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
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.
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.