Silver is second only to gold in its value to humans. Its brilliant luster, adaptability into gorgeous shapes, and simple elegance make it a highly appealing material for cutlery, serving ware, ornaments, and of course jewelry.
However, not all silver objects are made alike. As pure silver is quite delicate, many silver items you encounter are actually sterling silver. But what’s the difference between sterling silver and pure silver? Is one better than the other? Let’s take a look.
What is Silver?
Silver is an element, listed as Ag on the periodic table. This means it’s a primary constituent of matter and cannot be broken down into a simpler substance. Like its neighbor on the periodic table, gold, pure silver is quite soft and malleable. Both are only 2.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, compared to diamonds which rate 10.
This softness makes silver difficult to manipulate. Daily use of a pure silver item would wear down and warp the metal. That’s why any item that needs to hold its shape is typically made with sterling silver instead of pure silver.
What is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver is an alloy comprising at least 92.5% pure silver mixed with another metal (usually copper, zinc, or nickel). This makes the metal much more durable. Most “silver” jewelry is sterling silver so that it will hold its shape. Pure silver cannot withstand frequent contact with people’s bodies.
However, sterling silver is still relatively soft, which means it often can’t support heavy gemstones. Also, it’s very easily tarnished. Exposure to various gasses causes chemical reactions that lead to discoloring. If you’ve seen antique silver objects that are heavily tarnished, that’s due to those reactions.
In fact, the combination of silver with other gas-reactive metals such as copper means that your sterling silver is prone to tarnishing, while pure silver is much more stable. The tradeoff is that pure silver is simply too soft to be used in many objects, while sterling silver is strong enough to be used in plates, pitchers, cutlery, and other objects that need to be relatively durable.
For jewelry, then, you’ll want a silver alloy with as high a percentage of pure silver as possible.
What’s the Difference Between Pure Silver and Sterling Silver?
Despite the name, pure silver is actually not 100% the element itself — although it’s close. Also called fine silver, this material is 99.9% silver. That percentage describes the “fineness” of the silver, which can also be measured in millesimal numbers i.e. the parts per thousand. Pure silver is often labeled as 999 (or “three nines five”), which is the millesimal notation for 99.9%.
Sterling silver is typically 92.5% (millesimal fineness 925) pure silver and 7.5% copper. Some countries have different fineness thresholds for sterling silver. For example, German silver can have as low as 800 fineness, while French sterling silver is a minimum of 95% pure silver.
When examining a silver object, look for a stamp such as “925” or “92.5” that indicates the item’s fineness. Anything labeled as German silver or “coin silver” typically has a lower percentage of pure silver — if any. Some objects are also silver-plated, meaning that a layer of sterling silver was applied over copper, nickel, or something else. Once that layer rubs off or tarnishes (and it will), the item’s appearance will be forever changed.
How to Care for Sterling Silver Jewelry
Sterling silver jewelry holds its shape thanks to the copper in its alloy. Over time, exposure to the air and contact with your skin will cause it to tarnish. The good news is that this is easily fixed with a simple mixture of vinegar and baking soda. You can also purchase special cleaning wipes and solutions. Just remember to handle your piece gently to avoid damage.
To minimize tarnishing, store your sterling silver in a dry place to protect it from humidity and reactive gasses. This is why many people keep their silver jewelry in a dedicated chest and their silverware in a cabinet. Never expose silver to harsh chemicals. Even the chlorine in a swimming pool can damage your sterling silver jewelry!