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How to tell if something is silver

There are numerous manufacturing methods that give a silver or mirror-like appearance to an object without the use of any real silver. Silver has a relatively high value, and as such many people might come across items and wonder how to tell if it is silver. This is particularly important when selling pieces of silver such as jewellery and coins as there can be a lot of confusion.

Silver-like objects can be legitimately made from many cheaper materials - even the small denomination coins we have in our pockets can sometimes get confused with silver!

Other silver-like materials may even be more valuable than actual silver; platinum, palladium, white gold and some rhodium-plated items can all be worth more than their silver equivalents.

Pure 100% silver is soft and malleable. For most practical applications it is mixed or alloyed with other harder metals, typically copper, and thus very few articles are pure silver. Most items are commonly made of an alloy known as Sterling Silver – 92.5% silver and 7.5% of another, harder metal.

Most professionals dealing in precious metals, such as BullionByPost, will identify precious metals using an electronic Spectrometer or XRF detector. These give nearly instant accurate measurements of an object's metal content and the proportions used. Besides the speed and accuracy of spectrometers, they also have no physical effect on the items being tested.

An XRF Machine - one of the best ways to tell if something is silver

At BullionByPost we use a Niton DXL XRF instrument. If offers a quick, simple way to tell if something is silver.

Below are some other basic ways to test if something is silver, or another metal. Whether you are selling an item or simply curious about its composition these can give you a fair indication. They can easily be done but can be inconclusive, and a definitive professional test is certainly the best way to find out if something is silver.

1 - Is it hallmarked?

The simplest way to tell if something is silver is to look for hallmarks or other stamps. In the UK, the 1973 Hallmarking Act requires all manufactured items containing silver to be officially hallmarked as such, although the Act excludes coins and investment bars. The minimum hallmarks are an assay office stamp, maker's mark, and the fineness. For silver items the fineness number is contained in an oval.

Silver hallmarks are a good indication of that an item is likely to be silver

Other nations have their own hallmarking systems. The United States requires only a maker’s mark, however, most high-end US jewellers and manufacturers also stamp the fineness as a sign of good practice.

There is also an international silver hallmark convention. This is similar to the UK system, however under the international system the fineness is contained inside a graphic of weighing scales.

2 - Acid test

Before the introduction of spectrometers, a silver acid test (using nitric acid or other chemicals) was the recognised definitive method for accurate testing. This however requires a very small metal sample to be taken. Though usually hardly noticeable, taking even a small sample is a destructive process, and generally would be considered a last resort if there was still doubt following other testing methods.

3 - Bleach test

Silver tarnishes quickly, turning black, when in contact with bleach. A small spot of bleach can therefore be used to identify silver. The tarnish can easily be polished away, and silver items should leave the cloth slightly blackened by the tarnish being removed. Polishing is, again, a slightly destructive process however as it will scratch the soft metal, and would be strongly discouraged for any valuable items like coins.

4 - Magnetic testing

Silver is non-magnetic, so it will not be attracted to a magnet. Despite this, there is slight resistance when gently sliding a magnet down a straight and smooth silver bar. The resistance only happens with straight smooth items however.

This resistance, coupled with non-attraction, indicate the presence of silver. The lack of magnetic attraction is most easy to identify, however as many items are not pure silver the other metals used in the alloy might have magnetic properties that could skew results.

5 - Skin marking

Any jewellery that leaves a mark on your skin is unlikely to be silver. Silver is hypoallergenic and generally will not mark or irritate the skin. However, because most items are not pure silver this cannot be totally relied upon.

6 - Specifications

In the case of silver bullion, such as coins, there is a vast amount of published and online information about coins. This should give more than sufficient details to identify silver coins and their fineness. The coins weight, and dimensions are published online and can usually be checked easily enough.

How to tell if a coin is silver or clad?

In addition to true silver products, jewellery, coins, and other items are sometimes simply clad in silver. Silver plate gives a true silver appearance to base metals or even wood and plastic. Over time, silver clad products generally flake and many of the tests for silver can also reveal a silver coating.

UK coins are not clad in silver but have been minted from various alloys and to different fineness levels. After 1947, common currency UK coins - even those with a silver finish - are actually minted from base metals such as nickel. Collectable and investment coins however continue to be minted from fine silver.

Some United States coins are clad in silver. These collectable and common currency clad coins have a copper base sandwiched between silver, for example: the Kennedy Half Dollar. They were minted at various times and can be identified through research.

Rhodium plating

Often used on jewellery, rhodium plating gives a brilliant silver finish. Rhodium plating is also very hard and extremely impractical. It is often even used to cover and protect white gold. Unlike a simple and relatively cheap silver coating, it is used on high quality jewellery to give a superior silver finish, but with the record-high rhodium prices within the past 12 months, this is an expensive and arduous way to achieve an improved finish.

Selling Scrap Silver

BullionByPost will buy silver bars, coins and scrap silver. After identifying the silver content of your scrap or coin it is easily turned into cash. Simply call us on 0121 634 8060 at the team will be happy to assist.