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You might think silver jewelry is 100% pure and sterling is just another name for it. Well, that’s not the case!
Fine silver is 99.9% pure. Sterling silver, or 925 silver, is an alloy with 92.5% purity. The remaining 7.5% is usually cheaper metals like copper, zinc or nickel. These additions increase durability and strength.
As the pure metal is too soft for jewelry and silverware, we use harder alloys like sterling or 835.
There are many different silver alloy for different use cases: fine silver, sterling silver, coin silver, argentium, 835 silver and more.
They sound alike. They have similar colors. However, they have significant differences.
Now, let’s have a closer look into the world of silver and compare silver vs sterling silver.
A. What is silver?
Silver is a chemical element with atomic number of 47 on the periodic table. Its symbol is Ag, abbreviation for the latin Argentum.
It is a precious metal like gold, platinum and platinum.
In its natural state, regular silver has a white bright color.
Silver has been used as money for centuries and even today central banks and commercial banks hold bullion reserves.
Check bullion bars in the photo: these are 5000 g or 5 kg bullion bars.
They carry the refinery mark at the top and a serial number at the bottom.
Purity of silver is expressed in thousands.
In the center of the bar, you will notice the markings “FINE SILVER” and “999 0”.
These marks indicate that this bar, is refined silver with 99.9% purity and its weight.
You may ask why it is not 100%: there are always a minority of other elements, which make up the impurity.
Thus, the tiny amount of 0.1% comes from other metals, like copper or similar base metals.
Pure silver is too soft to be made into jewelry
Fine silver is not hard enough for jewelry and for durable household items.
Thus, we need a harder alloy.
There are many choices like 835, 850, Argentium, and the most popular one sterling silver.
All these versions are made of real silver. They differ in percentage of silver, the mixed metals and their ratios.
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B. What is sterling silver?
Sterling silver, aka 925 silver, is a hard and durable alloy appropriate for jewelry.
A sterling silver piece has 92.5% silver content and 7.5% other metals in its composition.
The added metals increase its strength and durability.
With these additions, sterling becomes an ideal material for jewelry and silverware, utensils and other household items.
What does 825 mean on jewelry?
If you came across jewelry made of gold or silver with a 825 Italy mark on it, the number shows the amount in thousands of precious metal in weight. So, a 825 Italy silver piece comes from an Italian brand and has 825 in 1000 silver in its composition. Check the post “What Does 825 Mean on Jewelry?” for more on this topic.
What is the difference between sterling and 925 silver?
Nothing! They are the same! It’s just another naming.
Is sterling silver magnetic?
Sterling silver is not magnetic. Check this post for more.
Is german silver made of authentic silver?
German silver is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel. It may seldom include other metals but not silver. It is not made of real silver.
What is the difference between sterling and silver plated?
The former is the name of a metal alloy. If a jewelry is sold as such, it means that it is made from sterling in and out.
On the other side, if an item is said to be plated, that means in has generally a different, and probably cheaper metal, inside.
In our case, silver-plated items are coated with a layer of silver or one of its alloys. This might be sterling or not. Thus, it is your responsibility to check it before buying. Don’t directly assume the coating is a layer of sterling silver.
Many mistake white gold for sterling or argentium. Check this post to learn more on white gold and its differences.
C. Fine silver vs sterling silver
Silver is a precious metal and the more you use it, the more the end product will cost!
A sterling silver piece has a small 7.5% part made of other metals.
This part is usually a cheaper base metal like copper.
Thus, same weight of pure metal will receive a higher price than standard sterling silver.
2. Color and Care
Sterling silver does tarnish like zinc jewelry.
Silver reacts with sulfur compounds in the air and leaves black marks afterwards. This formation of dark spots is called tarnish. This phenomenon is self-limiting and does not continue towards the core of the metal. It does not lead to corrosion.
Moreover, thankfully, the shine can be restored with polishing. There are commercial and home made remedies to to back the luster as day one.
Though, this process leads to small loss of silver in every repetition.
Another tarnishing agent is copper. Its presence of copper in sterling, increases the oxidation speed.
Copper may quickly interact with humidity and chemical agents like perfumes and deodorants. These reactions may cause the jewelry to acquire blackish spots called tarnish and lose its luster, in less time than a pure piece.
3. Hypoallergenic property
In its pure form, silver is hypoallergenic, however the other added metals may not be.
If there is allergic symptoms, the first culprit is nickel.
Nickel allergy is seen in approximately 10% of the US population. This is why picking nickel-free jewelry is a smart idea.
Other top allergenic metals are lead, copper, and chromium.
Metal allergy may show itself in various levels of symptoms for people with sensitive skin. These may include discoloring like red skin, itching, blisters, cracked skin and irritation.
In severe cases, nickel allergy may go as far as causing headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Although there are no guarantees, it is highly unlikely that an hypoallergenic piece will cause irritation and other undesired effects. So, sticking to jewelry that is allergen-free and made of primarily high purity hypoallergenic metal is the best option.
D. Different silver alloys: 835 silver and others
This is an alloy, similar to sterling. It is 83.5% pure and the remaining 16.5% comes from base metals such as copper.
To put it in a different way, it is 835 parts in thousands pure in its composition.
Likewise, 850 silver has 85% purity.
Argentium is the shining new member of the family.
You may think it as an upgraded, superior version of sterling.
Argentium has a higher purity than 925 silver. It is tarnish resistant thanks to germanium in its composition. It also has a whiter color, better hypoallergenic property and a firestain-free surface. Check this post for more on argentium and its variations.
E. The Verdict
Fine silver and sterling silver are different materials.
However, in conversation, we use the word “silver” for both of them for sake of simplicity.
The former has a purity of 99.9%. And sterling is made of 92.5% of the precious metal content.
As the pure form is too soft for jewelry, durable versions like sterling are widely used. Sterling is hard enough to offer durability and soft enough to allow artisans to craft intricate designs.
Always make sure you buy nickel-free high quality sterling silver jewelry.
This is a simple step towards reducing risk of skin allergy.
You can also check our post Gold vs Sterling Silver for another popular comparison.