Jewelry

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.

How to Identify Stanhope Jewelry

A Stanhope ring with close-up. Photo from Pinterest.
A Stanhope ring with close-up. Photo from Pinterest.

Several months ago, I lucked out and found a large stash of Stanhope novelty pieces at a garage sale. The collection I had to choose from was mostly religious icons, like tiny paintings of saints, the Lord’s Prayer, and other iconography hidden in keychains and cross pendants. The naughty Stanhopes, however are highly collectible — Victorian cheesecake nudes — so I snatched them all up.

A Stanhope is a tiny peep hole with a lens containing a micro-photograph inserted into a novelty souvenir. The photo inside is the size of a pinhead and has to be held up to a light and very close to ones eye to view the image. 

In the Victorian era especially, these novelties were extremely popular and cheap to make, and because they were so proliferous, people didn’t take great care of them which accounts for their rarity today.

A Stanhope ring.
A Stanhope ring.

Although the pieces I have are merely cheeky today — microphotographs of Victorian ladies in various states of undress — these would have been quite scandalous way back when.

You can identify Stanhope jewelry primarily by the small lens located somewhere on the piece, usually on a pendant, fob, keychain, or ring. Oftentimes Stanhopes will look like little lenses, like a telescope, a pair of binoculars, or another eye piece. If this is a religious piece, the lens will typically be in the center of the cross. The lens is usually about 3mm in diameter and will go all the way through the piece, and is curved like a dome on one side. You must hold it right up to your eye and look through the dome in the direction of light to discern the image inside.

VALUE: It depends. These were widely manufactured but many of them were ruined or not treated very nicely. The “adult” versions have a value as a novelty item, but these were rarely made with precious metals or stones. I’d compare with recent sales on eBay to price your item.

NOTE: If you have and love a piece of Stanhope, you must be very careful not to expose the piece to moisture in any form. Water, lotion, steam, or any other moisture will dissolve the tiny picture on the lens, negating the value of the piece. I learned this lesson the hard way.

MidCentury Jewelry

midcenturyjewelryss

MidCentury Jewelry is a full-service jewelry store based out of Ohio, and the site was built to order with a light and airy theme with an Art Deco motif. MCJ’s previous website was built before a shop and blog could easily be integrated and hosted together, and the administrator found the old e-commerce sites difficult to use on the back side.

Today, thanks to WordPress and various ecommerce plug-ins, this was a piece of cake. They now have a fully functional shop and blog that is fast and user-friendly.