Defining Sterling Silver

Defining sterling silver, some important points.

First, silver is not sterling.

Pure silver is very soft and malleable, it can be hammered so thin that 100,000 sheets are required to make a one-inch high stack.  To hold its shape silver needs to be combined with another metal.  Early metallurgists discovered that copper was the best alloy to provide necessary strength and flexibility.  Despite copper’s distinctive color, it will not affect the color until the mixture reaches 50% of each.

What is the definition of silver?

Which standard of fineness do you mean?

Sterling silver is a legal definition, often changing over time, requiring a certain Standard of Fineness i.e. percentage of silver to copper expressed in parts of 1000. These Standards are rigorously enforced and made obvious by the use of specific Assay and Hallmarks.

In Great Britain the .925 Standard of Fineness was laid down in 1238 and came to be known as Sterling.

On the Continent the Standard of Fineness, i.e. “Sterling” varies:

  • Sweden is .830
  • The Netherlands has .833 and .934
  • Norway has .830 and .925
  • Italy has .800 and .925
  • France has a complicated system ranging from .800 to .950
  • Germany is .800
  • Denmark has .830 and .925

In the US prior to the 20th century silversmiths were free to use their own mixture.  The silver they used often came from coins – “coin silver” – that ranged from .892 – .900 in Fineness.  Tiffany adopted the British .925 Sterling Standard in 1851, Gorham followed suit in 1868.  After the Civil War more manufacturers followed this trend.  It was not until 1907 that the US formally adopted .925 as the Standard of Fineness for Sterling.

Do not dismiss something as “not Sterling” just because it is not .925.

Substitutes

All that glitters is not gold…or silver.  In 1595 the Chinese developed a white metal called paktong; a combination of copper, zinc, and nickel.  This process was kept secret until the late 18th century when it was re-created in Germany.  There are many names for this white base metal mixture including: German, Alaska, Alpaca, Argentan, Brazil, & Nickel silver.

None of them contain ANY silver at all.  Caveat Emptor.

I have added some further thoughts on the topic of sterling in this blog post – Misunderstanding Sterling.