Identifying Sterling Silver

Identifying Sterling Silver

I recently got an email from an estate executor wanting to know the best way to "get rid of five sets of silverware". It seems that the decedent had received one set as a wedding gift in the late 1940s, and subsequently inherited sets from her grandmother and an aunt. Then, she was gifted two more sets from her mother-in-law.

Having five sets to dispose of in one estate is unusual, but an estate with silverware to dispose of is a fairly common occurrence. After the American Civil War (1865) weddings morphed from being simple at-home affairs to becoming the ostentatious galas that they are today. Wedding gifts went from being practical household items to flashy luxury items. In the early 19th Century, retailers began to adopt gift registries so that gift duplication could be avoided. For the first three-quarters of the 20th Century, it was customary for new brides to receive some form of silver as a wedding gift...

So, there's a lot of the stuff around. The problem is that gifting formal dinnerware fell out of fashion in the 1980's and GenX'ers and Millennials don't seem too interested in collecting old silverware. A lot of it can be found at estate sales and flea markets. Some of it is valuable Sterling silver. Much of it is monetarily worthless, good only for use at the dining table. There is not enough silver on silver-plate to amount to anything. Some silver-plate, however, is collectible (notably Sheffield, which is a subject for another article).

Generally, vintage silver accumulations (it would be inaccurate to call them "collections") are a mixed bag of silver-plate and sterling, flatware, platters, bowls, etc. all thrown together in a cabinet and priced well below the value of the silver alone. The same is true for an estate's jewelry; some will be genuine Sterling but most will probably be plated alloy knock-offs. Those who know how to identify sterling silver can often walk away from an estate sale or flea market with an instant profit. That being said, here's how to sort through an accumulation of vintage "silver" to see if there's anything worth acquiring.

First, arm yourself with a jeweler's loupe, a magnet, and a good silver identification guide such as Jackson's Pocket Guide (British) or Schiffer's Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers. There are thousands of hallmarks, and some silver items may contain up to four separate identification marks. If you're not inclined to carry around books while you search, then a subscription to WorthPoint's Marks and Library will enable you to use your smartphone to perform a search. There are also free online guides to silver hallmarks, such as

Check each piece for the obvious, i.e. a declaration that the piece is Sterling. This check may need to be done with a jeweler's loupe, because some of these marks are very small. Most items made in Europe and North America will indicate sterling if the item meets the sterling standard, which is .925 parts silver and .75 alloys. If you see the word "Sterling" or "Ster" (or the letters "S" or "SS"), then you can be reasonably sure that what you have is Sterling. Collectors may argue this point because these days knock-offs abound. Counterfeit silver may be marked Sterling, or even have some sort of hallmark.

The best way to catch counterfeit hallmarks is to understand the laws pertaining to marking silver. Hallmarks have been regulated by law since the days of ancient Egypt, so the subject greatly exceeds the parameters of this article. Serious collectors of silver should invest in several collectors guides, beginning with the ones listed above.

If there is doubt about an item’s authenticity - such as an item's weight or it's "ring" not seeming quite right, check the item with a magnet. If the item is magnetic, then it has a high concentration of alloy and is likely silver-plate, not Sterling. A magnet test won't work if the item is stainless steel (non-magnetic) and silver plated. Other methods of testing for silver are available, but none are sure-fire and may need to be done in combination. These methods include:

  • Test for oxidation by rubbing with a soft white cloth. If the cloth picks up black marks from the item then it's likely silver (or at least silver-plate).
  • A piece can be tested with nitric acid (kits are available) but chemical test only indicate the presence of silver; an item may still be plated.
  • Smell it. If the item has a sulfuric, metallic smell then it's not real silver; real silver is odorless.
  • Perform a needle test (if you can get away with it). Scratch an inconspicuous area with a sewing needle (or a black stone) to determine if it is plated or solid.

Not all silver is Sterling silver; some silver is better (has a higher percentage of pure silver) and some is not quite as good. Most countries have adopted some variation of the English system of identification, but not all (some countries require no identification at all). In most cases the quality of the silver should be indicated on the item as a number or a fraction. For example, the number 925 indicates sterling silver, as does the fraction 925/1000 (the numbers representing the percentage of pure silver in the object). If the silver content is not marked at all but still reads "silver", be suspicious; some items marked silver (such as "nickel silver") are mostly alloys. Other types and qualities of silver that you may find are listed below. Some of these aren't commonly found in North America, but one may find them on antique item:

  • Fine silver, .999
  • Britannia silver, .958
  • French silver, .950
  • Russian silver (found sometimes in the Canadian & American Northwest), .916 or .875
  • German silver .800 or .835

Knowing how to identify the various qualities and types of silver is just the beginning for a devoted silver collector. There is a wide range of values even among similar items; some makers and patterns are rarer than others. But, the place to start is in knowing how to identify Sterling silver and I hope this article (though short) has set your foot on that path.

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