Wondering how to identify sterling silver jewelry?
When you are shopping for antique or vintage silver you want to be able to identify it as real silver. How can you tell the difference? Various countries have different standards for the fineness in silver.
What is Sterling Silver?
Silver, in its natural 100 percent form, is very soft. It is not practical for making silver jewelry and other items. Sterling silver uses an alloy mix that makes it stronger than pure silver. Sterling silver contains 92.5% pure silver and a small percentage of another material, such as copper or zinc for strength.
Here is an important fact. If the mix contains less than 92.5 percent pure silver, it is not considered sterling silver. Countries that use sterling silver as a standard include Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Antique and vintage silver jewelry will contain silver hallmarks. These hallmarks are stamps that help to identify the silver’s purity, the manufacturer of the pieces and sometimes the date.
Hallmarks are found in discreet locations on jewelry. For antique silver rings and bangles, you will find the hallmark inside. Antique silver necklaces and bracelets will include the hallmark on the clasp or a small tag close to it. As for antique silver pins and earrings look on the back.
You may need to gently polish the hallmark and use a magnifying glass to see what it says.
A Variety of Hallmarks to Indicate Silver Purity
Sterling silver may be marked with numbers, numbers with words, or just words to represent its purity. It may also use a combination with a symbol. Below are some of the most common hallmarks.
Sterling Silver Marked with Numbers
Sterling silver may be marked with numbers to show its purity. Look for 925. Another way of stating this is 92.5 % or 925/100.
Sterling Silver Marked with Numbers and Words
Other pieces of sterling silver may be marked with a “92.5% pure” stamp.
Sterling Silver Marked with Words
Real sterling silver may be marked with words such as STERLING or STERLING SILVER. Occasionally you may find a sterling silver piece stamped with “STG,” or “STER.”
What is Britannia Silver?
Britannia Silver has even more silver with 95.8 % pure silver in its composition. Older pieces are marked with a symbol of a woman called Britannia. After 1999, it was marked with 958, with the Britannia symbol optional.
The Act of Parliament, in 1697, introduced Britannia Silver. This was part of William III’s great recoinage scheme starting in 1696, when metal coins were being clipped for their silver value and made into other objects. Introducing a higher standard of silver in objects reduced the clipping of these coins.
Be aware that some objects are marked with Britannia Metal. This is a way of benefiting from the brand name only. Britannia Metal does not contain any real silver.
British and Irish Silver
British silver, crafted before 1999, can contain up to five hallmarks in a row. This can be confusing.
The Silver Standard Mark on British and Irish Silver
The silver standard mark is a symbol that represents the purity of the silver.
- Sterling Standard Silver from England that is 92.5 % will most commonly be stamped with a lion lifting its paw.
- Silver with the same purity levels from Scotland will generally be marked with a symbol of a thistle.
- Sterling Standard Silver that is 92.5 % pure from Ireland is marked with a harp and a crown.
City Marks on British and Irish Silver
City marks include the city the jewelry was manufactured in. London uses the head of a leopard, while Birmingham uses an anchor. There are marks for every city.
Duty Marks on British and Irish Silver
British jewelry hallmarks before 1890 will also include something known as a duty mark. This indicated that the tax levied on the item had been paid to the crown.
Date Letters on British and Irish Silver
For date marks, to determine which year your silver jewelry was made, you will need to consult a guidebook. There you will find the letter that corresponds to the year. For example, jewelry made in 1805 is marked with a capital “I” sitting in a rectangle.
There are only so many letters in the alphabet, so they have been repeated. Therefore, the style of the letter is important, as is what surrounds it. This helps differentiate it.
Silver marked with an “I”, includes the letter surrounded by a shield. This represents the year 1757. A lower case “i” surrounded by a shield indicates it was made in 1666.
Date letters in silver started back in 1407 and are still in use today. In 2020, the date letter was a lower case “v”.
The Maker’s Mark on British and Irish Silver
This hallmark identifies who made the piece of jewelry.
European Silver and Nickel Silver Hallmarks
You will find hallmarks with the words “Nickel Silver” or “European Silver” containing lower amounts of pure silver than sterling silver. Nickle silver only contains 90 percent pure silver, which makes it a quality below the 92.5 standard. Historically, the name “Coin Silver” was taken from the silver the government created by melting down coins to make objects.
European Silver, also called Continental Silver, is only 80 to 85 percent silver. Other marks include 800, 825, 830, 850 as indicators of percentages of silver.
French silver contains a greater content of silver than sterling silver with a purity of 950. Minerva in an octagon identifies French silver from 1838 to 1962. The second standard for silver in France is 800. Minerva still appears, but in a barrel for the hallmark.
European Art Deco Jewelry
During the Art Deco period in jewelry, items crafted in Austria and Germany contained the 935 hallmark. Again, this is a higher standard than sterling silver. Later, after World War II, Scandinavia also stamped their jewelry with 935.
Be aware of anything marked “German Silver” as this is silver only in color. It does not contain any silver at all.
Silver Plated Jewelry
Silver plated jewelry contains very little silver. A silver coating is placed over top of a base metal. It may indicate a maker’s mark on the jewelry as well.
Pieces of silver jewelry that are not marked are generally silver plated. Do not make the mistake of thinking only sterling silver tarnishes. Silver plated items tarnish as well. Try the magnet test to be sure. A magnet will stick to silver plated jewelry—but not to sterling silver!
[Check out this great resource for silver marks: 925-1000.com]
Famous Jewelry Designers and Silver Jewelry
Denmark’s Georg Jensen (1866-1935) was famous for crafting jewelry and many other beautiful objects in silver. His inspiration was nature, as well as the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movement. Many of his pieces include floral motifs, leaves, and fauna strewn into his sculptural jewelry pieces. His silver workshop Georg Jensen was founded in Copenhagen, in 1904. It is still in operation today.
The pieces that have brought the company the most accolades are ones crafted between 1908 and 1918. These works today fetch thousands of dollars. You’ll find Georg Jensen brooches, rings, necklaces, and bracelets for sale on eBay and Etsy.
Elsa Peretti (1940-2021) the famous jewelry designer for New York based Tiffany and Co., introduced sterling silver back into the company’s line in the 1970s. The jeweler had stopped selling sterling silver in their showcases, back in the 1930s.
Peretti made wearing silver glamorous starting with The Bone Cuff, in the early 1970s. The thick bracelet, was designed to fit the left or right wrist of a woman.
Another famous jewelry designer for Tiffany and Co., is Paloma Picasso. She continued the tradition of designing in sterling silver. Paloma’s Graffiti collection features the X symbol representing a kiss and the O representing a hug, along with arrows and the word LOVE, all which can be mixed and matched.
In 2013, Paloma Picasso designed her Olive Leaf collection. The designer took inspiration from trees growing around her home Marrakesh home. These intricate pieces are a joy to wear! Check out the beauteous Olive Leaf Cuff, also available in a narrower design.
Collectable Silver Jewelry
Silver jewelry can be worn everyday, with more casual fashions. In general, it is available at a lower price point than gold. Of course, it depends on how in demand a particular piece of silver jewelry is.
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