Friday, October 26, 2012

Metal Education: Sterling Silver - Part 1

Welcome to the second blog post in our Metal Education series. After explaining some metal terminology in our last post, we now explore specific metals. We’ll start with one of the most versatile alloys of a precious metal: Sterling silver. The sterling silver article will be posted in two installments. Part 1 covers issues for the consumer, including basics of the alloy, history, and uses. Part 2 will be for the metalsmiths in the readership: working properties, techniques, and equipment.

Sterling silver ring with oxidized circles, Orbit by hartleystudio

About the metal

Sterling silver is an alloy made of at least 92.5 % pure silver and 7.5% other metals, most often copper. Some sterling silver alloys contain low percentages of other metals like germanium, zinc, palladium or platinum to increase strength, to reduce tarnish and firescale, or for better casting properties. As long as the resulting metal alloy contains 92.5% silver, it is still referred to as sterling silver, or simply sterling. Sterling silver jewelry is traditionally marked with a 925 stamp. The number stands for the 925 parts silver per 1000 parts of total metal alloy. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “it is unfair or deceptive to mark, describe, or otherwise represent all or part of an industry product as silver, solid silver, sterling silver, sterling, or the abbreviation ster. unless it is at least 925/1,000ths pure silver.”

Anticlastic spiral hoop earrings - Bright silver by Revonav

Pure or fine silver is alloyed with copper for strength because fine silver alone is too soft for many applications. The Vickers Hardness of sterling silver is approximately 75 HV, while fine silver has a value of only 35 HV. For comparison, 14k white gold has a hardness of 125 to 165 HV depending on the alloy. Palladium (950TruPD) has a hardness of 115HV and platinum alloys range from 115 to 170 HV. So, although sterling silver is much harder than fine silver, it is still soft compared to other precious metals.

As of October 2012 the price for silver varies from 30 to 35 USD per ounce. This price is about 150 times more expensive than copper, and about 50 times less expensive than gold or platinum.

Spiny Oyster Statement Ring by MicheleGradyDesigns


Sterling is an old alloy and its true origin is uncertain. It was adopted as a standard alloy during the 12th century when Henry II imported the alloy from a region of Germany called Easterling. By the 13th Century, currency made from this alloy was known as Easterling silver. Other references say that the term sterling is a derivation from the old French “esterlin,” which meant “little star,” in reference to stars found on Norman coins of the 11th century. Although silver has been used since ancient times for jewelry and decoration, the biggest use for sterling silver alloys was coinage until Victorian times.

Sterling Silver Stud Earrings - Spoonies by Kathryn Riechert

By the 18th century, sterling silver flatware and serveware became popular to serve the elaborate multi-course meals that were de rigeur in Victorian times. The apogee of sterling silverware was between 1840 and 1920. After the Second World War, sterling silver flatware fell out of favor due to rising labor costs and a move toward more practical dining customs.

Uses for Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is a great metal choice for many applications, including jewelry, vessels, bowls and utensils, and small sculptures. Although silver is the least expensive noble metal, the price is still prohibitive for larger sculptures.

April showers... lilliputian size by ArtigianoJewelBox

Sterling silver is the whitest of all the precious metal alloys. Other white metals like white gold, palladium and platinum have a yellow or gray tone. Silver can be buffed to a more brilliant shine than any other metal, or can take a satin, matte, brushed, sandblasted, oxidized (chemically blackened), textured or antiqued finish.
We’ll discuss a few uses for sterling silver in its most popular modern application, jewelry.

Necklaces, pendants, brooches, and earrings

Sterling silver is a perfect choice for jewelry that doesn’t get banged around much, like earrings, necklaces, pendants, and brooches. Sterling silver is lighter than gold, palladium or platinum, making it a great metal for earrings.

Seaweed Branch Earrings, Tourmaline by iacua

Hoops and ear wires need to be heat-treated or work-hardened to hold their shape. For people that are sensitive to sterling silver in their piercings, ear wires or posts can be made out of gold or platinum, which may help with metal allergies.

Vintage Button Citrine Floral Pendant - Sterling Silver Handmade by AdobeSol

Check out earrings, necklaces, pendants and brooches made by our wonderful Etsymetal jewelers.

Rings and bracelets

Sterling silver is a great choice for fashionable designer and cocktail rings, bracelets, and casual jewelry. However, because it is soft, some care should be taken when choosing sterling silver jewelry that will take a lot of abuse, especially rings and bracelets.

Branch Cuff Bracelet in Sterling Silver and Rose Cut Garnets - Ember and Frost Collection by shirleegrund

Browse sterling silver rings or bracelets from Etsymetal Artists.

Although the metal is lovely and the price is right, sterling silver is not the best choice for engagement or wedding rings that need to hold up to years of daily wear and tear. Silver bands can bend out of shape and the surface can scratch deeply. Thin areas and fine details will wear completely away with time. If you still prefer a silver wedding band for its look or its price point, be sure to choose a fairly heavy band with sturdy construction and no delicate features. Avoid thin wire-like bands, very delicate detail, and filigree. Note also that any patina on sterling silver will wear away with time, except in the crevices that are protected from the constant buffing action of daily activities.

Sterling Silver Wedding Ring Set with White Topaz by JenLawlerDesigns

Commercial sterling silver bands are sometimes plated with rhodium to protect the shine and prevent tarnishing – but the rhodium will wear off with time showing unsightly patches where it wore off. It will eventually need to be replated, which can be costly. In addition, rhodium plating requires adding a layer of nickel first, which causes allergies in many people once it gets exposed to the skin. Plating will make any repair work a lot harder as the plating will need to be removed and then redone after the repair is complete. Unless one really hates removing tarnish and does not plan to wear their jewelry much, it is recommended to just leave sterling silver in its natural un-plated state. For quality affordable wedding bands, the best silver bands are made with sterling silver without rhodium plating.

Check out these beautiful wedding rings and engagement rings made by Etsymetal team members.

Sterling Silver and Gemstones

Sterling silver can be used in many ways to set precious and semi-precious gemstones in jewelry, and its bright white color looks great with most gemstones. However, the style of setting and type of gems to be set in sterling silver should be considered carefully. Sterling is especially suited for bezel setting and other sturdy types of settings.

In Between - Birdeye Rhyolite and sterling silver Pendant by VirginieMartinStudio
Special care should be taken with delicate prong set gemstones. Silver prongs can easily bent and the stones lost. Because of the potential for loss, sterling silver is not a great metal for very expensive stones like sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Large diamonds, being the hardest material on earth, can over time cut the metal away in the setting and become loose. A great cost effective alternative is to set the precious gemstone in a white or yellow gold setting soldered onto a sterling silver band. 

Sterling Silver Garnet Ring, Rhyolite Garnet,Trillion Cut, Stacking Rings, 18kt Gold by betsybensen

Small diamonds and precious gemstones may be ok when set in sturdy sterling silver settings.

Diamond Ring in Sterling Silver by LiliaNashJewelry

Tarnish and patinas

Fine silver, being a noble metal, does not react with oxygen or water. But it does react with airborne pollutants such as sulfur to form a black tarnish on its surface. Sterling silver tarnishes faster since it contains the base metal copper, which reacts easily with oxygen. Since tarnish is just a thin oxide layer on the surface of the metal, wearing your jewelry frequently is enough to keep it buffed and shiny. If you do get tarnish, polish with a soft jewelry polishing cloth or dipping solution. Avoid harsh abrasive techniques, such as using toothpaste, as this can leave fine scratches on the metal surface and damage gemstones. Because tarnish is caused by oxygen and pollutants in the air, the best way to avoid it is to store your jewelry in an air tight container (like a Ziploc bag) when you’re not wearing it.

See this great tip for tarnish removal if your jewelry does not contain gemstones, enamels or patinas.

Sterling Silver Pinecone Petal Necklace by rubygirl

Some jewelry pieces are pre-oxidized to give them an antique look or to highlight textures on the metal. This patina will age over time, making it a truly unique piece. Don’t use any tarnish removal dips on those jewelry pieces, as it will destroy the intentional oxidation.


It is fairly easy to resize a ring or other sterling silver piece if there is no gemstone set. Sterling silver rings with gemstones are difficult to resize, since silver conducts heat very well. The heat from soldering will be transferred directly to the gem, which can destroy it. The gem must either be removed, or it must be protected in place while soldering. Both approaches can work, but involve the risk of damage to the gemstone or the setting. Patinas, enamels, and special textures may also be damaged during resizing.


Any metal can cause an allergic reaction, though some metals are less allergenic than others. Sterling silver allergies are rare, but they do occur. If you experience a rash under your jewelry, remove the jewelry, clean it well and let the skin heal up. Soaps, lotions, or dirt trapped under the jewelry are a primary cause of jewelry-related dermatitis, so keeping your jewelry clean is key. In addition, “many individuals who believe that they are allergic to silver (or gold) are actually allergic to another metal in the silver alloy used to make their jewelry -- nickel.” (2) Most sterling silver does not contain nickel, but rhodium-plated silver jewelry often has a layer of nickel under the rhodium. Once the plating wears off, nickel gets exposed to the skin and causes allergic reactions. Many people who believe they are sensitive to sterling actually have silver plated jewelry or low-grade silver alloys (Nepali silver, for example), and may experience a reaction to any number of metals in this jewelry. In .925 sterling silver, copper or trace amounts of nickel may be suspected as the allergen. Finally, though silver itself is very hypoallergenic, allergies can occur, and if you are sensitive, you may need to stick with another metal.

bhuj flexibangle bracelet sterling silver by Markaplan


To conclude the pro's and con's of Sterling silver:

  • least expensive precious metal alloy
  • whitest metal alloy
  • most beautiful luster and high polish
  • light weight
  • easy to oxidize for a high contrast or antique look

  • very soft metal, scratches and bends easily
  • not a great choice for engagement or wedding rings in terms of durability
  • tarnishes easily
  • harder to resize rings than gold alloys

Feel free to browse the wonderful sterling silver creations from our Etsymetal Artists.

Stayed tuned for Sterling Silver – Part 2 coming up soon.

Thanks to Virginie Martin and Mary Anne Karren for researching, fact checking and editing.

You can see all posts from our our Metal Education Series here.

Sources :

1. Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons: 1866. Second. House of Commons. 23 March 1866. pp. 14–15. OCLC 11900114


Knaught, Percy, La découverte du Métal , Les Éditions TIME LIFE, 1974.

McCreight, Tim, Complete Metalsmith, Davis Editions, 2004.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very informative blog! Sterling silver is an alloy of the precious metal silver that is white in color and is highly reflective of light. You can use Sterling Silver Flatware in everyday use to prevent from tarnishing.

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