Silver is synonymous with jewelry and all things luxurious. Still, silver jewelry is not pure silver. Pure precious metals are simply too soft to be regularly used for jewelry, as they would wear away and deform.
Instead, we use alloys. Silver alloys are a mixture of silver plus one or more other elements, such as copper. These other elements are not impurities. They are carefully chosen to make the material harder and more durable (more scratch and wear resistant), more tarnish-resistant (see below), more lustrous, and easier to work with for the jeweler.
There are four main types of silver jewelry on the market: Sterling (925), Britannia (958), Fine Silver (999), and Silver plate.
Sterling or Fine? What's the Difference?
Fine silver – 999 – has the highest fraction of silver. It is 99.9% silver by weight. It is essentially pure. However, fine silver is very soft and not suitable for most jewelry. It is seldom used in earrings and other pieces that experience little wear. It has a desirable bright, silvery-white color, is hypoallergenic, and tarnishes far slower than other silver alloys.
Sterling silver – 925 – is the most common form of silver jewelry. It is mixed with up to 7.5% of other elements, usually copper. It is much harder and more durable than fine silver, hence its' more widespread use. Sterling silver is widely regarded as hypoallergenic. Although less bright than fine silver, it is still extremely desirable.
Britannia silver – 958 – is 95.8% silver by weight, making it "finer" than sterling silver. It is not particularly common as it remains quite soft and lacks durability. Britannia silver is a very traditional English material, dating back to the 17th century.
Continental silver is 80% silver by weight and was commonly used in Europe. It has various names; it is cheaper and more durable but has a less lustrous appearance. It is not so frequently used.
Silver plate is where another metal, such as copper or nickel-copper alloy, is coated with a thin layer of silver. It contains far less silver. The plating will wear and discolor over time, exposing the metal underneath.
How do I know the difference?
Hallmarking or Stamping is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection. In many countries (incl. UK, the US, and Europe), the precious metal content must be stated and marked on the jewelry piece.
Silver is usually hallmarked or stamped by a number. These hallmarks are given below:
Earrings & Pendants
Very Soft, Not Durable
General Use but rare
Mostly in the UK
General use but rare
Widely used in Europe
In some countries, like the UK, the "fineness" hallmark (e.g.,925 for Sterling silver) will be accompanied by various other marks. See here.
In the US, silver-plated items must be hallmarked with the percentage silver and clearly stated as plated. No minimum thickness of the coating is required, but it should have "reasonable" durability. See here.
Legal hallmarking standards do change, and this information is not guaranteed to be up to date.
Tarnishing of Silver
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of silver is that it tarnishes. Tarnishing is the discoloration of the surface due to a reaction with chemicals in the nearby environment from perspiration, oils, household cleaning products, and general dirt. Silver reacts readily with sulfur in the environment. A black coating will form on the surface, typically a mixture of sulfide and oxides. It is not harmful and can be easily removed.
If you are looking for silvery-white jewelry that does not tarnish as quickly and is more durable, you may want to look for white gold, platinum, or palladium jewelry, although these are often significantly more expensive.
Looking after silver
To preserve your silver, it is advised to clean it well before storage to remove any residues that may accelerate the process. You should also avoid contact with chemicals such as household cleaning products, makeup, and those found in swimming pools, etc.
Various cleaning and storage products are available to help preserve silver's lustrous appearance over time.
Tarnish-resistant Sterling Silver
The tarnishing of silver has been a perennial challenge to many metallurgists and jewelers alike. There are many so-called "tarnish-resistant" silver alloys. Ultimately, none are "tarnish-proof", and your silver will discolor over time at various rates depending on its composition and the conditions of the surrounding environment.
Tarnish-resistant silvers typically contain silver, copper, and some germanium, which helps form a protective coating. Alloys with a lower copper content are often more tarnish-resistant.
The most common example is Argentium, but many other tarnish-resistant sterling silvers are on the market.
Silver filling and Silverplate
These types of jewelry are not pure silver but instead have a silver coating of different thicknesses. The silver filling is a much thicker layer than the silver plate. The thicker layer means it is far less likely to wear away over time, exposing the "base" metal (often brass) underneath.
Silver plate is not recommended to be bought for general wear but instead for display.
Rhodium is a lustrous, pristine-white metal that is sometimes used as a thin coating. However, this layer is easily scratched and will wear away over time (and quite quickly), revealing the duller silver underneath. A reputable jeweler will always disclose the use of rhodium plating.
Nickel Silver (aka German Silver)
Nickel silver does not contain any silver! It is instead a mix (alloy) of Copper, Nickel, and Zinc, but is described as Nickel Silver due to its appearance. It is far cheaper and is often used as a "base" metal for plate silver.