Sterling Silver vs. Pure Silver: How to Tell the Difference?

The terms ‘silver’ and ‘sterling silver’ are sometimes confused.

In this article, we take a few minutes to discuss the difference. If you’re new to silver, you should take away a solid enough understanding to ask the right questions as a buyer and actually understand what’s in your jewelry. This is of key importance, especially if you have a big purchase coming up!

Is sterling silver pure silver? No, there’s a key difference. Sterling silver is silver mixed with another ore. All the silver on this site is 925 or above, meaning that it is, at a minimum, 92.5% silver. Let’s get a bit more into the details, to see why it’s important to understand this.

What is Sterling Silver? 

Silver is naturally a soft metal, so there are actually some advantages to having a piece that isn’t pure silver. Sterling silver involves the addition of copper or another metal to the silver to add to its durability.

One of the more common silver alloys is .925, meaning that 92.5% of the sterling silver is pure silver and the other 7.5% is a stronger kind of metal like copper, zinc or nickel. Our wholesale jewelry selection at Santa Prisca Silver goes as high as .980 (98% silver)!

Anything below 90% silver is generally considered to be of lesser quality and known as coin silver. It’s important to buy from someone you trust, to help ensure that the percentage of the silver is what the seller claims it is.

What is Pure Silver?  

Pure silver is just what it sounds like! It must contain 99.9% silver to be considered pure silver. Usually, this is how it comes from the mine, but it’s not the best to use for jewelry. Fine silver, as it’s also called, needs to be mixed with something a bit stronger! 

Pure silver is very malleable and therefore is seldom used for jewelry. However, if it’s used to make art and placed where the kids can’t reach it, the applicability of silver is vastly increased! Yet, for some reason, artisans seem to really like to make coins and eating utensils out of almost pure silver, two of the things you’d think would most need to be durable!

Although, this does arguably make discerning the value of a piece slightly easier, at least before it becomes a work of art. And meticulous silversmithing will also add value to virtually any piece of ore. In another article, ‘How much is a silver dollar worth,’ we discuss coins in greater detail.

How to Test Silver for Purity 

Although it isn’t that difficult to spot silver that is altogether fake, at the higher end, a test involving chemicals makes it much easier to tell for sure how pure a piece of silver is. For this, you’ll have to apply an ‘acid test.’ Kits designed for this purpose can be purchased online. Just be sure to follow regular safety guidelines when conducting the test. Customers may also be interested in getting pieces tested. This can be a valuable service for jewelry retail stores to offer to customers as well.   

Also, if you happen to be looking at sterling silver in a physical location, be sure to check it for any markings intended to indicate it’s silver percentage. At a reliable seller, these are helpful. At one that may be unreliable, clearly, they may require a bit more scrutiny.  

How to Tell Fine Silver Apart

In order to be considered ‘sterling silver,’ a piece needs to be .925 pure silver, at a minimum. Keep in mind, the standard of sterling silver being 925 at a minimum is strictly for the US. Jewelry in other parts of the world can still be legally sold as ‘sterling silver’ even if they have lower silver percentages.  

Fine silver is generally marked with its percentage to separate itself from the pack. In purer selections, you can expect to find .950 silver, .980 silver and sometimes, percentages that are even higher. 

If a piece is marked ‘silver plated,’ it may only have a very thin layer of silver on the outside and be filled out with copper or zinc. This can be something to watch out for! 

It helps to ask dealers if you have any questions, especially on larger purchases.

Silver Percentage and Maintenance

When the silver percentage is diluted with other metals, it tends to tarnish more often. This is caused by chemical reactions in sterling silver to open air. Clearly, this is unavoidable, if you ever want to be seen in public wearing your jewelry! 

This concludes our article on silver today. Take a look at some of our other articles to learn more about Taxco de Alarcon, the local silver industry and our retail management series. Also, don’t miss our wholesale sterling silver collection! Shipping to the USA is free and takes three to five business days, although be sure to let us know if you are thinking about making a giant order! Feel free to use the contact form below if you have any questions or would like to get in touch!