Pure Silver, Sterling Silver, Silver – What’s the difference?

Gold, Platinum and Silver are the three kings of the precious metals and their royal kingdoms are situated within the world of jewellery. Specifically, Silver which is a natural and pure commodity arising from out of the Earth has been commercially used for thousands of years.

 In this post I will be skipping the history of Silver and share with you some useful insights into the ownership of this wonderful shiny metal not only because our jewellery products are crafted using Silver, but more to provide some clarity as there is often confusion over the differences between its various forms especially when shopping for jewellery.

 As we continue to tinker away at our computers, laptops and smart phones in this digital age where most of our shopping is carried out online, I think it is important to know exactly what you are buying to ensure you are getting the best value.

As a jewellery professional, I am frequently asked by our customers and friends about precious metals. When discussing Silver the common terms mentioned are Pure Silver, Fine Silver, Solid Silver, Solid Sterling Silver, Sterling Silver and Silver Plate. Is there a difference? Absolutely!

 It all depends upon the use or intention of the article as these various forms will have different importance accordingly:

  • INVESTMENT – Silver is purchased as a commodity such as coins and bullion bars. In this form it is classed as Fine or Pure Silver with a Silver purity of 999.99%
  •  MANUFACTURING – Fine Silver can be purchased in bars, grains or wires by manufacturers and jewellery crafters to create different jewellery items
  •  JEWELLERY PRODUCTS– Sterling Silver is regarded as a benchmark and commonly found as all types of jewellery including bracelets, chains, cufflinks, earrings, rings and tie pins
  •  ORNAMENTS & TABLEWARE – Sterling Silver or Silver Plated gifts such as Spoons, Teapots, Combs, Money Clips and even Trophies

Sometimes the word Silver, in jewellery, is also used quite loosely without much care and those who are reputable like the bigger brand names, trusted independent or high street jewellers or certified assay assured retailers usually take care in using the terms in what they sell. Silver jewellery can be used freely by anyone who wants to describe something with the most minute amount of silver content to the largest silver content. Therefore, the term Silver Jewellery is a vague term. If you want to ensure what you are buying is a type of silver you need to look out for, or question the seller further if unsure on the type on whether it is:

Fine Silver, Sterling Silver, or Silver Plated

‘Silver’ as a precious metal – Where does it come from?

Silver in its raw state is found naturally in the earth and appears with other minerals and ore deposits including copper, gold, lead, nickel and zinc. It is one of the most sought after metals owing to its scarcity and is found in Australia, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Poland and Serbia where deposits are large enough for Silver to be economically mined.

Typically the Silver material will come out as small chunks, flakes or sometimes nuggets. Although the Silver itself will be in its purest form it still isn’t of any use owing to the presence of the other minerals and therefore a special refining process is carried out using heat and chemicals. This allows the Silver to be extracted and what is left is Pure Silver also known as Fine or Solid Silver which is commercially classed as being 999.99% pure.

This is also the type of Silver you’d find in a Silver Coins or Bullion bars. The Silver bullion bars will often bear a .999 stamp onto the top of it, which represents 999 out of 1000 parts being Pure Silver or Fine Silver. You may ask why it isn’t higher than .999 and something higher like 1000.

Surely, if it’s .999 you can’t call it fine silver because it’s not 100% perfect, but owing to manufacturing this is the minimum allowable to class it as Silver, with the rest being some unavoidable and minimal impurity.

Sterling Silver

Sterling Silver is a specific term used to describe Silver when mixed with other alloys, specifically where the content is 92.5% Silver and the rest are other alloys. At this percentage, it’s the optimum number to ensure there is enough silver, but that also the article in question that is being shaped will not fall apart in the robust manufacturing processes and can be crafted with a lot less intention with a higher chance of less wastage during production – something important when manufacturing any product.

Commonly, the 92.5% Silver is mixed with Copper, a red precious metal to strengthen it and produce Sterling Silver. Copper on its own even without it being added to Silver is subject to oxidisation. This means oxygen or other can acids reacts with it, and can result in darkening on the surface with colours into dark colours such as black or green noticeable. If you’ve known someone to wear a copper bangle for medical therapy, you’ll sometimes find that where the skin has been in contact with the copper, you may see a green colour- a result of the skin moisture reacting with the copper.

I thought it important to mention this, because with copper being one of the best metals to mix with the Silver in Sterling Silver, it makes the Sterling Silver exposed to darkening or properly termed ‘Tarnishing’, if not taking a minimal amount of care.

Silver Plated

Silver plated, is a term used to describe those articles, or jewellery which are at the opposite end of value and silver content compared with Fine Silver. With silver plated articles the larger chunk of the item is made from some base or relatively worthless metal, and upon it is a thin layer or thick layer of silver. Eventually the silver will wear away and underneath the base metal will start to appear.

There are many uses including cheaper fashion jewellery or cutlery or kitchenware and so forth – where cost is a priority over substance. For example, a Silver teapot made of solid silver would be far more expensive than one made from Silver Plate

Under the microscope: Fine Silver vs Silver

As you may have now gathered Fine silver and Sterling Silver are not the same and the numbers 925 associated with Silver articles. ‘925’ is a specific number attributed to Sterling Silver only. This 925 reflects that 925 parts out of 1000 parts are Silver, with the rest being other alloys. In the EU these alloys are usually something safe metals such as Copper.

I’m hearing some of you say to yourselves – wait my branded jewellery made of ‘Sterling Silver’ isn’t then fully silver? Well whilst it’s true it isn’t 100% made from the Silver metal as you’d see in a bullion bar, the majority – 92.5% is.

Unfortunately, when you look at that shiny silver bullion bar, to craft that into jewellery requires this white metal to undergo several manufacturing processes. With the vast number of shapes and types of jewellery – the varieties of heat, pressure and manipulation are too much for this impressionable precious metal. Silver in its purest form doesn’t do too well on its own when being manufactured and simply becomes brittle and can subsequently fall apart. That’s not to say you’ll never see Silver in it’s purest form crafted into jewellery- it’s just that it requires careful crafting, time and patience. In other words, it is a laborious but also specialist task. With many hours going into careful crafting, the cost of the time for a jewellery craftsmen to create a piece becomes very expensive.

My father, a craftsman of over 40 years has worked with this metal and at every stage of the process, from fine silver grains (the same as a bullion bar but split into smaller nuggets), to creating a wire of silver, to the shaping of the links – requires extra care and attention.

So overall, there is a difference between Fine Silver and Sterling Silver. With the later being what you’d expect to purchase from a reputable retailer and whilst purchasing from an Assay Assured retailer is the only way to have peace of mind when purchasing Fine Jewellery online, later on, we’ll post some extra information on how to tell an item is Genuine Sterling Silver if you ever get stuck.