver. German silver contains nickel, which is a common skin irritant. If you are allergic to nickel, avoid German silver jewelry.

5. Silver Plated

Silver plated is a base metal product with a very thin silver plating applied to the surface. Even when jewelry is described as fine silver-plated, the overall silver content is a small fraction of a percent. Silver-plated jewelry makes affordable costume jewelry. Plating can tarnish and will eventually wear off to expose the base metal underneath. Silver plating is an affordable way to get the appearance of silver without paying for the full weight of sterling or fine silver, but it’s not your best choice for jewelry. While regular silver never loses its value, no matter how tarnished it becomes, silver plated objects and jewelry can depreciate in value over time. The silver plating can rub off, exposing ugly, cheaper metals that can irritate skin. If the seller doesn’t tell you that it’s sterling silver and you can’t find a stamp on it, it’s probably silver-plated.

6. Nickel Silver

In the case of nickel silver, the term “silver” describes the color of the metal, not the content. Nickel silver is a base metal alloy consisting of mostly copper combined with nickel and/or zinc. It is an inexpensive base metal that is similar in appearance to sterling silver. Nickel silver is used in costume jewelry but should be clearly marked and described as a nickel alloy since many people are allergic to nickel.

What is the Best Type of Silver for Jewelry?

In conclusion, your best bet for silver jewelry is almost always sterling silver. When it comes to jewelry, sterling silver is the “gold standard.” The high percentage of silver makes it a high quality metal that’s still strong, durable, and resistant to scratches. 92.5 percent seems to be the perfect balance. It won’t depreciate or rub away on you like silver-plated, and it’s stronger and more durable than pure silver.

It might seem cheaper at the time to buy silver-plated jewelry, but keep in mind that it will likely be ruined within a couple of years. By contrast, sterling silver costs a little more up front, but not having to replace your entire jewelry box every few years saves you money in the long run. Whether you’re buying a bracelet, silver earrings, or a necklace, keep in mind that your sterling silver pieces will probably live longer than your grandchildren! Happy shopping, everyone.