What Is Sterling Silver?
Contributed by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez
Sterling silver describes a silver composition that is 92.5% silver and 7.5% alloy. The 7.5% is usually a combination of copper and sometimes zinc.
How Much Is Sterling Silver Worth?
Determining sterling silver value is slightly tricky. At .925 fine, it's less pure than "investment-grade" silver. This means its melt value is lower.
On the other hand, many sterling silver items sell at a premium to .999 fine silver bullion.
Remember that most sterling silver is in the form of jewelry, silverware, and other luxury items. A great deal of craftsmanship is involved in making them.
Much like coins, they may be very old. Sterling silver dinnerware, for example, is usually passed down for many generations. Aesthetics and collectible appeal must be taken into account.
The value of sterling silver will always depend on the specific item. A famous hallmark or manufacturer like Tiffany & Co. will add value.
From a practical standpoint, its usefulness is undeniable.
Highly pure .999 fine silver is not ideal for household items such as plates, pots, or silverware. Sterling silver is perfect in these settings thanks to its hardness and durability.
The same is true for jewelry, provided you plan to wear it. You still get the benefit of silver's beauty without sacrificing functionality.
How Is Sterling Silver Different From “Regular” Silver?
You’ve probably heard the term “sterling silver” many times, but do you know what it is used for? How is sterling silver different from other types of silver? And in what items will you find sterling silver?
These are only a couple of the many questions people have about sterling silver.
You don’t have to be involved in numismatics to run across the term “sterling silver." It’s often associated with jewelry, silverware, and other fine products and collectibles.
If you used silver tea sets or silverware settings, you may have heard the term thrown around from time to time.
Some may have first encountered the term as children or young adults. Daytime television gameshows used to award prizes of sterling silver necklaces and bracelets.
It was a little more fashionable back then to what was then a mainly female audience.
Sterling silver is often decimalized as .925. It is a number that should be familiar to many collectors of jewelry and silverware. "925" is often stamped on a product to indicate its silver purity.
Some sterling silver items are plated in .999 fine silver for an even flashier appearance.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
You might notice sterling silver is purer than classic United States silver coins. U.S. coins contained silver compositions ranging from 40% to 90% purity.
Today, many collectible and investor coins are struck in .999 fine silver compositions. (Or, yes, even purer formats.)
Decades ago, sterling silver was much finer than otherwise available in most coins. Sterling represented a very high-quality silver issue.
It was far purer than the more common 90% “coin silver.”
Many coins around the world contained even lower percentages of silver by composition.
Striking coins from 100% pure silver is impractical. It's simply too soft for striking coins or for making items that are subject to frequent handling or wear.
Thus, an alloy is typically added to silver products to make them harder and more wear resistant.
One downside to alloying is it tends to give the silver item an added propensity for tarnishing.
While silver itself is tarnish resistant, copper is a highly reactive metal. Its presence in silver items is frequently the reason they tarnish.
What Products Contain Sterling Silver?
Many of the “finer things” are made with sterling silver.
This includes jewelry, watches, dinner settings and culinary implements, and even picture frames.
To numismatists, perhaps the most notable items made from sterling silver are coins.
There are no official, circulation-strike U.S. coins made from 92.5% sterling silver. But, there are many world coins that are.
Among them are Canadian coins from the 19th and early 20th century.
This includes Canada's 5-cent, 10-cent, 20-cent, 25-cent, and 50-cent coins. Each used the .925 silver composition until the silver content was reduced to 80% fineness in 1920.
Through the early 20th century, so, too, were the silver coins from Australia and Great Britain. Many Commonwealth nations have made circulating and non-circulating coinage from sterling silver.
A sterling silver composition was once the epitome of coin production. Like most everything else today, however, people want products made “to the max.”
In the arena of silver coinage, this consumer philosophy is in part due to the influx of silver bullion investors. Their appetites are scarcely satiated with anything less than .999 fine silver.
Many modern coin collectors have also grown hungry for .999 silver fineness. They believe the proverbial bar for silver purity in coinage should be no lower than 99.9% pure these days.
In response, the United States Mint converted many collectible silver coins to 99.9% pure.
The mint also revamped the formerly 90% silver proof versions of America the Beautiful quarters and Kennedy half dollars.
Caring For Sterling Silver Coins
As with any coins, take the utmost care of your sterling silver coinage. Due partly to their copper-based alloys, sterling silver coins will tend to gain a patina.
Some collectors find this desirable, others want to keep their silver coins white.
Regardless, you should always store your sterling silver coins in a cool, dry location. Keep them away from sources of heat, moisture, or fumes.
Don’t clean your coins—even if they acquire tarnish, a patina, or any other form of discoloration. Cleaning your coins puts them on the fast track to ruining their value.
It is normally best to keep your coins in their original state. Let them retain the coloration they naturally acquire over a period of time.
Your sterling silver coins are surely among your most treasured possessions.
With the proper care they will remain attractive parts of your coin collection or investment holdings for months or years to come!
Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a journalist, editor, and blogger who has won multiple awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild. He has also authored numerous books, including works profiling the history of the United States Mint and United States coinage.
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