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Article: How Can You Tell If Jewellery Is Sterling Silver?

sterling silver jewellery

How Can You Tell If Jewellery Is Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is known for it’s unique lustre and bright appearance, making it the preferred choice for making silver jewellery pieces. But how do you know if your silver jewellery piece is made from real silver? How do you know if you have a stainless steel or sterling silver jewellery piece?

In this blog, we cover methods to determine if your jewellery is made from sterling silver. We’ll explore briefly what sterling silver is and how it is used in jewellery, as well as various methods you can use to authenticate your silver jewellery.


What Is Sterling Silver?

5mm Italy 925 Sterling Silver Figaro Bracelet (Diamond Cut)

Sterling silver is an alloy form of silver that is composed of 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals. This other metal is usually copper. Alloying silver with copper and other metals makes silver a harder and more durable metal, suitable for jewellery making. Other names for sterling silver jewellery include 925 silver jewellery, which describes it’s composition.

Because of this copper content, sterling silver will eventually tarnish over time. Tarnishing is when the metal becomes darkers in colour over time. This occurs when exposed to moisture, oxygen and body oils. However, this tarnish can be easily cleaned, revealing underneath the beautiful lustre which is sterling silver. Sterling silver jewellery will never rust or turn green.

Most silver jewellery will be made from 925 sterling silver. But sometimes, fine silver which is composed of 99.9% silver is used. 999 silver tarnishes much less, but is extremely soft and malleable making it less suitable for jewellery making.

1. Appearance

925 sterling silver figaro chain
One of the first ways you can determine if your jewellery is made of sterling silver is by its appearance. Sterling silver jewellery has a shiny and lustrous appearance, whilst other metals like stainless steel and brass will be much darker.

This is not an entirely accurate way of determining the composition of your jewellery. Sterling silver jewellery is often plated with Rhodium to enhance its corrosion and tarnish resistance properties. Plating sterling silver with Rhodium often makes the jewellery piece look more lustrous, but gives a darker appearance similar to stainless steel.

2. Look for stamps or hallmarks

925 sterling silver figaro chain clasp
Genuine sterling silver jewellery will have a 3-digit stamp indicating its composition. The most common stamps found on jewellery include 925 and 999. The 925 stamp indicates 92.5% silver, whilst the 999 stamp indicates 99.9% silver. Some other stamps used on sterling silver jewellery include STER which indicates sterling silver, and FS which indicates fine silver.

If your jewellery is from the UK, it may also have a variety of stamped images on it. One of which is called an Assay Office Mark, which indicates where the article of jewellery was tested within the UK. You can also have traditional finesse symbol marks indicating the material of the jewellery, date letters and international convention marks.

3. Test for hardness

Silver is a soft and malleable metal. If your jewellery can be easily bent, it is a sign of real silver. Silver jewellery is also much easier to file than a harder metal like stainless steel. We however, don't recommend this method of testing as it is an invasive and potentially damaging way of figuring out the composition of your jewellery. 

4. Test for sound

Sterling silver produces a ringing sound when struck with another metal that lasts for 1 to 2 seconds. Hold the silver jewellery piece and gently tap it with a metal object like a spoon. Sterling silver should produce a clear, bell-like ringing sound. Dull or muted sounds may indicate a different metal composition for your silver piece.

5. Test for odours

Sterling silver has no specific odour. If you notice any strong, metallic or chemical smells then your jewellery piece is more than likely made of brass or copper with a silver plating.

6. Polish the silver jewellery piece

person polishing silver ring with cloth
Try rubbing one of your tarnished or worn-out silver jewellery pieces with a soft white cloth. If a black mark appears on the cloth, your jewellery is likely made of sterling silver. This is a metal that tends to oxidise and tarnish over time, so a black mark on a white cloth is to be expected.

7. Magnet test

Like other precious metals, silver is non-ferrous. This means that it is not attracted to a magnet. Try running a strong magnet over your jewellery. If the jewellery is not attracted to the magnet, then it is likely made of sterling silver, brass or copper. If the jewellery piece does stick to the magnet, then it is likely made of stainless steel.

8. Ice test

silver ring on ice

Silver has the highest thermal conductivity of any metal. This means it conducts a lot of heat. Set two ice cubes out and put the silver item on one of them. If the ice cube under the silver melts faster than the ice cube without, then it is probably made of sterling silver. 

9. Use an XRF gun

xrf gun testing jewellery
XRF determine the elemental composition of a material. Handheld XRF analysers can identify the presence of silver and other metals in jewellery accurately. This is a precise and non-destructive way of testing, however does require specialised equipment.

10. Get the jeweller to conduct a nitric acid test

jeweller testing sterling silver
When nitric acid comes into contact with a metal, it will reveal whether the metal is real or an imitation piece. For this, jewellers will usually nick or scratch the item in a discreet area. They will then place a drop of nitric acid onto the pieces of shaved-off silver. If the area turns green, the item is not made of silver. If the item turns a creamy colour, then it is made of silver.

Although not recommended, a nitric acid test can be conducted at home using home testing kits., When handling nitric acid, you should wear protective gloves and eyewear as nitric acid is noxious.


11. Have an appraiser look at your jewellery piece

jewellery appraiser analysing ring
If your home tests yield inconclusive results, then consulting a professional would be your best bet. We recommend choosing a professional who is certified, experienced and highly recommended. You can either go for a professional appraiser that has been certified, or a graduate jeweller trained and certified by the Gemologist Institute of America.


12. Get your jewellery tested in a lab

Another way of getting your silver jewellery tested is to send it to a jewellery or metal testing lab. At the lab, scientists will conduct a number of tests that can determine the composition of your jewellery.

These tests can include:
  • Fire assay - Melting down a sample of the metal and conducting a chemical assay. This helps to determine the precious metal content of silver or gold ore.
  • XRF analysis - commonly done with a gun, this sends x-rays through the item to test the purity of the metal.
  • Mass spectrometry - this helps to determine the jewellery pieces' molecular and chemical structure. This method, known as ICP-MS (inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry) is commonly used by assay offices as it is extremely accurate.
  • Specific gravity assessment - a water displacement test. The specific gravity for silver is 10.49.


Conclusion

After reading this blog, you should have a better understanding on how to tell if jewellery is made from sterling silver. You should now know the composition of sterling silver jewellery, the different hallmarks used and the various testing methods you can use to authenticate your jewellery piece. Some of the main methods we covered include the magnet test, ice test, XRF analysis, nitric acid tests and much more!

Whilst many of the methods outlined in our blog can be done at home, or with home testing kits, seeking a professional appraisal or seeking lab testing will always be the most accurate assessment. This is a great option for those high-value sentimental items you want to authenticate.

So the next time you come across a dazzling piece of silver jewellery, remember the information shared in this guide! With a keen eye and thorough understanding of it’s characteristics, you’ll be able to better distinguish the metals used in silver jewellery.

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