Silver is still among the most valued and sought-after metals in the world and has been used since ancient times. If you have shopped around for silver products recently, you have probably noticed two different kinds of silver: pure silver and sterling silver.
The difference between pure silver (or sometimes called fine silver) and sterling silver are its levels of silver content as opposed to other metals inside it. Sterling silver contains other metals to improve its durability. This difference causes these two kinds of silvers to look somewhat similar but they are used in two very different ways.
In this guide, you will find out what pure silver and sterling silver are and what exactly makes them different from each other. Also, we will go over what are some things you should look out for when buying silver products and how to test your silver to make sure it is as pure as it was claimed to be when you bought it.
What Is Pure Silver?
Also known as fine silver, pure silver actually only contains 99.9% silver content with the other 0.1% being trace metals. The first silver mines were discovered in the middle east nearly 5,000 years ago. Back then, silver was mostly a valuable trading item and a sign of wealth.
Pure silver is very soft and malleable and is rather difficult to form into different shapes properly. Generally, pure silver is not used to make jewelry because of this, as it would bend, dent, or become misshapen far too easily.
Pure silver has lost most of its usable value in modern days other than to make sterling silver, which is what you will usually see on the jewelry and accessories market because it is much more durable.
What Is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver is a metal alloy created when metals like copper or zinc are added to pure silver to make it easier to shape into pieces of jewelry that will last.
In terms of chemical composition, sterling silver will have a purity of around 92.5% with the remaining 7.5% made up of copper, zinc, or sometimes nickel. You may also come across coin silver, which is a less pure version of sterling silver with only around 90% pure silver.
What sterling silver lacks in purity it greatly makes up for in usability. Most jewelry enthusiasts will agree that pure silver jewelry would be a pretty foolish buy because of how easily it would become damaged and it would be in need of constant repairs.
Many people ask if it’s even real silver, well I answered that here: Is Sterling Silver Real or Fake?
The Differences Between Pure Silver and Sterling Silver
So, what is better sterling silver or silver? Let’s take a look at a few of silver’s traits and see how they stack up.
Silver vs Sterling Silver Tarnishing
This is one thing that pure silver has on sterling silver in that, pure silver will certainly never tarnish or become discolored when it is exposed to moisture or the open air.
Sterling silver on the other hand will tarnish fairly easily when it is exposed to any water or oxygen over a long period of time. This is done by the copper in this alloy as it reacts to these things when exposed to them and creates a greenish tint to silver jewelry.
This will require some polishing fairly often if you plan on taking your silver jewelry outside or to a place with a lot of water nearby.
Silver vs Sterling Silver Durability
Pure silver is much less durable than its sterling silver counterpart. This has everything to do with the other metals that sterling silver is composed of. Copper, nickel, and zinc are all much more sturdy metals than silver and will allow the silver to be shaped into jewelry without having to constantly worry about it being bent or misshapen.
Pure silver benefits a bit because of its malleability in some regards but, when it comes to jewelry, you will certainly want to use sterling silver if you plan on wearing it anywhere.
Silver vs Sterling Silver Price and Cost
Is silver more expensive than sterling silver? Despite its lack of many uses, pure silver is more expensive than sterling silver. This has to do with its rarity and pure silver certainly has a dazzling shine to it.
If you are looking for a showy accessory made of pure silver, it will cost you much more and be very fragile. However, it will look gorgeous behind a case or on a stand that is unlikely to be knocked over.
Versatility and Usability
Is sterling silver good quality? Sterling silver can be used for much more than pure silver can. Pure silver can be molded into all kinds of objects much like sterling silver can but these objects have no usability whatsoever.
Sterling silver can not only be made into jewelry but also silverware, flatware, surgical equipment, and even musical instruments that can be used on a fairly routine basis.
If your skin is sensitive to certain metals, like nickel or copper, or if they give you allergic reactions, then you want to avoid sterling silver because it can contain them. Pure silver is hypoallergic. So you want to buy jewelry made with pure metals to ensure that allergy-causing metals, such as nickel, do not touch your skin.
If you are worried about allergic reactions to nickel, take a read of our other articles:
- Hypoallergenic Earrings: Buying Guide and Common Questions
- Which Earrings are Best for Sensitive Ears? (Types and Metals)
Things to Look Out For When Buying Silver Jewelry
Sterling Silver and Plating
Sometimes, you will see items that are made of sterling silver but plated with a thin layer of pure silver so it can shine brighter and look a lot nicer than it actually does. These items will be surprisingly cheap but the layer of pure silver will easily damage and require a lot of maintenance.
You might also find some items shown as “sterling silver plated” as well. This usually means the piece is made of other metals like nickel or copper and is only plated with sterling silver which will simply wear away after a while.
These products may seem like a bargain at first if the shop prices them that way, but you will see exactly why they are much cheaper than the real thing after some use.
Recognizing Pure Silver and Sterling Silver Marks
You will see all pure silver stamped with a mark such as 999, .999, or 99.9, which indicates the amount of silver the item has per hundred or thousand parts. As mentioned before, pure silver is 99.9% actual silver and so you will never see a 100% pure piece of silver on the market.
If you are buying in the United States, sterling silver is marked with 925, 92.5, or .925. Anything below this will not be considered sterling silver in the states and essentially just a metal alloy composed of mostly silver.
However, in Europe as well as other parts around the world, you can find sterling silver on the market with a purity less than 92.5%. In Germany for example, silver can still be considered sterling silver having only 80% silver content.
If you are traveling internationally or are simply unsure of what your country’s sterling silver standards are, it is always a good idea to ask about this or pay attention to the marks on pieces of sterling silver jewelry.
How to Test Your Silver Jewelry’s Purity
Sometimes, you will want to test your sterling silver jewelry to see if it is actually 92.5% silver. The most common way to do this is through the acid test, which many jewelry stores can do for you or you can buy one and do it on your own.
The process of this test is pretty easy and, if done the right way, should not damage your jewelry or silver accessory in any way. It is only a 3 step process and we will go through these steps right here.
Step 1: Shave off a Piece of Silver
Most people will do this using a black stone plate and rub it up against the piece of silver to avoid any noticeable scratches. You’ll want to get fairly deep so the test is not fooled by any plated silver pieces.
Step 2: Apply the Acid
Put on a pair of protective gloves and apply the acid in your kit to the black stone plate where you made your silver mark. You only need to apply a fairly small amount of acid to see a change and your testing kit will probably give you more than you need
Step 3: Look for Color Change
Your kit will more than likely come with a color scale that will tell you what color means what level of purity your silver is. Generally, if your silver turns green it is around 50%, brown will mean about 80%, dark red will mean about 92.5%, and a bright red will indicate pure silver.
If you find that your test results are not coming out as expected, it is a good idea to take it into a jewelry shop that has a test available and see if their results come back similarly just to be perfectly certain there was no error on your part or in your testing kit.
Where to Buy Silver Jewelry
You can buy silver jewelry at your local jewelry store or on Amazon, which has a surprisingly large selection of silver jewelry available on their website.
Of course, be sure to test any jewelry you get online that you cannot look at in-person and make sure you got exactly what you paid for. Always keep in mind the things to look out for when buying silver that were talked about above.