Silver and sterling silver are terms that are often used interchangeably. For example, when it comes to silver and sterling silver skull rings, people mean the same thing. However, sterling silver and pure silver are two different notions. Let's find out what the difference is.
What is Pure Silver?
Pure silver is also called 999 silver. The hallmark ‘999’ shows that one thousand grams of silver contains 999 grams of pure metal and the remaining one gram is various impurities. Pure silver is an abstract concept. It is simply impossible to obtain absolute pure silver without any impurities.
999 silver features a familiar whitish color. By its nature, it is a rather soft and ductile metal. The excellent plastic and soft properties make it easy to process. Pure silver is easily forged, stretched, and rolled into thin threads and plates. On the other hand, this plasticity has a downside - pure silver products are easy to deform or scratch. Therefore, massive jewelry is rarely made of it. It can be found only in fine details. That said, in Japan, there is a tradition of crafting jewelry of pure silver. In order for the metal to preserve its original shape and appearance, such jewelry is rarely worn and stored in special cases.
Because pure silver is not suitable for jewelry production, jewelers were forced to experiment with alloys until they discovered the right combination. And they found it - 92.5% of pure silver and 7.5% of alloying metal looks just as amazing as 999 silver but is much durable and tougher.
The name sterling silver comes from easterling silver ("silver from the eastern lands"). This was the name of alloy used for minting coins in northern Germany. Over time, the name shortened to sterling silver and obtained the meaning of coin silver. In the XII century, a similar alloy became a benchmark for England coins. It became the prototype for the English pound sterling.
In sterling silver, copper is commonly present as an alloying metal. Sometimes, to improve wear resistance, quality, and color, jewelers add other metals instead of or in addition to copper.
For example, copper can be replaced with zinc, germanium, and platinum while silicon and boron are mixed as additives. This alloy prevents tarnishing but is it more costly than traditional sterling silver.
To make an alloy inexpensive, jewelers sometimes utilize aluminum but this material turns out to be too porous. Other disadvantages of non-traditional additives are whitish deposits on the surface and sped-up tarnishing. Therefore, copper remains the standard or sterling silver.
Sterling silver jewelry is very attractive thanks to the subtle shiny finishing and noble silvery color. It is durable, tear-and-wear resistant, and tough. The only drawback it has is tarnishing. But don’t worry, it may take years before your ring or bracelet loses its appealing look. Even if it happens, you can quickly remove tarnishing with a soft cloth and soapy water.
Other Types of Silver
The minimum allowable silver content in jewelry is 80%, the remaining 20% are base metals. This alloy is suitable for silverware. When it comes to rings or necklaces, low-grade silver alloys are prone to rapid oxidation. However, items featuring such allows are popular in France. Below, we describe all common silver alloys used in jewelry-making.
800 silver is a mixture of pure silver with 20% copper (as a rule). Because of this ligature, items have a slight yellow tint. The benefit of 800 silver is excellent casting properties. It helps create silverware that is hard to scratch, bend, or break. When such an alloy is present in jewelry, you must constantly clean and remove the oxide film, otherwise your items will darken and fade.
875 Silver. In such an alloy, 87.5% is accounted for silver and the remaining 12.5% is a mixture of copper, germanium, and silicon. Inexpensive yet decent jewelry, as well as cutlery, is molded from this alloy.
960 Silver is the highest standard used in jewelry and cutlery manufacture. This metal has a white hue. It is ductile and soft, which is great for forging. Professional jewelers use this alloy to fashion works of art featuring open-work and intricate elements.
Inexpensive rings, earrings, and pendants you buy on the Internet (especially, in China) are often made of so-called ‘Tribal’ or ‘Tibetan silver’. This term refers to alloys with a small fraction of silver or without silver at all. When you buy jewelry made of this ‘silver’ you pay for design rather than for precious metals.
Some pieces of silver jewelry may feature rhodium plating. Rhodium is a white precious metal belonging to the platinum group. It is resistant to corrosion and oxidation, so items carrying such coatings will retain that beautiful silvery color they had on the first day you bought them. Rhodium is a more dense metal than silver, so when polished, it has a smooth shiny surface.
You have probably seen jewelry featuring a retro look thanks to blackened elements. Intentional darkening is achieved by a chemical process called blackening. First, a jeweler engraves the surface of a silver ring or other item and then covers it with a mixture of hydrochloric acid and tellurium.
After the blackening reaction has occurred, the substance is removed and an item is polished. Grooves and sunken elements obtain saturated black color while raised parts remain silvery and shiny.
Oxidation can give a similar effect. Normally, jewelers use liver of sulfur to oxidize silver. A silver product is put into a solution of water and this substance. During oxidation, you can change silver color in the range from light to dark gray.
When covered with an intentional oxide film, an item acquires a noble aged look. Neither blackened nor oxidized silver can be cleaned because you can damage the oxide film and disrupt the appeal of jewelry.