Sterling Silver Jewelry: What to Know Before You Buy

Updated April 9, 2021
woman with sterling silver jewelry

Sterling silver is one of the most popular jewelry materials on the market for a reason. With its sophisticated sheen and beautiful cool coloring, sterling silver jewelry is stylish and timeless. Whether you already own some sterling pieces or are shopping for something new, it helps to know a bit about this unique precious metal.

Sterling Silver Meaning and Reasons It's Used for Jewelry

You may have heard the term "sterling silver" and wondered what it really means. Sterling silver is an alloy or mix of metals that give it some advantages over pure silver.

Is Sterling Silver Real Silver?

Sterling silver is real silver, but it's not pure silver. Instead, it's always 92.5% pure silver. Pure silver is very soft, making it a poor choice for jewelry or other applications where an item gets touched and used frequently. In order to enhance the durability of pure silver material, manufacturers add other metals to silver. These can include copper, zinc, and other materials. No matter what materials are added, the final product must be 92.5% silver. If the amount of pure silver is less or more than 92.5%, the piece of jewelry can't carry the label "sterling silver."

What Are the Advantages of Sterling Silver for Jewelry?

Which is better: silver or sterling silver? That all depends on your application. For jewelry, sterling silver is usually the best choice, since pure silver jewelry is easily damaged. These are a few of the reasons sterling silver is a good quality and beautiful choice for jewelry:

  • Hypoallergenic - According to the Mayo Clinic, sterling silver is hypoallergenic. It's a great choice if your skin reacts to other materials like nickel.
  • Durable - Sterling is one of the most durable precious metals, which means that it's an excellent option for delicate filigree, as well as pieces that receive regular wear.
  • Valuable - Jewelry made from sterling silver will hold its value, since the metal itself is precious. This may not be true for costume jewelry made from brass and other materials.
  • Cost effective - Sterling is considerably less expensive than gold, platinum, and other precious metals.
Sterling Silver jewelry

Sterling Silver Value and Desirability

Sterling silver jewelry has inherent value because of the metal content. No matter what the style of the jewelry is or its condition, the sterling silver itself is worth money. Silver is a commodity that is always valuable. The current sterling silver price depends on market conditions. You can check the current market value at sites like JM Bullion, and it's important to remember that values can change significantly from day or day and year to year.

Is Sterling Silver Worth as Much as Pure Silver?

The value of sterling silver is not quite as high as the value of pure silver, but it's not worth significantly less. Imagine you have a brooch that's in really bad condition. Even though it isn't attractive as a piece of jewelry, you wonder how much the silver in it is worth. You can compare the value of the brooch, which weighs half an ounce, based on whether it is pure silver or sterling silver. Remember, this value will change constantly, so this example only reflects silver values at a set point in time.

  • If the brooch is half an ounce of pure silver, it could be worth about $11.50.
  • If the brooch is half an ounce of sterling silver, or 92.5% pure silver, it could be worth about $10.67.

Is Sterling Silver Cheap or Good Quality?

Whether or not you consider sterling silver to be a desirable jewelry material is mostly a matter of personal preference and the other materials to which you're comparing it. Sterling silver is less valuable than other white-colored precious metals like white gold, palladium, and platinum. If you're expecting one of these metals and have jewelry made of sterling silver, you may not be satisfied. However, sterling silver is far higher quality and more valuable than base metals like nickel or steel.

Sterling Silver Marks and Identification

Sterling silver jewelry is almost always marked. Unless your piece is a one-of-a-kind item crafted by a jewelry artist, it will be labeled. This makes genuine sterling jewelry easy to identify. If your item is hand-crafted, it should be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. If you're unsure about the metal content of a piece, you can take it to a jeweler for testing.

necklace with two joined ring

What Are Some Common Sterling Silver Hallmarks?

Understanding silver hallmarks is important for knowing the value of your jewelry. Sterling silver can be marked in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • "Sterling"
  • "Sterling silver"
  • "925"
  • "92.5% pure"
  • "925/1000"

Where Can You Find Sterling Silver Marks on Jewelry?

Jewelry markings can occur in different places, depending on the type of piece. Here's where to look for a sterling silver mark on various items:

  • Sterling silver rings will be marked on the inside of the ring shank or band, often in the widest part.
  • Look for a mark on sterling silver earrings on the back of the earring where it rests against the ear.
  • Examine the back of a brooch or pendant for a mark, since most of these larger pieces are designed in a way that has a side that is rarely seen.
  • Sterling silver necklaces and bracelets will have marks on the clasp or on a small metal tag near the clasp.
  • Sterling silver chains will also have a mark near the clasp. If they don't have a clasp or the clasp isn't marked, examine the chain links with a magnifying glass.

Sterling Silver Jewelry Care Considerations

Although sterling is an excellent option for many different types of jewelry, there are a few things to keep in mind when selecting this material. Caring for sterling silver in the short term and long term can preserve its value.

Understand Sterling Silver Is Soft

While it's very durable, sterling silver is prone to scratches and scuffs. Over time, this can dull the finish. You can have pieces buffed or professionally refinished to correct this, but many people prefer this look. To avoid scratches and scuffs, store jewelry in soft pouches of individual boxes so it won't rub against other pieces in your jewelry box.

Know How to Deal With Tarnish

Silver can also tarnish or develop a dark coating. Tarnishing happens when the metals in the sterling react to the sulfur in the air. Wearing your jewelry regularly protects it from tarnishing. You can also clean your sterling silver to remove the tarnish or use silver polish on it.

Think About Your Silver Jewelry Storage

How you store silver can affect it dramatically. Leaving it out in the open air will cause tarnishing. Wrapping it in silver cloth or storing it in a special jewelry box can help cut down on the need for polishing and can keep your sterling silver jewelry looking beautiful for years to come.

Sterling Silver Can Last for Generations

Silver jewelry is classic and beautiful, and sterling silver is a practical choice for many reasons. With the right storage and care, your sterling silver jewelry can last for generations. If you understand how to identify it and what makes it valuable, buying sterling silver can be a great investment.

Sterling Silver Jewelry: What to Know Before You Buy