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.  

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.

On the Vintage Spiro Agnew Watch by Dirty Time Company

I ran across this hilarious Spiro Agnew watch this weekend. Spiro Agnew was Nixon’s extremely unpopular vice president, and the first VP to resign from office due to criminal charges. One of the many jokes targeting Agnew was: “Did you know that Mickey Mouse wears a Spiro Agnew watch?” I don’t get it either.

During Christmas 1969, a physician in Orange County, California named Hale E. Dougherty decided to capitalize on this joke by making a watch that featured Agnew in a pose and outfit reminiscent of the famous Mickey Mouse watches.

Dougherty named his watch company the “Dirty Time Company,” perhaps in reference to the perceptions about Agnew’s dirty political and financial dealings.

The Dirty Time Company Spiro Agnew watches were basic mechanical, Swiss Made watches, originally retailing for $14.95. Among those who owned the watches were Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, as well as both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress. Dougherty even sent an early watch to Agnew who wrote back that the watch was “both attractive and clever,” before later changing his tune and threatening legal action over the use of his likeness and invasion of his privacy.

For some reason I have talent picking out valuable novelties. I struggle with fine metals and gemstones, but weird pop culture items? Of course I’m good at weird pop culture items. The dealer I got it from probably had no idea what he was holding, and my picking partner had no idea why I was so excited.

VALUE: If your Spiro Agnew watch is in good to great condition and it works, it will get about $40 on the market today.

That Auction Life: When all your belongings are disposable, for sale, or have a price.

One of my favorite regular auctions: Schoolhouse Auctions, a consignment auction house in teeny-tiny Yeoman, Indiana.

One of my many hobbies is moonlighting as a vintage jewelry dealer. I’ve been thrifting since I was a teenager, and started getting into auctions in a serious way a few years ago. About that time, I started to specialize in jewelry and sell jewelry online. Why jewelry? It’s the subject of another post. Just know that if you told me ten years ago that I would geek out over costume jewelry from the 1940s and ’50s, or tooth and hair jewelry from the Victorian era, I would have laughed in your face. I sell jewelry, mostly. What do I collect? Jewelry. Glass. Knives. Linens. Art. All things mid-century. Kitsch.

As the season shifts to spring, I think nothing of getting up early in the morning and throwing some pants on to get to all the best garage sales and auctions. Driving home from an auction last weekend with a pile of new stuff, I realized I’m always driving around with piles and piles of stuff in my car. My poor kids. Trash, items to donate to resale shops, items to photograph, items to sell, and items I haven’t quite identified yet litter my house, my car, my basement, and my garage. “The churn,” as I call it in my head, is one of the side effects of buying and selling vintage items. It becomes a lifestyle. When you start the churn, it’s usually small and manageable, but a few years in, the churn takes over your life, your home, and your free time.

1) You’re a dumping ground for stuff now.
People in your life begin to see you as a picker for stuff they may want in the future, and as a place to drop off things they no longer want but don’t want to donate. This is a blessing and a curse. You get tons of gorgeous stuff from generous friends, but you also get a bunch of things that you weren’t interested in, don’t know anything about, and now have to deal with yourself. You also get tasked for finding the perfect birthday present for “the guy who has everything.” This becomes an art form.

2) That vintage widget you so admire might be an exact item you had in your hands a year ago.
You find yourself wheeling and dealing with other vintage pickers, trading pieces of your inventory back and forth. There have been times I went to someone’s place to look at their stash, and found myself admiring something I gave to them a year before. I’ve been to a antique store in town and seen something I sold at a garage sale for sale in someone else’s booth. I’ve even found myself admiring a sweater at Goodwill that I’m pretty sure I donated.

I’m convinced a certain percentage of things in the resale market churn remain so in perpetuity.

3) I’m not hoarding — this is inventory!
Your time and money is tied up with no discernible returns. Participating in the resale market means limbo. Much of your personal inventory is mid-churn, sitting on a shelf, waiting for you to research and list it for sale, or it’s already for sale waiting for someone to love it and buy it. It means accepting that a lot of your money that you’ve invested is always waiting for a return — which is why the big finds and big paydays are so important. And exhilarating.

4) One day you realize that everything in your house is disposable, for sale, and has a price.
I’ve stopped developing attachments to stuff. I used to be the kind of person that hung onto things “just in case,” and amassed collections of things because I had some tenuous sentimental attachment to them. Outside of things that carry real sentimental attachment for me, tchotchkes come into my life with a limited shelf life. Eventually I get tired of having a hand-painted birdhouse/ceramic tiger/brass peacock decorating my shelf, and into the churn it goes. See also, everything in my kitchen, jewelry box, and closet. If I hang on to something I’m not in love with, it’s because I know the dollar value on the item and have plans to sell it.

yeoman_indiana5) You find out you have become an expert on weird collectibles without having tried.
If you get enough auctions and antique stores under your belt, you’ll find that you’re magically, very suddenly, able to spot high dollar items, determine quality on a wide variety of collectibles, and that you somehow know everything there is about creepy clown and doll collections. Having a wreath made out of human hair in your home, for example, will no longer seem morbid or weird. You happen to know quite a bit about art glass tabletop ashtrays and hand-crank meat grinders. You know the value of a fifty-year-old box of dusty matches. You are also quite comfortable hanging out in a dank barn or a damp warehouse with a vast array of people quite unlike you, all of whom share this bizarro collection of knowledge about old brands, artisans, and regional history. You might find you’re quite talented at bidding while standing up, eating a cold hot dog, and balancing a cup of coffee at a consignment auction in the dead of winter.

In fact, you’re probably bidding with your hot dog.

6) Flea markets? Psssh.
I’m the dealer at the flea market and you buy my stuff. I used to like fleas because the items were already curated for you, the shopper. What I didn’t realize was the huge (HUGE) mark-up on said items, and that I was missing out on the thrill of a great find. Many people who start as collectors will eventually start selling, either because their collection is out of control, or because they’ve amassed so much stuff they can’t hang on to all of it. As a buyer, profits are great, but you’ll call it even if you earned enough to buy the cool item that caught your eye in someone else’s booth.

I’m still a magpie at heart. I just can’t justify keeping everything for myself.

MidCentury Jewelry


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.