There are a number of terms used for silver jewelry that can be confusing until someone explains them in simple terms. Here’s a common one…
What’s the difference between Sterling Silver and 925 Silver? ‘Sterling Silver’ and ‘925 Silver’ are two different terms for the same metal. Sterling Silver contains 92.5% pure silver, and 7.5% metal alloy. Any silver product that contains at least 92.5% silver is ‘Sterling Silver’. The ‘925’ reference represents the Silver content that’s in Sterling Silver.
Learn more about 925 Sterling Silver Jewelry in the remainder of this post. I’ll help you understand how the metal is made and how to identify it. I’ll also explain how Sterling Silver is impacted by corrosion like tarnish and rust.
What is Sterling Silver?
Silver has been a sought after, valuable, and important metal for thousands of years. Pure Silver has a beautiful appearance, but like pure gold, it’s much too soft, in its natural state, to be practical for many applications—including jewelry. When Silver is mixed with Copper and other metal alloys, the metal mixture becomes MUCH more durable.
When at least 92.5% of the final metal mixture consists of Silver, the resulting metal is referred to as Sterling Silver. I’ll talk more about the alloys that are added to increase durability in a moment.
Because of the durability that the added metal alloys provide, Sterling Silver becomes hard enough to be used for things like fancy dining ware sets—which is where the term “silverware” comes from. Today we use that term to reference any set of eating utensils, regardless of what it’s made of.
Sterling Silver is also frequently used for surgical equipment and certain musical instruments, (primarily woodwinds, like the flute and saxophone for example), and jewelry of all kinds. Pure Silver couldn’t possibly stand up to the abuse of normal daily wear, but Sterling Silver can! The hardness of this metal mixture also makes it possible for jewelry designers to make much more intricate designs than they could with a soft metal like pure Silver.
Some key advantages of Sterling Silver for jewelry applications:
- Price. Sterling Silver is INCREDIBLY inexpensive compared to many other metals with a similar appearance (like white gold, platinum, and palladium).
- Matching. Sterling Silver is a great match to any outfit. It’s a color that won’t clash or conflict with much.
- Durability. Sterling Silver is capable of standing up to everyday wear and tear.
- Balance. It’s hard enough to be durable for daily wear, but not too hard for jewelers to shape and manipulate into intricate designs.
The Origins of Sterling Silver
There are several theories about where the term ‘Sterling’ came from. It’s believed, for example, that during the 12th century, German traders purchased English, livestock, with silver coins called “Easterlings.” These coins eventually came widely circulated among the English. It’s believed, that the name Easterlings was later shortened to Sterling.
The term could also have stemmed from the old British term, ‘steorling,’ which essentially meant, ‘with a star.’ Because old coinage frequently featured stars, the use, and eventual adaptation of the that word makes good sense.
Is Sterling Silver Real Silver?
Yes, Sterling Silver IS real Silver, in the same sense that 18k gold is real gold—even though it isn’t pure gold. Gold, that is used for jewelry, also has metal alloys mixed in to add hardness for all the same reasons as Silver, in fact, many of the same metal alloys are used in both metal mixtures. zinc, platinum, and germanium
So, what metals are used to increase the durability of Silver? Copper is the most common additive. Other metals like Zinc, Manganese, Platinum, or Germanium are sometimes, but far less commonly, added to the alloy mixture as well. Nickel used to be a common additive to Sterling Silver, but it isn’t very common today, because so many people have allergic reactions to Nickel.
Is ‘925 Silver’ Different Than ‘925 Sterling Silver’?
No, here again, the number ‘925’ is an indicator of the purity of the Silver. Since both of these terms have the same number associated with them, it means they have the same percentage of Silver content. 925 (or 92.5%) is enough for BOTH to qualify as Sterling Silver.
Remember that the United States defines Sterling Silver as containing at least 92.5% silver content, but other counties may (and do) have different standards. Those standards can be quite different at times. Some European countries require an even higher silver purity (up to 95%) than the US for designation as Sterling Silver, while other countries sometimes allow for a MUCH lower threshold. If you’re shopping for jewelry while traveling overseas, for example, you have to be really careful about what you’re buying. Even buying jewelry from auction sites and similar vendors can be a real gamble at times.
Is Your Ring Stamped 925?
If you’re wondering, “how can you tell the difference between silver and sterling silver?” the stamps and markings on your ring are your easiest place to start.
Products made with Sterling Silver typically bear a ‘Hallmark,’ which is an engraving or stamp that identifies the metal’s purity (the amount of pure Silver that the item contains). The most common hallmark for Sterling Silver is simply ‘925.’ When you see those numbers stamped on the inside of your ring band, the backside of a fancy fork or the bottom of a serving platter, you’ll know that it’s made of Sterling Silver.
Again, Sterling Silver has to contain at least 92.5% silver (or 925 parts out of 1,000). This is where the identifier 925 comes from. It’s also possible to see hallmarks like “SS,” “STER,” “92.5,” “.925,” “925 Silver,” “Sterling,” “Sterling Silver,” “925 Sterling Silver,” or “STG,” which are all intended to communicate the same level of silver purity.
The Difference Between Sterling Silver and Silver Plated
A Sterling Silver ring will contain the same metal mixture all the way through, while a Silver Plated Ring just contains a thin layer of Silver over a base of some other metal. Plated rings often involve a base metal of Brass or Copper. A thin coating of silver is then applied to cover the base metal, so it appears to be a solid silver ring from the outside.
Plated rings are less expensive because the base metal used is typically a less expensive metal. There are no enforced standards for the minimal acceptable thickness of plated metal. Because of that, a plated ring can look perfect when you purchase it, only to have the thin layer of plated silver wear through in days, weeks, or months.
I purchased a plated ring for my wife about a year ago. I was a pretty ring when it was brand new, and had a quality feel in your hand. It was very inexpensive, and I wondered how long the plating would hold up.
My wife is the type that never removes her ring. She showers with it on, sleeps with it on, works with it on, etc. The plating didn’t hold up to normal daily wear. Within ONE MONTH, the plating had worn through across much of the ring, and the base metal was glaring through the places where plating used to be. The ring no longer looked presentable and had to be disposed of. Most plated rings are a real gamble.
This isn’t to say that ALL plated rings are bad. Quality can vary wildly. I purchased another plated ring for my wife almost a year ago that’s just as beautiful today as the day it arrived. The ring is definitely battle-tested. She has worn it daily (rarely removing it), and it’s held up as well as a super expensive platinum ring so far.
Here’s another ring from the same manufacturer. It’s Rodium plated Sterling Silver wedding set that features a Cubic Zirconia center stone (just like my wife’s). These are GREAT rings for couples on a tight budget, or those who need a safe ring to wear while traveling.
Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?
The Copper that’s in Sterling Silver, makes it somewhat susceptible to tarnishing because that metal additive tends to oxidizes easily. Tarnish happens when the metal mixture reacts to Oxygen, creating a darkened, discolored, surface. Tarnish can be removed through cleaning with special polishes and processes.
Not all Sterling Silver Rings tarnish, and the process doesn’t happen immediately. My wife, for example, has had a 925 Sterling Silver ring with 3 Cubic Zirconias on it for several years. I pulled it out of her jewelry box the other night to look it over. It definitely hasn’t been babied through the years, yet it shows no sign of tarnish.
Sometimes a chemical coating is put on the face of the ring, as a sealer of sorts, to help prevent tarnish from accumulating. Not all 925 rings have that coating though. As rings are regularly worn, they get a natural layer of protection from the natural oils that your hands transfer to them without even trying. It’s when your 925 Silver rings are sitting unused in your jewelry box that they actually have the greatest risk of tarnishing.
If you’re going to store your ring (unworn) for a while, it’s a good idea to seal it in a small Ziploc bag, that has had excess air pressed out of it. Having said that, my wife took no such precautions with her ring, and several years later, there’s no sign of tarnish. Your experience will depend on your specific ring and the level of humidity that exists in your area. The climate where I live, is very dry, so that may play a role in the experience we’ve had with my wife’s ring. Hot, humid weather can cause Sterling Silver to tarnish more quickly.
Rhodium is a metal from the Platinum family that looks a lot like Platinum or Silver. It’s commonly used as a metal plating to cover Sterling Silver and prevent tarnishing. While Rhodium does prevent tarnish, it comes with other maintenance issues, because Rhodium plating will eventually wear through. When that happens you’ll have to pay a jeweler to ‘dip,’ or re-plate, your ring for you. If you need to have your 925 Silver ring resized, you’ll similarly need to have the Rhodium reapplied afterward.
Many claim that pure (99.99%) silver (also known as Fine Silver) doesn’t tarnish, but it absolutely can. It’s possible primarily because even ‘pure’ Silver isn’t 100% pure. There’s approximately .01% of the total metal that’s made up of trace amounts of copper and other metals that naturally get mixed in during formation. Removing these trace amounts of metals that exist in this Silver would be too expensive to be practical. This means though that even fine Silver has small amounts of foreign metals in it that can react and oxidize. The following image shows a Silver coin that’s 99.99% pure (like any silver that’s considered ‘fine’ or ‘pure,’ but you can see that it’s quite tarnished. In this case, it didn’t take much time for the tarnish to appear.
Don’t be afraid of tarnish, it isn’t likely to be much of a concern for your rings and other jewelry—particularly if you wear them regularly. Tarnish is also easily treated if it begins to accumulate.
There is a new process for creating Sterling Silver that is incredibly tarnish resistant. The process incorporates Germanium in place of some of the Copper that would otherwise be added in order to create Sterling Silver. This new type of Sterling Silver is referred to as Argentium Silver.
The final Argentium mixture typically looks something like this:
These metals can be used in varying ratios, as long as the Silver content is never lower than 92.5%. The silver content is often higher in this type of Silver, as high as 96%. Argentium Silver is made into wire, and the wire is then crafted into interesting looking rings that still have the wire look. This is an Argentium Silver ring for example. Here’s another pretty one.
As an additional benefit, this new process also helps to eliminate surface discolorations, called ‘firescale’ that sometimes appears during the soldering process. When firescale is significant, manufacturers often use a Rhodium coating to cover it up and create a uniform external coloring. Because Germanium doesn’t react the same way that Copper does, firescale is much less prevalent when manufacturing jewelry through this process.
Argentium Silver rings are durable. They resist scratching, gouging, and denting, and are incredibly easy to maintain—you really just wipe them occasionally with a clean, soft, cloth to keep them clean. It couldn’t be easier!
Does Sterling Silver Rust?
Sterling Silver isn’t prone to rust. While it’s still a good idea to avoid getting your ring wet, whenever possible, that isn’t because of concern over potential rust. Water typically has dissolved minerals in it. Those minerals can leave hard water deposits on the surface of your ring that can dull its appearance.
Will Sterling Silver Turn My Finger Green?
Sterling Silver does contain a small amount of Copper, but that Copper content typically isn’t enough to leave a green mark on your finger. If your finger turns green after wearing a ring that’s supposed to be Sterling Silver, it could be an early sign that your ring is actually just Silver Plated (not solid Silver).
My Daughter was testing a plated ring for me recently. By the end of the very first day, she had a nice green ring where the ring had been on her finger. The plating appeared to still be fully intact. The ring she was wearing had Copper as the base metal beneath a thin coating. Again, the plating still looked good and seemed to be uncompromised, but it was still turning her finger green.
There are some people that tend to have reactions to the metal that others don’t have. The green line around your ring finger is a classic example. The reaction is most often caused by some hand cream, lotion, or face powder that they’re using. The product is causing the reaction. If that person methodically rotates through their creams, lotions, and powders, pausing their use of each product for a short time, they’ll likely identify the product that was causing the issue and can look for a different brand to use.
Sometimes, something like a hormonal change can lead to green marks on your finger for a while, when others (without the hormonal issue) wouldn’t have the same issue.
How to Tell if Silver is Real
Jewelry is sometimes labeled ‘silver’ in a listing or ad, even when it has no actual Silver content. That can happen when dishonest sellers intentionally mislead buyers by describing the COLOR of the ring as ‘silver.’ Whether you’re buying online or in a local shop, you need to realize that Sterling Silver jewelry isn’t always properly represented. You don’t always have to base your buying decisions on the look or label alone. There are several simple tests that you can use to confirm that the jewelry item you’re looking at is what it’s advertised to be.
They might, for example, have a title for their product like, “Beautiful Silver Engagement Ring.” A buyer would understandably assume from the title that the ring is made of Sterling Silver—when that’s not the case. Unfortunately, the cheaper, non-Silver, metals may not be as durable, and could have potentially harmful additives (like Nickel).
Having said all that, here are five ways that you can detect a potential problem with misrepresentation before you buy:
Look for the traditional hallmarks. While this is far from sufficient due diligence, it’s a good first item on your checklist. I mentioned a number of possible hallmarks above (like the numbers ‘925’ stamped in an inconspicuous part of the ring. While that stamp SHOULD indicate that a particular piece of jewelry IS made of Sterling Silver, in reality, dishonest manufacturers can put that mark on fake jewelry to deceive buyers if that’s your ONLY method of verification.
Do a ‘sniff’ test. This is a simple evaluation of whether the jewelry item is being sold way too inexpensively to be real for example. Everyone loves to find a great deal, but as an old adage warns, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Like the hallmarks, you wouldn’t necessarily rely on this assessment alone, but it may serve as your first potential warning flag in many cases. You can then evaluate further from there if you want to.
Do a smell test. Yes, you should actually put your nose near the jewelry and smell the metal. Sterling Silver would generally have almost no smell, but the high level of alloys used in other look-alike (fake) jewelry can have a strong and noticeable smell to them. If there’s a strong odor to the metal, it probably isn’t actually made of Sterling Silver (regardless of what’s stamped on it, or what the shopkeeper says, or how it looks).
Check for magnetism. Sterling Silver isn’t magnetic, but many other metals are. One really simple test that you can do, is to pull a magnet out of your pocket to see if the jewelry item you’re considering is attracted to it. If it is, then you’ll know it isn’t made of the 925 Silver that was represented. If the jewelry isn’t attracted to the metal, it’s more likely that the piece you’re evaluating is made of at least 925 Sterling Silver.
Polish with a soft white cloth, and then look for dark marks. Tarnish that you can’t even visibly recognize will likely form on the surface of even new Sterling Silver rings. Because of this, if you rub them with a soft white cloth, you’ll typically see dark marks on the cloth when you pull it away and examine it. If the cloth is totally clean after doing this, the jewelry item that you’re holding is almost certainly made of something other than Sterling Silver.
The great thing about this testing method, is that a soft white cloth is small and inexpensive. It’s an easy thing to keep on hand. In a real pinch, you could even rub the jewelry across the outside of a white sock or the bottom edge of a white shirt.
Use Nitric Acid. Another effective test for chemically testing jewelry to find out if they’re made of 925 (or better) Sterling Silver, is to put a drop of Nitric Acid on the metal and then observe it. If the drop of acid turns green, it means that your materials is NOT Sterling Silver. If it remains kind of a creamy Tan color, it probably is.
You probably shouldn’t apply Nitric Acid to jewelry you don’t own without getting the seller’s permission first. They will have to be really confident that their jewelry is actually made of Sterling Silver in order to allow for this test. If they aren’t confident in the composition of their jewelry, and won’t allow you to do the test, you may want to reconsider buying from them.
Caution: Be EXTREMELY careful when using Nitric Acid. It can damage body parts or clothing if it accidentally comes in contact with them.
Again, you don’t need to use ALL of these testing methods, in order to confirm that jewelry is made of Sterling Silver. If you use two or three that are convenient, it should be enough to give you confidence with your purchase decision.
‘Sterling Silver’ and ‘925 Silver’ are two terms for the same metal. Any metal that’s at least 92.5% Silver is considered Sterling Silver. This metal has MANY advantages. It’s attractive, durable, and inexpensive. Imprints (or stamps) called ‘hallmarks’ will tell you the amount of silver that the jewelry contains, but there are simple tests that you can also do to confirm that jewelry that’s marketed as Sterling Silver really is what they claim it is.
Sterling Silver can be a GREAT option for frugal rings! It can be used as-is or covered in a thick layer of Gold, Platinum, Palladium, or some other precious metal to produce a high-cost look for a low-cost ring.