What is Sterling Silver?

All about silver and sterling silver jewellery.

Humans have long been entranced by sparkling silver: as jewellery, coinage, high status homewares and status symbols ... and much more besides. Silver is often used to celebrate milestones, achievements, celebrations and ceremonies, as well as for its beautiful ornamental value.

But how much do you really know about silver? What is sterling silver anyway? Why does silver tarnish and how can you clean it? How is silver different to gold? And why should you care?

As we've been designing and making silver jewellery for many years, we're here to give you the lowdown.

Don't forget to also read our article all about gold, karats and carats.

Let's get started ...

Silver: the lowdown

Similar in its composition and character to gold and copper, silver is a very soft, ductile and malleable metal which also takes a very high polish. While it doesn't have the hardness of gold, it still has many uses, especially when alloyed with other metals to make it harder.

Silver is one of the seven metals of antiquity which were known to prehistoric humans, the others being gold, copper, tin, lead, iron and mercury. As it has been in use for so long the history of its discovery and early use are not known.

It's a more reactive metal than gold and is also harder to extract from its ores when mined. This meant that in antiquity supplies of silver were rarer and therefore more expensive until around 1500 BC when the Egyptians discovered new methods of refining it.

Today silver is considerably less valuable than gold, which is rarer in nature and more difficult to mine in bulk.

What is sterling silver?

You might wonder: is sterling silver real silver? The answer is a definite yes. Sterling silver is an alloyed form of silver which is much more suitable to use in jewellery and other metalwork.

Fine silver is 99.9% pure silver. In this form the metal is beautiful and suffers from minimal tarnish, but it's generally too soft and malleable for many uses, including making most jewellery.

Instead fine silver is alloyed with copper to create sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper. This percentage of fine silver is why you will sometimes see sterling silver referred to as '925 silver' or hallmarked with a 925 stamp.

The copper makes the silver harder, more durable and therefore much better to work with and use, but without compromising on colour. Most silver jewellery that you buy and wear will be sterling silver.

The only downside to sterling silver is that the added copper will cause it to tarnish more easily, with the metal turning dark brown or black over time, especially in humid conditions. However, it's easy to clean and beneath the tarnish your sterling silver will still be in great condition: it won't rust or perish with normal use.

About silver jewellery

Cleaning silver jewellery

Learn more about cleaning silver and caring for silver jewellery in these handy articles:

Sterling silver jewellery is an excellent, high quality choice in most circumstances. The metal will not rust or perish, plus if you look after your jewellery it will look great well into the future. You should even be able to pass your silver jewellery on to future generations.

The softness of even sterling silver can make it unsuited to using with very expensive gemstone settings. Gold or platinum are the metals most often used in this situation as they are harder and the settings are less likely to be damaged.

Because silver is soft you should take a bit more care with cleaning it. Never use harsh cleansers such as baking soda or toothpaste as they will remove some of the metal over time.

Be sure to read our article specifically about how to clean silver jewellery for the full lowdown.

Silver vs gold

Your choice of silver jewellery or gold jewellery is primarily down to personal preference, but unless you're particularly wealthy, a major deciding factor is cost. It may come as a surprise to learn that although silver is of course a precious metal, it's vastly less expensive than gold.

How much less expensive? At the time of writing silver is about a whopping 75 times less expensive than gold. This makes gathering a solid gold jewellery collection a very pricey option by comparison to silver.

The reason is primarily that there is considerably more silver in the world than gold. It's estimated that 1.4 million tonnes of silver has been mined throughout human history, while only 173,000 tonnes of gold have been mined.

How do you know it's real silver?

In many cases the silver jewellery you own will be hallmarked or stamped with 925 (sterling silver) or 999 (fine silver). You may also see the stamps SS or FS to represent each.

However, not all silver jewellery is hallmarked as it's not a legal requirement in all countries (including Australia). We feel that for some designs the hallmark can detract from the finish of the piece.

So how else can you work out if your silver is real?

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 discolouration.

By the way, this should give you a clue as to why wearing sterling silver jewellery in a swimming pool is never a good idea!

Finally, you can also purchase a precious metal testing kit from Ebay or Amazon which should definitively tell you what the metal is if you follow the instructions. 

The parting shot

The beautiful bright and warm colouring of sterling silver will suit almost anyone.

In addition those with sensitive skins are highly unlikely to have an adverse affect from it, unlike with lesser metals. Plus of course it's significantly lower cost compared to metals like gold and platinum mean you can easily invest in lots of gorgeous silver jewellery.

Like gold, silver will also maintain its value - and possibly even increase in value - over time in comparison to other commodities. It is also endlessly recyclable and the metal can be reused in many forms.

On top of those benefits, having silver jewellery in your collection will add to its classiness, value, longevity and versatility. Silver jewellery is a truly excellent choice.

More about precious metals

Learn more about the qualities and pros and cons of different types of precious metals, including gold and silver, to help you choose more carefully:


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Simone Walsh is an Australian jewellery designer and maker who has been creating unique jewellery in silver, gold and gemstones for over 25 years. She lives and works on the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula outside Adelaide in South Australia, where she's lucky enough to wander on the beach and frolic in the garden in her free time. Simone is the Founder & Creative Director of Simone Walsh Jewellery.