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Sterling silver vs silver


Silver and Sterling Silver are sometimes confused and used interchangeably, but they are different; with a different purity, varying uses, and most key for investors – are not worth the same. What are the differences however of silver vs Sterling Silver?

Pure silver is too soft and malleable for most practical applications. In order to add strength, pure silver is therefore sometimes mixed or alloyed with other harder metals. Sterling silver is one such alloy, and has been a popular choice historically as a good balance between purity and practicality.

This means the difference between silver versus Sterling Silver is the purity. This change in purity comes with varying characteristics that are unique to each. Pure silver for example is a noble metal; this means it does not oxidise or rust from contact with oxygen. Silver does however react with sulphide and hydrogen sulphide, which can cause tarnish or a patina.

Items such as onions, mustard, or rubber all contain sulphide, there are even small amounts of hydrogen sulphide in the air we breathe. All these will cause silver to tarnish, so pure silver will generally tarnish with age unless sealed in a vacuum.

This natural tarnish is called patina. Some collectors find this darkening patina an attractive sign of ageing in silver metals, but for some items it can be unwanted.

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Sterling Silver cutlery

Cutlery showing silver with rust/patina and in perfect condition.

As mentioned above, Sterling Silver is an alloy of silver. This is made up of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% another metal. Copper is the base metal commonly used in Sterling silver but others can be used.

The fineness scale measures the purity of silver in parts per thousand. 999 fineness is pure silver and Sterling Silver items are 925 fineness.
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What is the difference between silver and sterling silver?

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Unlike pure silver, due to the other metals in it, 925 Sterling Silver, will tarnish and can also oxidise or rust depending on the metal used. It is stronger however due to the addition of the base metal and less costly due to the lower amount of silver.

Pure 999 silver is used for delicate items and any that take little physical pressure or wearing. For example, it may be suitable for picture frames, earrings or brooches but not rings. It is also used as a raw material and an investment bullion metal.
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Silver compared to Sterling Silver

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Sterling Silver these days tends be used for cutlery and plates. Historically it was used for common coinage. It has a long history in Britain and Europe, and is believed to have originated in Germany and was used in French regions as a common silver alloy.

There is evidence that it was a standard for assaying in England before 1158 and during the reign of Henry II. In 1275 a statute of Edward I specified it for use in English coinage, ensuring it’s place in the history of British coins.

Besides pure 999 silver and sterling silver, there are two other commonly used standards for silver. Britannia Silver is 958, and Coin Silver is 900 fineness. Sterling Silver is still the most widely used and globally accepted standard for silver manufacturing.
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Buy silver and sterling silver

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Pure silver, sterling silver and other grades can be identified by their hallmarks. The UK 1973 Hallmarking Act requires all manufactured items containing silver to be marked as such.

UK and International Silver hallmarks.

Silver hallmarks show fineness in an oval shape, 999 for pure silver and 925 sterling silver. Other compulsory marks are the maker and assay office. A letter that indicated the date was used but is now no longer required.

Older items made of Sterling Silver will feature the lion passant stamp shown in the image above. Occasionally a Britannia stamp may have been used for those made to the higher purity.

Investors generally choose pure 999 fineness silver bars and coins. As these items are purchased for investment purposes rather than practical use this makes the most financial sense and efficiency.
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  • Sterling Silver is a silver alloy
  • Sterling Silver is stronger and more practical than silver
  • Sterling Silver is 925 fineness, 92.5% pure silver
  • Pure silver tarnishes but will not oxidise or rust
  • Sterling Silver will both oxidise and tarnish