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 sterling silver jewelry, 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 important, especially if you have a big purchase coming up!

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

What is Sterling Silver? 

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

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 a copper, zinc, nickel mint or nickel silver. Our wholesale jewelry selection at Santa Prisca Silver goes as high as .980 (98% silver)! But virtually no one has pure silver jewelry. Not because they can’t afford it, but rather because using copper or German silver as an alloy adds to structural integrity.

Silver rounds below 90% silver are generally considered to be of lesser quality and known as coin silver, also know as junk 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. Coin silver certainly isn’t one of the finer metals you can buy, but that is alright, just as long as you know what you’re getting. Junk silver can be bought in bulk online. The ‘base metal’ is considered the metal used at the core of a piece of bullion or jewelry. Sometimes base metals are copper, tumbaga or germal silver, with a gold plating.

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 to form a true silver bullion bar! 

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 fine silver 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 silver coins in greater detail. Silver coins play an interesting role in history, as they remind us of a time when money was more closely linked to the value of precious metals, such as the American silver eagle. Britannia silver, usually measured in troy ounces, consists of 95.83% pure silver. In any case, ‘real silver’ and pure silver are definitely not the same thing.

Jewelry manufacturers and investors often buy silver in silver bullion, which are usually the big bars! Sometimes, these have historical value and the markings to display their silver percentage or where they were made. If you’re going to buy in bulk, silver bullion or silver bullion coin is sometimes the way to go. These big silver bars are heavy, and they can be melted down just about an infinite number of times, so the metals are preserved for later use. This is the same with gold bars, especially. Even less than an ounce of gold shavings can be worth hundreds of dollars, so it’s important to be careful when you’re working with it!

How to Test Silver for Purity 

Although it isn’t that difficult to spot silver that is altogether fake, regular silver at the higher end, a test involving chemicals makes it much easier to tell for sure how pure a silver bar is. For this, you’ll have to apply an ‘acid test.’ Kits designed to test the validity of ‘fine silver’ 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. 

Why use .925 instead of 92.5 percent? The naming convention now in place is called millesimal fineness, coincided with decimal hallmark stamps, so standard silver comes with familiar marks.

If silver objects are marked ‘silver plated,’ they may only have a very thin layer of silver on the outside and be filled out with copper or zinc. Silver plated jewelry may sometimes come as a surprise, rather than precious metal one might have been expecting. 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. Tarnishing 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 precious metal! But you can help avoid tarnishing by keeping your pieces safe from the elements, more generally. If you’re going with a plating, you’ll want it to be thicker to avoid tarnishing as well.

This concludes our silver content 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. Our biggest growth recently has come from our custom jewelry manufacturing services, where we’ve onboarded and worked with a number of designers to supply them with high quality jewelry across the world.

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!