What Is Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% alloy metal, usually copper. The sterling silver alloy has been used for centuries to make silverware, jewelry, and other decorative items. Sterling silver is preferred over pure silver for jewelry and other uses because it has better durability and hardness. Pure silver is very soft, so mixing it with copper hardens the metal and makes it more suitable for jewelry and other applications.

The 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper ratio give sterling silver its characteristic appearance and properties. The small amount of copper allows the silver to retain its color and brightness but makes it stronger and more resistant to scratches and dents. Sterling silver will develop a patina over time due to oxidation, but it can easily be polished to restore its shiny appearance.

The 92.5% minimum silver content is what qualifies silver as sterling. If the silver content is lower than 92.5%, it cannot legally be called sterling silver. Many countries mandate the 92.5% sterling standard to protect consumers and ensure high quality. Sterling silver will be clearly stamped or hallmarked with markings indicating the silver purity and content.

How Sterling Silver Jewelry Is Made

Sterling silver jewelry is made using several jewelry fabrication techniques. Here are the most common ways sterling silver jewelry is crafted:

  • Casting: Molten sterling silver is poured into molds to create ring bands, pendants, charms, and other components. Casting allows for intricate and detailed designs. The cast pieces are then finished, polished, and assembled into full jewelry items.
  • Wire work: Thin sterling silver wire is bent, twisted, and wrapped to create rings, ear wires, bangles, filigree details, and other parts. Wirework is often used for more delicate and ornate jewelry.
  • Soldering: Sterling silver elements like wire, sheet, and cast pieces are joined together using a solder that melts at a lower temperature than sterling silver. Soldering allows jewelers to combine different components to create custom jewelry designs. The soldered joints are reinforced with a silver brazing technique for added strength and durability.
  • Stamping: Flat sterling silver sheet metal is cut and stamped to create decorative plate components, charms, and layering pieces. Stamping involves pressing designs and textures into the metal using engraved tools and dies. The stamped pieces can then be assembled into more complex jewelry.
  • Silversmithing: Skilled jewelers handcraft sterling silver sheets and wire into jewelry using hammers, stakes, forming tools, soldering, and other techniques. Silversmithing creates unique handmade pieces that can become heirloom jewelry. Silversmithing is a more labor-intensive jewelry-making process but produces stunning results.

How Sterling Silver Jewelry Differs From Silver Jewelry

While sterling silver contains 92.5% pure silver, silver jewelry may have a lower or higher silver purity. Some key differences between sterling silver and silver jewelry include:

  • Silver purity: Sterling silver has a fixed silver purity of 92.5% as mandated by the sterling standard. Silver jewelry may have a lower purity of 80-92% silver or a higher purity of 95-99% silver. Lower-purity silver alloys will be less valuable and durable. Higher purity silver is softer so it may not wear as well for jewelry.
  • Alloy metals: Sterling silver uses copper as the primary alloy metal. Other silver jewelry may use alternative alloy metals like zinc or germanium that can change properties like tarnish resistance or brilliance. Sterling silver maintains a good balance of durability, shine, and value.
  • Oxidation: Sterling silver develops a mild patina over time that is easily polished. Some silver alloys with higher zinc or lower copper content may darken or tarnish more quickly due to oxidation. The patina on sterling silver is often considered attractive and enhances the vintage appeal of the jewelry. If you’re thinking of purchasing sterling silver jewelry, you can shop sterling silver rings from James Avery.
  • Durability: Sterling silver is very durable due to the copper alloy and stands up well to daily wear. Some lower-purity silver alloys can be more brittle or prone to damage over time. Higher-purity silver is very soft so it is more easily scratched or bent out of shape.
  • Value: Sterling silver maintains exceptional value due to its precious metal content and standardized purity. Other silver alloys may be valued lower based on their purity and silver weight. Sterling silver is a premium but affordable precious metal that holds up to market fluctuations well.
  • Stamping: Sterling silver is clearly stamped or hallmarked to indicate its purity. Other silver jewelry may not be properly stamped, so the actual purity is unknown. Sterling silver stamps give consumers confidence in the silver content and quality.
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