Silver is an element. In its pure state it is a white color and is quite dense, making it a heavy metal. It has remarkable qualities that keep it in demand for many industrial uses. It is the most reflective metal known. It is also the best conductor of heat. An object heated on one end will quickly draw heat across the entire surface, making the entire object hot. This thermal conductivity is essential for many high tech and manufacturing uses. But in its pure state – in most cases – it isn’t really a good metal for making jewelry!
When we refer to the purity of silver, we express it as a number. An object has weight; this number is divided by 1000. This metal is measured in degrees of fineness. It is possible to isolate the pure element, but the process is very expensive and is generally used only for research purposes. The metal is considered pure at 999 out of 1000 parts. This is called fine silver and is expressed as .999 fine.
Fine silver items have to be extra thick, because it is a soft metal and can easily be bent and scratched. To make the metal harder, save weight and make objects more affordable another metal is added. The most common metal added is copper.
British coins were the first objects to be made of sterling. The government didn’t want the coins wearing away quickly in circulation, and needed the metal to be more durable. This is a standard amount of metal to alloy ratio as described above; sterling has more copper in it and so is expressed as a different number – it is .925 fine, or 925 parts per thousand pure. This number can also be weight based. Sterling is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper by weight. This is why sterling silver jewelry is stamped .925 by the jeweler or artisan who makes the piece.
Consumers should know what to look for when they are buying jewelry. Almost any shopping experience can be improved if you’re informed. Shoppers know to look for things like 100% Wool on a clothing label. When shopping for fine jewelry look for the quality stamp. This will state what the jewelry is made of. Most items will be marked; 14K means 14 karat gold; .900PT is platinum; and .925 is sterling silver!
Of course there are exceptions. Many items are too small or thin to stamp. These should have a hang tag attached with the metal quality stated on the tag; or the piece should be accompanied by a receipt showing a description of the item with a statement about the metal quality.
Sterling silver is a remarkable metal. Strong, sparkling and easy to care for, sterling silver jewelry has a universal appeal. Attractive and still affordable, it is a great choice for your next jewelry purchase!
Robert Edwards is a jewelry designer and metalsmith in New York City with more than 30 years of experience in the jewelry trade. He is the webmaster of a very popular silver jewelry website that features handcrafted designs and custom made jewelry.