Auctions & Thrifting

How to Identify Sterling Silver Jewelry

Sterling silver is a common metal for jewelry because it ages well, is easy to manipulate, and is more affordable than gold or platinum. By definition, sterling silver is silver that is 925/1000 parts silver, or 92.5% silver. Pure silver (99% +) is too soft for jewelry-making so the highest silver content in jewelry is usually .925. The remaining percentage of alloy is usually copper, but other metal alloys can be used too such as zinc and platinum.

Identify Sterling Silver using Hallmarks

The best way to identify sterling silver jewelry is to inspect the piece, because almost all silver jewelry has a stamp indicating the silver content. A HUGE catalog of silver stamps used over time and by different manufacturers is located at the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers Marks. Researching these makers marks will tell you just about everything you need to know about where and when your jewelry was made.

925 Sterling Silver

925 sterling silver mark
A sterling hallmark from a piece of Mexican TAXCO silver. This includes a “sterling” hallmark with the “925” as well as a TAXCO indicator and the jewelry maker’s mark.

Since the early 1900s, American sterling jewelry is required to have a sterling mark if it is 92.5% sterling silver. Pieces older than the early 1900s will be stamped “STERLING” or “STER” or “SS” somewhere on the piece of jewelry. It may have been stamped this way or it might have worn away over years of wear.

However, newer sterling silver jewelry is often stamped “925”. 

To the right is a sterling silver hallmark from a TAXCO piece, including the maker’s mark (“Perlita”). If you have a TAXCO piece that includes detailed hallmarks, you can research them in a Mexican sterling marks catalogue. In this case, Perlita is the name of a local shop in Taxco, Mexico, the Mexican town that is so famous for silversmithing.

I love Mexican silver and can get lost on eBay poring over the tons of examples and huge range of quality found in Mexican silver jewelry, particularly Taxco silver.

950 Sterling Mark

You often find the 950 Sterling mark on Mexican sterling from before the World War II era. 950 silver is 95% silver and 5% alloy, and does have a higher silver content than sterling. However this is not seen very often in jewelry because it’s difficult to make jewelry with this softness of metal.

900 and 800 Silver

Older and antique jewelry may include a 900 stamp. This shows that the jewelry is 900/1000 parts silver, 90% silver and 10% alloy. This is obviously not quite as high a silver content as sterling. Coin silver might be an alloy, but it can literally mean you’re holding silver made from melted down coins. Vintage Native American jewelry may often not have a silver content mark on it, but often this jewelry has a silver content in the range of coin silver.

Sometimes, you’ll see an 800 stamp on a piece of vintage silver jewelry. This means that the content of the jewelry is 4/5 or 80% silver and 20% alloy. Many times, based on the style of the piece and the 800 stamp, you can begin researching European jewelry and other foreign makers. Some vintage silver filigree jewelry will have an 800 mark as well.

Silver Testing

Commercial silver test kits are available for silver jewelry online, or you can go to your local jeweler or metal scrapper for testing if you’ve exhausted your own research.

Why Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is one of my favorite metals for jewelry because it ages well, often developing a beautiful gray or black patina, and it is more affordable than gold or platinum. Jewelers love sterling silver because it is easy to work with and beautifully sets off precious and semi-precious stones. In the gallery above, I included some of my favorite styles of sterling silver pieces, including Mexican jewelry, Tuareg jewelry, and mid-century silver statement pieces.

Learning to identify sterling silver is easy with a little experience and research and will bring big returns to any collector. As with any metal commodity, you can track the value of sterling silver at any given time by getting familiar with the commodities market.  

What is Siam Sterling?

Siam Sterling jewelry was manufactured from the 1930s through the 1980s, and was a very popular motif in the 1950-60s. Although Siam officially changed its name to Thailand in the 1940s, the “Siam” nickname for this style of jewelry stuck. 

Siam silver is officially called “Nielloware.” Niello is a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal. American soldiers who visited Thailand in the mid-20th century bought this jewelry for their ladies back home, making it a popular mid-century trend. Much of the filigree was etched by hand by Thai artisans.

Identifying Siam Sterling

Nielloware pieces are usually stamped “Siam” or “Niello” on the back. You will find common examples with figurals such as dancers or peacocks carved out of a black field. All Siam sterling is sterling silver and will usually have some type of black, white or occasionally colored enamel as part of the design. Only the black and silver pieces are considered Nielloware by collectors, and colored enamels fit into another category of Siam silver.

Value

Most pieces aren’t worth a ton of money, but if you think you have something large or unusual, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Collectors of Siam sterling get very serious about unusual colors and large, rare pieces and will pay top dollar.

A History of Creepy Dolls

Whoops!

When I first started going to auctions, I accidentally bid on and won a creepy doll. At an estate auction, I didn’t like the cut of some lady’s jib, and bid her up on a random item to be a jerk and give her a hard time. This is a common, if ill-advised, auction practice — I learned it from my parents.

Karma got me for showing off. I won it.

My win was an early 20th c. composition “mama” doll with a white gown and white leather shoes, whose head had been damaged by moisture and peeled away at the top, exposing a dense white skull of “composition,” a molded glue and sawdust mixture. She dated about 1910-1940. Her eyes opened and closed and her cloth body was stuffed to be about the size and weight of a 10-12 month old human child. These were called “mama” dolls because they had a voice box inside that said “mama” when you sat the baby up or laid her down. My baby no longer said “mama.”

She was creepy as all get out. She had flat eyes, a peeling head, and a weird smile. She was roughly the size and weight of an actual baby. Nobody wanted anything to do with her. I put her in an antique store but nobody would buy it. I tried to sell her online and got no interest at all. Eventually I stuck her in a closet waiting for an opportunity to unload this baby doll on someone else.

Posting about this weird mistake on social media, my friends and family were delighted with my bad luck and began to associate me with creepy dolls of all kinds. Folks sent me every link, photo, story, or event that had to do somehow with creepy dolls. It turns out there is a lot of them. There is even a doll museum in my hometown I didn’t know about prior, a two-story Victorian row house complete with a creepy curator and chock full of automatons from floor to ceiling. People are disappointed to find out that I not only don’t collect creepy dolls, but I’m also not into them apart from teasing my friends and family. 

Today, someone sent me this amazing article by The Smithsonian on the history and culture associated with Western dolls and an exploration of what we mean when we talk about “creepiness”:

Research into why we think things are creepy and what potential use that might have is somewhat limited, but it does exist (“creepy”, in the modern sense of the word, has been around since the middle of the 19th century; its first appearance in The New York Times was in an 1877 reference to a story about a ghost). In 2013, Frank McAndrew, a psychologist at Knox College in Illinois, and Sara Koehnke, a graduate student, put out a small paper on their working hypothesis about what “creepiness” means; the paper was based on the results of a survey of more than 1,300 people investigating what “creeped” them out (collecting dolls was named as one of the creepiest hobbies).

Creepiness, McAndrew says, comes down to uncertainty. “You’re getting mixed messages. If something is clearly frightening, you scream, you run away. If something is disgusting, you know how to act,” he explains. “But if something is creepy… it might be dangerous but you’re not sure it is… there’s an ambivalence.” If someone is acting outside of accepted social norms – standing too close, or staring, say – we become suspicious of their intentions. But in the absence of real evidence of a threat, we wait and in the meantime, call them creepy. The upshot, McAndrew says, is that being in a state of “creeped out” makes you “hyper-vigilant”. “It really focuses your attention and helps you process any relevant information to help you decide whether there is something to be afraid of or not. I really think creepiness is where we respond in situations where we don’t know have enough information to respond, but we have enough to put us on our guard.”

Finally, after three years of scaring myself by finding the creepy baby in closet after closet (“Did I move this, or…?”), I pawned it off on someone else. A local artist who didn’t seem too horrified by the idea found her on his doorstep.

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