What Is Sterling Silver, Really?

What Is Sterling Silver, Really?

March 23, 2020

What Is Sterling Silver, Really?

Although silver and sterling silver are terms that often get used interchangeably, they're not the same thing. We'll take a look at the differences between silver and sterling silver to answer all of your questions about this stunning metal and its use in custom jewelry.

What Is Silver?

Silver is a natural metal buried in the earth's crust. It's also referred to as pure silver or fine silver. It has an actual silver content of 99.9%. For centuries, people around the world have recognized silver as a valuable metal. When it was first mined, it was used for currency and jewelry.

It was once an important part of photography, and it's now a critical component in some electronics. Since silver has antibacterial properties, it's used in clothing to prevent bacteria from creating unpleasant odors. Additionally, manufacturers will weave silver threads into the fingertips of gloves so you can operate your touch-screen phone.

What Is Sterling Silver?

Sterling Silver jewelry

For all of its benefits, pure silver has one major drawback: It's an incredibly soft metal. This makes pure silver impractical for items that require daily use. As a result, metalsmiths started to create an alloy with silver. To make this alloy, they heated two or more metals to a liquid state and mixed them together. When they created an alloy with silver, it became known as sterling silver.

Sterling silver contains 92.5% silver and 7.5% alloy. The alloy is typically zinc, copper, or nickel. The addition of the other metals makes sterling silver more durable and remarkably stronger. It also makes it possible to use silver in a variety of other items, including:

  • Jewelry.
  • Plates.
  • Silverware.
  • Platters.
  • Tea and coffee sets.

Recognizing Pure Silver and Sterling Silver Marks

If you have a piece of jewelry and you're wondering whether it's pure silver or sterling silver, you simply need to look for the mark. Pure silver will be stamped with a 999, .999, or 99.9 mark. Sterling silver made in the United States will have a 925, .925, or 92.5 mark.

It's important to note that silver sold outside of the U.S. might have a purity lower than 92.5% yet still be marked as sterling silver. However, according to U.S. standards, pieces with purity lower than 92.5% aren't considered sterling silver.

When you're looking for the mark on your jewelry, check in an inconspicuous place, such as the closure, clasp, or hook. If you feel like you can't rely on this mark to tell you the correct silver content in your jewelry, there's an easy test you can do yourself. Simply hold the jewelry up to a magnet. Since silver isn't magnetic, it shouldn't stick to the magnet. If it does, it contains more alloy than silver, which means it isn't sterling silver.

Comparing Sterling Silver to Pure Silver

Now that you understand how to make sterling silver and how to identify the mark on sterling silver, you might be wondering how it compares to pure silver.


Since pure silver has a higher percentage of fine silver, it's more expensive than sterling silver. When an artisan designs a piece of custom jewelry using pure silver, he or she must invest more in the materials. This significantly raises the price of the finished product. However, sterling silver looks just as good as pure silver, meaning you can get a beautiful and timeless piece of jewelry at a more affordable price.


Even though manufacturers mix other metals with silver to make sterling silver, it still retains the shiny and gorgeous white-gray appearance of fine silver. One reason why sterling silver looks almost identical to pure silver is that copper is one of the most popular metals to include in the mixture. While copper adds to the durability of silver, it doesn't impact silver's shade or tone. If you're worried that sterling silver won't have the same shine as pure silver, put those fears aside. Even the most trained jewelers can't tell the difference between the two by appearance alone.


Tarnishing is a chemical reaction that can gradually dull metal. It typically happens when exposure to water or air creates a coating on the surface of the metal that makes it lose its brightness. Pure silver isn't a reactive metal, which means it doesn't react with water or oxygen, and it doesn't easily tarnish.

However, zinc, nickel, and copper are all reactive metals, which means they will tarnish. This makes sterling silver more prone to tarnishing, as well. The good news is that if your sterling silver starts to tarnish, it's easy to clean. All you need to do is periodically clean your pieces with a jewelry polishing cloth to have them shining again.

Benefits of Sterling Silver Jewelry

Why are so many pieces of jewelry made from sterling silver? It's because it offers a variety of excellent benefits. These are just a few of the characteristics that make sterling silver such an attractive choice for jewelry.


The added metals in sterling silver make it incredibly strong, yet these metals don't add to its weight. This makes sterling silver perfect for jewelry you want to wear every day. Plus, since sterling silver is so durable and scratch-resistant, you can pass the jewelry down through generations.


Since sterling silver is simple to work with, jewelry designers can easily create customized pieces using it. Whether you're interested in something timeless or whimsical, you're sure to find it in sterling silver. It's also easy to engrave sterling silver with initials or a name.


Researchers believe up to 10% of the population has a nickel allergy. That number can go as high as 20% in women due to exposure to nickel in jewelry. This allergy can cause itchy skin, redness, swelling, and even blisters. However, since sterling silver contains 92.5% pure silver, it's much less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

Now that you know more about sterling silver, it's easy to see why it's such a popular choice for jewelry. Unique Gold and Diamonds offers a large selection of sterling silver jewelry. We also are on of the top silver buyers in the New Jersey area, for more information on how to sell silver jewelry and more click here! Browse our collection today so you can find your next favorite piece.


Image via Flickr by JustJaynes