Sterling/Coin Silver Identification

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September 14th, 2011 >> Uncategorized

This is a very common question that pops up in our St Petersburg and Sarasota sales all the time. Is my tea set or pitcher or tray or whatever really Sterling Silver?

Most pieces made in the last 100 years will be marked “Sterling” or .925 or 950 or even “S Silver” we have seen occasionally. By definition Sterling silver is at least 925 parts per thousand fine silver and the rest is usually copper to give it more durability and strength. If the piece is of French origin it will be at least 950  to be considered Sterling.  Sometimes you’ll see an item marked “Coin” or “Coin Silver”. These items were actually made from silver coins that were melted down. In the US the old silver coins were 90% silver which would make an item made from them 900 silver. But some countries coins were only 80%  silver. So Coin silver is usually either 800 or 900 silver. Sometimes you’ll just see the number like 800 or 900 and not the word “Coin”. We’ve even seen pieces marked 750, meaning of course  75% fine silver.

Then if all that is not confusing enough there are pieces that just have what are called “Hallmarks”. Hallmarks are little symbols that are stamped into a piece that you’ll see mostly on European silver items. England and France use hallmarks to denote the silver purity. Other Hallmarks are also used to identify the city or town where it was made, the date and the silversmith. The English hallmark for Sterling Silver is a Lion walking to the left, called a “Lion Passant”.  Pieces made in France use a hallmark that is the head of Minerva facing right to show that it is a Sterling Silver piece. Some other countries use a boars head or dogs head and there are other marks from other countries.  We have seen the city and maker hallmarks on silver plated items on occasion but you won’t see the Lion or Minerva or other Sterling hallmarks if it is a plated piece.

Speaking of silver plated. A lot of times it will say “Silver Plate” right on the bottom or “SP” or it may say EPNS which means ElectroPlated Nickel Silver. It may say “Triple Plate” or “Quadruple Plate” or AAA or Sheffield Plate. Any of these things means that it is silver plated. Sometimes it will just have the name of the maker and maybe the name of the pattern. If that’s the case it is probably just silver plated. Another way to tell is if you see yellow or green color on places where the piece is worn. You are seeing the base metal underneath the plating.

There is always the exception to any rule and once in a great while we have seen genuine silver items that were not marked with hallmarks or 925  or Sterling or anything other than the makers name. In the few instances we’ve come across this, the reason was the items were very old and made before the requirement of marking the items. In cases like these you may be able to research the maker and see if they made genuine silver items. If all else fails silver can be tested chemically be using a file somewhere on the piece in the least noticeable place to make a small cut deep enough to pass through the top layer of plating and then apply an acid to the cut and observe the resulting color. This can easily done by a qualified jeweler very quickly.



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