What Is Sterling Silver
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What Is Sterling Silver?

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez
Published November 14, 2019
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Sterling silver is comprised of 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.

Silver Chalice

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.

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.

canada sterling silver coin

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!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Sterling Silver

Is sterling silver good quality?

Absolutely. For centuries, sterling silver was the highest purity of silver used for coins, flatware, and other valuable items. It offers a mix of durability and beauty. Moreover, most other high-quality silver made during the 19th and 20th centuries was only 90% pure, compared to .925 fine (92.5% pure) for sterling.

Does sterling silver tarnish?

Yes. Because sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver, the metals that make up the other 7.5% of the alloy (usually copper and/or zinc) will tend to react to the environment and tarnish over time.

What is better: sterling silver or silver?

There is no objective answer to which is better. Many people believe sterling silver is the most beautiful and useful form of silver. Others may prefer 99.9% pure silver bullion, or perhaps 90% pure coin silver, or silver jewelry of lower purities. It depends on taste and individual preference.

Is sterling silver cheap?

Relatively speaking, sterling silver usually carries a premium over other generic forms of silver. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, in terms of recasting the silver into a different shape, it's typically more expensive to smelt sterling silver than .999 fine silver due to its higher proportion of copper content. The two metals must be separated, and you're left with less pure silver content by weight.

Another reason sterling silver often carries a premium is its historical and sentimental value. Many sterling silver jewelry items or silverware items are collectibles that have been around for 50 years, 100 years, or more.

Does sterling silver turn your finger green?

Not necessarily. The green discoloration left behind on your fingers by a ring usually only happens with lower-purity silver that is alloyed with copper, although it is possible with sterling silver, as well.

If you do get green discoloration on your skin, it is luckily harmless and easily washes off.

Can I shower with sterling silver?

Showering won't cause much damage to sterling silver jewelry. However, the added moisture will cause the metal to darken or tarnish more quickly than otherwise.

Can sterling silver be worn everyday?

Yes, certainly. Sterling silver is not particularly susceptible to environmental damage such as scratching or rusting, so it is safe to wear as jewelry on an everyday basis.


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.

More articles about silver from the author:

Top 10 Mind-Blowing Silver Facts

Why Does Silver Tarnish?

Silver Coins vs. Silver Bars

How Is Silver Made?

How Much Silver Is There In the World?

Posted In: blog

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