Those who collect vintage jewelry know that sterling silver jewelry is a very popular collecting medium, but silver jewelry can be marked in a wide variety of ways and much of it is not marked at all. What exactly determines whether a piece can be called sterling silver? How should it be marked? Hopefully, this article will answer a few of your questions.
Sterling silver is an alloy. It is typically made from 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, although other compositions are possible. Sterling silver is very versatile and flexible, and this makes it a useful addition to any wardrobe. With the addition of precious stones and other precious metals, it lends itself to even an even greater scope of style and fashion.
Silver jewelry it not normally pure. It is very soft when pure, so it has other alloys added to it to make it more durable. The addition of copper makes the jewelry piece much more likely to tarnish. This tarnish, also called oxidation or patina, is a darkening which occurs when the sterling silver reacts with gases in the air or moisture and humidity.
The more humid the climate, the more likely a piece of silver jewelry is to tarnish. Sterling silver jewelry that is worn regularly is less likely to tarnish that that which is stored for long periods of time. Many collectors of sterling silver jewelry like the patina that sterling aquires as it ages, so it is often purchased this way and the cleaning or polishing is left up to the new owner.
Sterling silver jewelry can be marked in many different ways. It is often marked with the word sterling, or 925 and sometimes will also have the identifying country, i.e. 925 Italy or Siam Sterling. Sterling silver is widely used for jewelry manufacture because of it's malleability and relatively low cost to produce. If it was made in Mexico, it will often have the country name and 925 as well as a region, such as JM2 925 Mexico TM - 03. In this case, the TM is the region and the 03 signifies that this is the third silversmith to register the mark for the region.
Here are some examples of sterling silver hallmarks:
Sterling silver jewelry can also often be found with a vermeil finish. Pronounced "vermay," this is a French word which describes sterling silver that has been electroplated with at least 100 millionths of an inch of karat gold. The gold vermeil wash will help to minimize the tarnishing of the silver, but I've seen older pieces marked as gold over sterling that still show a fair amount of patina.
Silver is an element which occurs naturally in the earth. Fine silver is 99.9% pure, but is much too soft and malleable for jewelry manufacture. The extra metal, usually copper, is added for additional hardness. Mexico is a huge manufacturer of silver jewelry. The content of Mexican silver is more pure than sterling silver, and is usually 95% silver and 5% copper. It is often also marked with the district in Mexico from which it originates, i.e. Taxco Mexico silver.
There is an alloy known as Alpaca Silver. This is not true silver. It is an alloy that is made of approximately 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc, with 5 % tin. It is often used as a substitute for silver and is found in many Mexican designs. This alloy is also sometimes referred to as German Silver.
Many pieces of Scandinavian silver jewelry bear the hallmark 830 S. This indicates that the jewelry is silver - but it is 830 parts silver out of 1000, not 925/1000 as sterling silver is. It is still very collectible but should be called silver, not sterling silver for accuracy.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has stipulated that jewelry which is sold in the USA may not be marked as silver, solid silver, sterling, or sterling silvery, and cannot use the abbreviation ster, unless it contains at least 92.5% pure silver.
Sterling silver jewelry pieces shown in this article are available in my online stores. Just click the pictures for more details. Also be sure to check back soon, when I will talk about how to care for, store and clean sterling silver.