steel bracelet

Stainless Steel vs Sterling Silver: Which one is better?

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steel bracelet

Stainless steel and sterling silver both offer shiny looks that attracts jewelry fans.

Despite this similarity, these metal alloys have differences with pros and cons for each side.

Here is the quick brief:

  • If you want a more durable jewelry and prefer doing little care & maintenance, pick stainless steel.
  • If you want a lightweight piece with a more shiny and artsy design, plus you are ready to cope with the tarnish, sterling silver is your winner.

Now, let’s take a detailed look to the comparison stainless steel vs sterling silver!

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Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is a general term for iron alloys with chromium. Iron is abundant metal which elevates its properties with the addition of carbon. It gains high corrosion resistance and heat resistance giving birth to a more versatile material.

There are many different steel versions for specific use cases. The areas steel is used ranges from construction to dentistry, from automotive industry to jewelry.

Steel used in these very different sectors may include other metals like nickel, molybdenum, titanium and copper.

From the plethora of stainless steel alloys, you should look for 316L type stainless steel.

This alloy is surgical grade steel quality. It is used to make surgery equipment. It is considered safe for piercings and jewelry.

These steel pieces are durable for everyday wear and will serve you many years.

361L stainless steel jewelry does not tarnish. It has high resistance to corrosion.

Moreover, you can be sure it is nickel free, which makes it hypoallergenic.

In fact, despite it has nickel in its composition, this metal is entrapped in the core which practically means the skin never gets into contact with it.

Besides these strong points, it also have cons.

First, surgical steel is not a precious metal.

The main four precious metals are gold, silver, palladium and platinum.

Second, it is not lightweight.

Third, it does not shine like sterling silver or rhodium plated white gold.

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Pros and Cons of Sterling Silver

Silver is a  precious metal with lustrous white-gray appearance. It is an element with chemical symbol Ag for latin “Argentum”.

It is a lightweight metal which is hypoallergenic in its natural form.

Using 100% pure silver is not quite possible because it is too soft.

Just as with gold, we need a more durable alloy that can serve us for a longer period of time.

And, here comes sterling silver.

Sterling silver is a very widely used alloy in jewelry.

It has 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals in its composition. The latter part often comes from copper and other base metals.

Thanks to this addition, sterling is hard enough to be made into jewelry and silverware.

This opens the door for making rings, bracelets, necklaces and daily items and utensils.

You may easily recognize sterling silver jewelry pieces by their stamps.

Look for a sterling silver hallmark like “STERLING”,  “92.5%,” “.925” or “925” engraved marks inside rings and other items.

Pure silver is hypoallergenic, but for its alloys, the narrative may change.

People with sensitive skin may experience irritation from contact with some metals.

When there is skin irritation, the top culprits are nickel and lead.

These metals can be found in many everyday items, such as jewelry, coins, and kitchen utensils.

Mainly, nickel allergy affects about 10% of the US population.

If you have metal allergy, you may experience symptoms such as redness, swelling, itching, blistering and headaches.

Thankfully, there is a simple way to reduce metal allergy risk as much as possible: prefer hypoallergenic metals for jewelry.

The list includes gold, silver, platinum, palladium, rhodium and more.

These are metals that are very unlikely to cause any metal allergy. They are considered safe for people with skin sensitivity.

Please note that even if the main metal is hypoallergenic, the added metals may cause allergies.

Even trace amounts of allergenic materials can cause skin irritation.

Always make your preference from nickel-free jewelry.

This is valid for sterling silver pieces which may have nickel via copper in their mix.

Sterling silver is one of the most common metals used in jewelry.

But, its exquisite shine and other pros does not come without thorns.

Sterling silver jewelry does tarnish.

Tarnish is the blackish layer on the surface that takes away the luster. It is the result of oxidation with sulfur compounds in the air.

This process is enhanced due to copper and all the chemicals, humidity, oil and dust the piece endures.

Thankfully, tarnish is a self-limiting process. After the crust is formed at the surface, it does not continue inwards the metal. It does not lead to corrosion. After the contact with air ends, it stops.

Tarnishing can also occur from oxidation with water, but in much longer period.

Another con of sterling silver jewelry is its softness.

It lacks the durability of stronger alternatives like rhodium plated white gold, palladium, platinum or titanium.

Thus, it is more open to scratches and has a low resistance to deformation, quite the opposite of 316L surgical steel.

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Stainless steel Sterling silver
Tarnish Does not tarnish Does tarnish
Hypoallergenic Yes, if nickel free Yes, if nickel free
Easy to take care Yes Needs a little more work
Scratch resistance High resistance Low resistance
Durability High Low

925 sterling demands more caring than stainless steel jewelry

If you want to your pieces to keep their shiny appearance, you have work to do.

First, to prevent and postpone as much as possible any tarnish, don’t wear them at the pool or beach.

Don’t shower with your sterling silver jewelry.

Never leave them wet. Always make sure you have dried them properly.

Take off your pieces when doing cleaning and garden work.

Keep it away from perfumes and makeup. Make sure your bling comes last, always after deodorants, while getting ready to go out.

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Stainless steel is harder than sterling silver

925 silver has a low rating on the Mohs Scale: it is around grade 3, clearly showing its softness.

While steel sits at 4-4,5 and its hardened versions are much higher at 8-8,5.

This clearly shows that it is not a good idea to wear sterling bracelets during a high adrenaline outdoor adventure!

Also, a drawer full of stainless steel jewelry and other pieces is not the best storage place for the these soft items.

It would be best, if you keep sterling 925 silver in separate pouches and ziplock bags.

This will prevent airflow and physical contact with other items, which may cause scratches on their intricate designs.

Pro tip: Check for the metal of mounting bezels

Its softness also forces us to pay more attention to mounting gemstones.

The gems may dislocate from the bezel if they are not fixed tight enough.

The solution to this issue is to use a harder metal as mounting bezels.

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Stainless steel jewelry is more durable

It is more resistant to physical effects and scratches.

While the softer silver ring may get scratched, the 316L steel ring will remain intact.

On the downside, this hardness makes these rings nearly impossible to resize.

You may easily pass on from even attempting to resize your engagement ring!

When you want to resize a sterling silver jewelry like ring or bracelet, you can easily have it done by a visit to the local jewelry shop.

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The Verdict: Stainless Steel or Sterling Silver, which one should you buy?

A large part of your decision between stainless steel vs sterling silver jewelry will depend on the color and look that you are trying to achieve.

If you want a more authoritarian look, a mirror type of finish, a hardened-type of item to compliment your fashion choice, then stainless steel jewelry is for you.

Steel pieces are durable metal items, much harder than 925 silver jewelry. Yet, they are both corrosion resistant.

By choosing this option, you will enjoy far less maintenance. You can store it for years without any tarnish building up.

Unfortunately, tarnishing is an omnipresent problem with sterling silver jewelry.

As its main cause is silver reacting with sulfur compounds in the air, it is practically unavoidable.

Yet, you can take measures to postpone it as much as possible. Keeping sterling items in separate soft bags in your jewelry box is good practice. Also, take caution to expose them to deodorant and other chemicals.

Tarnishing is not an end because you can easily get rid of it with various methods. These include commercial products like silver polishes and silver wipes, and also DIY homemade solutions like using baking soda!

The effort you put into caring for your 925 silver pieces will reward you back with a lustrous shine.

Otherwise, with time, tarnish will take over their shining finishes.

A piece of silver jewelry offers a better reflection of light than a similar steel item. This makes it a better fit for special occasions.

925 silver is a delicate metal. Its soft nature also allows designers to implement fine details which are seldom seen in steel jewelry.

No one wants to have skin reactions from their dazzling jewelry. This is why you should pay attention to the materials used.

In the case of steel, concentrating on 316L type surgical grade stainless steel is the right choice. This steel alloy is used to produce surgical equipment.

If it’s good enough for surgeries, it is good enough for piercing and jewelry.

This steel mix is hypoallergenic and is very unlikely to trigger any skin reactions.

Similarly, silver is also a hypoallergenic metal, but this might not be true for the added metals.

In the sterling metal composition, a small 7.5% comes from non-silver metals like copper. This part may include trace amounts of allergenic metals like nickel, which may initiate metal allergies.

Just as you stick to 316L steel, for sterling make sure your pieces are nickel-free.

If you can’t get your eyes from silver, yet you want superior anti-tarnish and hypoallergenic properties, check argentium silver. You may think this alloy of silver is an upgrade from sterling, with all the qualities you want.

In the end, the decision will come to your personal preference. In either way, you can be sure that both are popular choices which can shine and make your day!