One of the most popular metals used in jewelry, silver has been used since ancient times. However, while we often simply use the term ‘silver’ when talking about this metal, it’s important to note that there are several different types of silver on the market.
Two of the most commonly used varieties are sterling silver and (pure or fine) silver. While most people assume that these two terms refer to the same metal, they’re quite different, with each having its own pros and cons.
Let’s take a look at the attributes of silver and sterling silver, their pros and cons and which of the two is the better choice.
Bottom Line: The difference between sterling silver and silver lies in the silver content. Sterling silver contains 92.5% purity while silver has 99.9% purity. This difference impacts the durability, workability, price and hypoallergenic nature of the metals.
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Silver is an element on the periodic table and has the symbol Ag, which comes from the Latin word for silver – argentum.
In its natural state, silver has a purity of around 99.9%, which is as close to total purity as you can get. The other .01% comprises of trace elements and impurities that’s in the metal.
Any piece of jewelry that claims to be pure silver or fine silver will have this level of purity. Silver is typically more expensive than sterling silver, because of the higher level of purity it contains.
How to Identify Pure Silver
Pure silver is stamped with 999, .999 or 99.9. These hallmarks indicate the level of silver in the metal, which is 99.9%.
Durability of Pure Silver
Silver is very malleable and rather soft, so it can be difficult to mold it into intricate designs. Because of this, jewelry designers often avoid using pure silver when making elaborate designs.
This softness and malleability also mean that jewelry made from pure silver isn’t highly durable. These pieces can easily lose shape, get bent or damaged.
Due to this, pure silver isn’t often used for every day jewelry. It’s best reserved for fine jewelry worn every once in a while, or for pieces that have less exposure, like earrings and pendants (as opposed to rings and bracelets).
Pure silver doesn’t typically tarnish or rust, even when exposed to moisture, body oils and air. This makes maintenance easier as the jewelry remains sparkling for longer.
Pure silver is hypoallergenic and isn’t known to cause skin irritations or allergies. This makes it safe for wear for those who are sensitive to metal.
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Sterling silver is a type of silver alloy, made by mixing silver with certain other metals. This is done to enhance the workability and durability of the metal.
Sterling silver is made of 92.5% pure silver mixed with 7.5% of other metals, typically copper, nickel or zinc. This standard was first defined over 800 years ago, in 1275 England, in an effort to standardize silver alloys.
Sterling silver became the most popular type of silver and was heavily used in making plates, cutlery, jewelry, and plated items. Today, it’s used in a wide range of industries, but is especially popular for use in jewelry.
How to Identify Sterling Silver
There are several stamps used to identify sterling silver. The most common stamp is 925, 92.5 or .925. This indicates the level of silver contained in the metal.
However, you can also find a variety of other stamps including STER, STERLING, Sterling Silver, SS and STG in use.
Sterling silver is much more durable than fine silver, making it an excellent choice for jewelry. In fact, sterling silver pieces can last a lifetime with reasonable care. It’s malleable enough to form into intricate designs but tough enough to withstand daily wear.
This is what makes sterling silver such a popular option for costume jewelry. It’s workable, durable, inexpensive – traits that make it ideal for use in jewelry.
It’s also inexpensive to repair and resize sterling silver pieces.
One of the major cons of sterling silver is its tendency to tarnish. This occurs when the metal is exposed to air and moisture.
The copper content in sterling silver reacts with the elements and begins to oxidize. This creates the dark tarnish that spreads across the surface of the jewelry.
However, cleaning sterling silver and restoring its shine is often easily done. Silver polishing cloths like this highly popular product and silver polishing creams like this one are available on the market to remove tarnish.
Storing sterling silver in a dry, dark place, away from water and air exposure will reduce its tendency to tarnish.
Unfortunately, sterling silver isn’t always hypoallergenic. It depends on the types of metal used in the alloy.
Zinc and nickel are the two most common allergens for those with skin sensitivities. If these metals are present in the sterling silver alloy, it won’t be hypoallergenic.
Sterling Silver vs. Silver – Which Is Better?
Both sterling silver and pure silver offer different pros and cons. However, sterling silver has many attributes that make it excellent for use in every day jewelry.
The most striking difference is in durability. Because sterling silver is much more durable, it’s ideal for easy maintenance. It also means that you have a lot more options when shopping.
Another benefit is the lower cost of sterling silver. As it has less pure silver in its alloy, sterling silver is often noticeably less expensive. However, in terms of appearance, it looks the same as fine silver. Because of these reasons, sterling silver is often the preferred choice for most shoppers.
However, fine silver is ideal if you’re after higher purity levels and budget isn’t an issue. It’s also hypoallergenic and less prone to tarnish. If these are your priorities when shopping, you might find that fine silver suits your preferences more than sterling silver.
As we’ve already discussed, both these types of silver have their advantages and disadvantages.
Whether you choose sterling silver or fine silver comes down to your personal preferences, including your budget and how you plan to use the jewelry.