Silver is one of the most common and loved jewelry metals but it’s also one of the most misused and faked. A classic, beautiful and affordable choice for jewelry, silver comes in various types and alloys. It’s important to know which is which to avoid buying fake silver or overpaying for low-quality silver.
In this article, we’ll be looking at the different types of silver used for jewelry and how to identify good quality silver.
What are Silver Alloys and Why are They Different?
Most people tend to think that the best type of silver for jewelry is “pure silver”, also called ‘fine silver’. However, this isn’t true. While fine silver is also used for jewelry, it’s too soft and easy to bend, break or damage. Due to this reason, most of the silver used in jewelry is mixed with other metals in different alloys. This gives the silver enough hardness and durability to last for years and decades. It also often enhances the visual qualities of the metal.
Depending on what metals have been added to the silver alloy and in what quantities, there are 10+ different types of silver that we’ll be going over.
Silver Quality Marks
As with gold and other precious metals, silver is (or should be) marked with miniature quality marks somewhere on the metal’s surface. These brandings are made very small so that they’re not visible to the naked eye so as to not affect the metal’s appearance. However, they can be seen under magnification.
Such quality marks are important as they guarantee the quality and make-up of the metal you’re purchasing. Avoid buying any silver pieces that don’t have quality markings since it’s likely you’re being scammed.
Types of Silver Used in Jewelry
There are many different types of silver used in jewelry, some more popular than the rest. We’ve compiled a list of ten of the most common types you’ll see sold in stores.
Fine silver flower pendant by Silver Wishes. See it here.
Marked as .999 silver (no metal is ever 100% pure), fine silver is not an alloy – it’s just pure silver. As such, it’s quite valuable but it’s not a very good option for jewelry.
Fine silver has a more vitreous luster than certain popular silver alloys and it tends to look greyer and more dull. Its biggest drawback, however, is its softness – it’s just too easy to scratch, knock, and damage.
However, fine silver also has its advantages. In addition to being valuable for its purity, fine silver is also hypoallergenic as it doesn’t contain any metals that can cause allergies. Many people find themselves allergic to metals like nickel so fine silver would be the best option for them. Fine silver is also very resistant to tarnish as it contains no copper, is more malleable and easy to fuse without soldering.
As a result of all that, fine silver is used most commonly for earrings and necklaces – the types of jewelry that’s less likely to get knocked about or damaged.
Hammered sterling silver ring by Pangolin Creations. See it here.
The most well-known type of silver used in jewelry, sterling silver’s quality grade is .925 because it’s 92.5% pure. The other 7.5% of the alloy is usually copper or sometimes nickel. This gives sterling silver increased hardness and durability, making it more suitable for rings and bracelets.
The nickel or copper mixed with the silver also improves its visual qualities. However, they give it a brighter “silvery” color and improve its luster.
The downside of sterling silver is that if the second metal in the alloy is nickel and not copper, then the sterling silver won’t be hypoallergenic. On the other hand, if the 7.5% metal is copper, the silver will be more prone to tarnishing. Luckily, it’s easy to clean if it tarnishes over time so this won’t be a major problem.
It’s also worth mentioning that even though sterling silver is harder than fine silver, it’s still softer and less durable than many other metals used in jewelry. It can still be scratched and dented, but it can also be soldered, reformed and annealed quite easily.
Argentium silver earrings by ARC Jewellery. See them here.
A modern and very high-value silver alloy, argentium is gradually unseating sterling silver from the top spot for the most preferred silver alloy. A mix with both copper and germanium, argentium silver is actually purer than sterling – it can either be 93.2% or 96% pure. Even though this alloy contains less copper, the addition of germanium makes it harder, more durable, easier to maintain and even more resistant to tarnishing.
The trade-off, however, is that argentium is significantly priced higher than sterling silver. Additionally, it’s a branded alloy, so not many jewelers offer it. Those that do must mark it with the argentium stamp (a flying unicorn) to show that it’s original argentium silver.
If you want a similar alloy that’s not argentium, there are over 92.5% other alloys that use germanium too. They share many of the same characteristics but are from different brands.
Coin silver heart keychain by Lucky Liberty. See it here.
Before argentium and sterling silver, coin silver was the most popular silver alloy in the US. Like sterling silver, coin silver is a simple silver + copper/nickel mix but it’s slightly less valuable as it’s only 90% pure, whereas sterling silver is 92.5%. It’s called coin silver not because it was used for coins but quite the opposite – it was made by melting silver coins.
The difference of 2.5% may seem insignificant but it was enough to make coin silver much less common than sterling silver today. It also makes the metal slightly harder and more durable, as well as a bit easier to tarnish.
Today, coin silver is rare and harder to find but that also makes it an intriguing metal for collectors.
Nickel silver is the first alloy on our list that’s not actually silver – at all! While it’s called silver and it’s often mistakingly sold as silver but it’s really an alloy of 60% nickel, 20% copper and 20% zinc.
The end result looks very much like sterling silver with similar characteristics: it’s durable, easy to craft and susceptible to tarnish. Since it’s not silver, it is (or should be) priced much lower than most other types of silver. Nickel silver is often called Alpaca silver, German silver, or Argentan silver (not to be confused with argentium silver). These different names often confuse people into thinking that what they’re buying is actual silver.
In addition to the complete lack of silver in this alloy, another major drawback is that it’s not hypoallergenic. As we’ve mentioned before, many people have skin allergies that respond to nickel. Therefore, the 60% nickel content in nickel silver can cause severe skin irritations in people with sensitive skin. The same can happen with sterling silver as well but to a lesser degree due to the lower nickel content.
6. Tribal or Tibetan Silver
Tibetan silver hoops by The Silver Game. See them here.
Like nickel silver, tribal or Tibetan silver is also not silver at all. These are different metal alloys that are made to resemble sterling silver or silver in general but can include a wide range of other metals instead.
Usually imported from Tibet or from other lands viewed as “exotic” in the Western world, tribal silver jewelry is often quite beautiful. It comes in various, gorgeous designs and can be a good choice if you’re not too worried about the metal value but want jewelry that mostly looks good.
However, it’s important to note that tribal silver also often contains nickel which can trigger allergic reactions. What’s worse, some tribal silver alloys contain dangerous metals such as lead which can be toxic to the wearer. Therefore, you should always try to find out exactly what you’re buying and remember to keep such alloys away from children.
Mexican, Thai, or Bali Silver
Other silver alloys, commonly imported in the US from countries such as Mexico, Thailand, and Bali, can also vary wildly in their contents. Many of them are of very high quality and are often highly sought-after.
Don’t forget to always look for a quality mark or stamp on the silver that indicates its purity and contents. At the very least, ask for a quality disclosure from the jeweler which guarantees the quality of the metal. Otherwise, you may be buying fake silver.
You’ll often find jewelry that’s sold as “silver” but without any markings at all. As a rule of thumb, such jewelry should be avoided as it’s usually a scam. If there’s no identifying mark on the metal you are almost certainly being sold a silver-free alloy such as nickel silver or something similar.
Jewelers and manufacturers in the US are legally required to stamp their pieces or tag them with quality designations to guarantee their content. If any such markings are missing, you’re not being sold actual silver.
Silver plated bracelet by ANIJ by Aniko. See it here.
Silver-plated jewelry is quite popular because it’s very affordable and looks good on the outside. In reality, however, it’s made from entirely different types of metal alloys with just a thin layer of silver coating on top. This plating can get tarnished and scratched very easily which significantly reduces the longevity of this type of jewelry.
However, this doesn’t mean that silver-plated jewelry is “bad”. You just need to know what you’re buying. If you like the design or look of a particular piece of silver-plated jewelry, the price tag should usually be low enough since this type of jewelry doesn’t cost much at all. Don’t make the mistake of overpaying for silver-plated jewelry as though it’s a more valuable silver piece.
Silver-filled jewelry is a newer and more valuable alternative to silver-plated jewelry. It contains much more actual silver as it’s made with a hollow silver body that’s filled with a different base metal. As a result, silver-filled jewelry typically includes at least 5 to 10% pure silver which is much more than the fraction of the percentage you’d get with silver-plated jewelry.
Silver-filled jewelry is still much more affordable than fine, sterling, or argentium silver, of course, because of its lower purity. Overall, it sits in between these more valuable types of silver and silver-plated pieces.
The next time you go shopping for a piece of silver jewelry, make sure to ask any questions you may have and look for the quality stamps. It’s important to know what type of silver you’re buying so that you’ll know if it’s quality is worth its price.
Knowing this information will also be useful especially if you’re someone who suffers from metal allergies so that you’ll be able to choose the right, hypoallergenic silver jewelry that suits you.