Definition of Silver – Misunderstanding Sterling

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Understanding the definition of silver and sterling is a slippery topic.

I’ve been floundering about for a better way to explain.

Let’s establish a few ground rules.

Metallurgical facts –

  1. Silver must be mixed with copper to make an alloy strong enough to be workable and functional.
  2. The mixture reaches about 50-50 before the copper colors the silver.

Human behavior –

  1. Fact #2 above is very inconvenient, as it leaves wide open the possibility of fraudulent behavior.  Without resorting to scientific tests, there is no way for the average person to determine if a piece is .950, .750., possibly even .550
  2. Each country legally defines what the standard of fineness, or ratio of silver:copper is for that country.  It then issues an official Assay stamp to prove to consumers that they are getting what they pay for.

Have I completely lost you?  I believe the trouble lies in two places.

Number 1, for unknown reasons standards of fineness varied from place to place.

Different ratios of silver:copper impart varying qualities to silver alloy.  More copper means greater strength.  For example, I have a very old ladle that is .750.  Its handle is sufficiently fine, and comes off the very large cup at such an angle, if it was made of .925 silver, I don’t think it could stand the weight of a heavy stew.

The second difficulty is with the word sterling.

Unfortunately, I can not think of another term in the English language that expresses this concept of “standard of fineness” in the way that “sterling” does.

  • In Germany, .800 is the legal standard of fineness.
  • In Japan, .950 is the legal standard of fineness.
  • In France both .950 and .800 are legal standards of fineness.

One could argue that a country’s standard of fineness is the definition of sterling in that country.

Originally, sterling referred strictly to the English standard of fineness – which happened to be .925.   In England, the first known regulation of the silver trade dates to 1238.  The origin of the term sterling is more obscure.  One explanation is that the group of silversmiths who petitioned the King to issue this decree were called Easterlings, in reference to their Germanic descent.  Over the years this corrupted to sterling.  As an interesting aside, in England the shorthand way of referring to silver pieces that meet the standard of fineness is to say they are HM or hallmarked silver.

What I do know, is that the term “sterling” crossed the Atlantic to the US and came into circulation in the mid-1800’s.  Tiffany (in a stroke of marketing genius) adopted and stamped sterling .925 on its goods as a way to differentiate them from the competition.

Since colonial times, US silversmiths used coin silver – literally melted silver coins – to fashion their wares.  In practice, the ratio of silver:copper in coins ranged from .892-.900.

Tiffany’s marketing worked extremely well.  Although there was no official standard of fineness in the US until the early 20th century, it didn’t take long for other silver companies jump on the “sterling” bandwagon.  Consequently, domestic silver became perceived as inferior goods.  (For the record I do not believe that for 1 second, let alone 1 minute.)

In the US, “sterling” has turned into slang for .925.  Sterling and .925 are synonymous.  The best analogy I can come up with is, it is similar to the way Xerox has come to refer to a copy.

I’m (slowly) realizing many Americans feel the only “sterling” silver worth having is .925.  I’ve been shocked many times when people essentially say everything else – regardless of the standard of fineness in it’s place of origin – is somehow substandard!!

But how much ‘difference’ are we really talking about?

Remember fineness is a ratio composed of 1000 parts!

Perhaps you should reconsider coin silver, or silver of a different standard of fineness, as worthy of collecting.  Honestly, a whole world of amazing pieces is out there, yearning to be discovered, used, and cherished.  Design and craftsmanship are the real issues, not 25/1000th’s of silver vs. copper.

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