Humans have long been entranced by sparkling silver: as jewellery, coinage, high status homewares and status symbols … and much more besides. Silver is often used to celebrate milestones, achievements, celebrations and ceremonies, as well as for its beautiful ornamental value.
But how much do you really know about silver and your silver jewellery? What is sterling silver anyway? Why does silver tarnish and how can you clean it? How is silver different to gold? And why should you care?
As we’ve been designing and making silver jewellery for many years, we’re here to give you the lowdown.
Don’t forget to also read our article all about gold, karats and carats.
Let’s get started …
Silver: the lowdown
Similar in its composition and character to gold and copper, silver is a very soft, ductile and malleable metal which also takes a very high polish. While it doesn’t have the hardness of gold, it still has many uses, especially when alloyed with other metals to make it harder.
Silver is one of the seven metals of antiquity which were known to prehistoric humans, the others being gold, copper, tin, lead, iron and mercury. As it has been in use for so long the history of its discovery and early use are not known.
It’s a more reactive metal than gold and is also harder to extract from its ores when mined. This meant that in antiquity supplies of silver were rarer and therefore more expensive until around 1500 BC when the Egyptians discovered new methods of refining it.
Today silver is considerably less valuable than gold, which is rarer in nature and more difficult to mine in bulk.
What is sterling silver?
You might wonder: is sterling silver real silver? The answer is a definite yes. Sterling silver is simply an alloyed form of silver which is much more suitable to use in jewellery and other metalwork.
Fine silver is 99.9% pure silver. In this form the metal is beautiful and suffers from minimal tarnish, but it’s generally too soft and malleable for many uses, including making most silver jewellery.
Instead fine silver is alloyed with copper to create sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper. This percentage of fine silver is why you will sometimes see sterling silver referred to as ‘925 silver’ or hallmarked with a 925 stamp.
The copper makes the silver harder, more durable and therefore much better to work with and use, but without compromising on colour. Most silver jewellery that you buy and wear will be sterling silver.
Can silver jewellery turn black? The answer is also: yes – and it’s to be expected and is easy enough to resolve.
The copper added to sterling silver will cause it to tarnish more easily, with the metal turning dark brown or black over time, especially in humid conditions. However, it’s easy to clean and beneath the tarnish your sterling silver will still be in great condition: it won’t rust or perish with normal use. See our handy links to articles about cleaning silver jewellery for more information.
About silver jewellery
Cleaning silver jewellery
Sterling silver jewellery is an excellent, high quality choice in most circumstances. The metal will not rust or perish, plus if you look after your jewellery it will look great well into the future. You should even be able to pass your silver jewellery on to future generations.
The softness of even sterling silver can make it unsuited to using with very expensive gemstone settings. Gold or platinum are the metals most often used in this situation as they are harder and the settings are less likely to be damaged.
Because silver is soft you should take a bit more care with cleaning it. Never use harsh cleansers such as baking soda or toothpaste as they will remove some of the metal over time.
Be sure to read our article specifically about how to clean silver jewellery for the lowdown. Also see our full jewellery cleaning guide for much more thorough jewellery care and cleaning information.
Silver or gold jewellery?
Your choice of silver jewellery or gold jewellery is primarily down to personal preference, but unless you’re particularly wealthy, a major deciding factor is cost. It may come as a surprise to learn that although silver is of course a precious metal, it’s vastly less expensive than gold.
How much less expensive? At the time of writing silver is about a whopping 75 times less expensive than gold. This makes gathering a solid gold jewellery collection a very pricey option by comparison to silver.
The reason is primarily that there is considerably more silver in the world than gold. It’s estimated that 1.4 million tonnes of silver has been mined throughout human history, while only 173,000 tonnes of gold have been mined.
Check out our handy guide to more discussion about this topic: Which Should You Choose: Gold or Silver Jewellery?
How do you know your jewellery is real silver?
In many cases the silver jewellery you own will be hallmarked or stamped with 925 (sterling silver) or 999 (fine silver). You may also see the stamps SS or FS to represent each. However, not all silver jewellery is hallmarked as it’s not a legal requirement in all countries (including Australia). We feel that for some designs the hallmark can detract from the finish of the piece, so we don’t always use one.
So how else can you work out if your silver is real? Scroll down to find out …
One test is to use a strong magnet (preferably a rare-earth neodymium magnet). If the magnet joins strongly to the metal, then it’s not silver or the piece may only be silver plated over a base metal. However, there are other metals that are not magnetic, so this is not a definitive test.
If you’re feeling brave you can also dab a tiny amount of chlorine bleach on the metal in an inconspicuous place and watch for a reaction. Silver (including silver plating) will generally turn brown or black in the presence of bleach. Rinse the metal well afterwards and use a polishing cloth or silver dip to try to remove the discolouration.
By the way, this should give you a clue as to why wearing sterling silver jewellery in a swimming pool is never a good idea! Chlorine and silver are not a good combination.
Finally, you can also purchase a precious metal testing kit from Ebay or Amazon which should definitively tell you what the metal is if you follow the instructions.
A warning about nickel silver and German silver
You may find jewellery which is made with nickel silver or German silver, which is often cheaper than sterling silver jewellery. Be aware that these metals don’t contain any silver at all. Our advice is that both metals should be avoided when it comes to jewellery.
Nickel silver is an alloy of copper and nickel, while German silver may contain zinc as well. Many people develop nickel allergies over time. This can cause nasty skin rashes and once you’ve developed an allergy to nickel you’ll have it for the rest of your life.
There are other concerns about the toxicity of nickel and we strongly recommend that you never wear it against your skin. All Simone Walsh silver jewellery is made with real sterling silver and all of our designs – including our gold jewellery – is nickel free.
The parting shot
The beautiful bright and slightly warm colouring of sterling silver jewellery will suit almost anyone.
In addition those with sensitive skins are unlikely to have an adverse affect from silver, unlike with lesser metals. Plus of course it has a significantly lower cost than other precious metals like gold and platinum, meaning you can easily invest in lots of gorgeous and top quality silver jewellery.
Like gold, silver will also maintain its value – and possibly even increase in value – over time in comparison to other commodities. It is also endlessly recyclable and the metal can be reused in many forms.
On top of those benefits, having silver jewellery in your collection will add to its style, value, longevity and versatility. Silver jewellery is a truly excellent choice.
More about precious metals
Learn more about the qualities and pros and cons of different types of precious metals, including gold and silver, to help you choose more carefully: