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You might think silver jewelry is made of pure metal and sterling is just another name for it.
Well, that’s not the case!
In fact, they are different materials, which we’ll cover below, in detail, with alternatives used in jewelry!
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 the durability and strength of the metal.
As the pure metal is too soft for jewelry and silverware, we use harder alloys like sterling or 835.
There are many different versions: fine silver, sterling, coin, argentium, 835 and more.
They sound alike. They have similar colors.
However, they have significant differences.
Now, let’s continue to have a brief look at them.
What is Silver?
This is the name of a chemical element.
It has an atomic number of 47 on the periodic table.
It is a precious metal like gold, platinum and platinum.
Its symbol is Ag, short for Argentum.
In its natural state, it has a white bright color that we all know.
You may have seen bullion bars as 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.
In the center, you will notice the markings “FINE SILVER” and “999 0”.
These marks indicate that this bar, is the white precious metal and its purity is 99.9%.
In other words, this bullion bar is 99.9% pure or rich 999 in thousand parts.
You may ask why it is not 100%: there are always some trace elements which makes up the impurity.
Thus, the tiny amount of 0.1% comes from other metals.
99.9% purity is too soft to be made into jewelry
In this form, it is not hard enough for jewelry and to become durable household items.
Thus, we have to make it harder.
There are many choices such as coin types, 835, 850, Argentium, and the most popular one Sterling silver.
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What is 835 Silver?
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 has 85% purity in its alloy.
Argentium is the shining new member of the family.
It’s main distinct property is its resistance to tarnish, thanks to germanium.
Now, let’s take a look to the most popular one.
What is Sterling Silver?
This is a hard and durable alloy fit for jewelry.
It has 92.5% silver content and 7.5% other metals in its composition.
The added metals increase its strength and durability.
These additions make it an ideal material for jewelry and flatware and other household items.
What is the difference between sterling and 925 silver?
Nothing! They are the same! It’s just another naming.
What is the difference between sterling and silver plated?
The former is the name of an alloy.
If a jewelry is sold as such, it means that it 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.
The inner metal is produced and then, it has been coated with a layer of our shiny precious metal.
Many mistake white gold for sterling or argentium. Check this post to learn more on white gold and its differences.
Sterling is cheaper
Silver is a precious metal and the more you use it, the more the end product will cost!
It has a small 7.5% part made of other metals.
This part is usually a cheaper metal like copper.
Thus same weight of fine metal will receive a higher price.
Sterling tarnishes faster
One other result of the presence of copper and other metals, is that these metals can increase the oxidation speed.
For example, copper may quickly interact with humidity and chemical agents like perfumes and deodorants.
These reactions may cause the jewelry piece to lose its luster and acquire blackish spots called tarnish in less time than a pure piece.
Silver is a hypoallergenic metal
In its pure form, it is hypoallergenic, however the other added metals may not be.
Generally, if there are allergic symptoms, the culprit is nickel.
These may include color change, itching and irritation.
Thus, picking sterling jewelry nickel-free is a smart idea.
Although there are no guarantees it will not cause any allergies, it is highly unlikely that an hypoallergenic piece will cause irritation and other similar effects.
Another solution is to promote your selection to argentium.
It is a hypoallergenic metal safe for sensitive skin.
It possesses a similar luster and is extremely tarnish resistant.
The Bottom Line
Fine and sterling silver are different materials.
However, in conversation, we use the word “silver” for both of them.
The former has a purity of 99.9%.
And sterling is made of 92.5% of the real precious metal content in its composition.
As the pure form is too soft for jewelry, durable versions like sterling are widely used.
Other notable alternatives are 835, 850, argentium 935 and 960.
To reduce allergy risk, always prefer nickel-free pieces.
And lastly, if you’d like have less tarnish problems, go for argentium: high-quality with high tarnish resistance.
The most common types are 935 and 960 argentium, which both have higher percentages when compared to sterling.