Sterling Silver Jewelry - Overview

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Intoduction to Sterling Silver Jewelry

Serving as decoration for thousands of years, silver jewelry is still considered fashionable and essential among ones collection. Today, silver jewelry is commonly made as “Sterling Silver”, an alloy of silver and other metals. While still made from a precious-metal, Sterling Silver Jewelry is far more affordable then other precious metal jewelry such as gold and platinum. Sterling Silver’s malleability and luster has allowed today’s jewelry designers to create a wide selection of trendy and fashionable styles amid rising popularity among jewelry collectors. From celebrities to housewives, everyone is enhancing their collections with sterling silver pieces.

Sterling Silver Composition

Silver is widely known for its malleability (slightly harder than gold) and bright metallic luster. Silver jewelry is usually made using an alloy composed of 92.5% silver commonly known as “Sterling Silver”, since its pure form is widely considered too soft and easily damaged to serve as jewelry. Sterling Silver is usually alloyed with copper or nickel to give it durability and hardness. There are many other grades of silver seen today including Fine Silver (99.9% Silver), Mexican Silver (95% Silver) and German silver (80% or 90%). Some “Silvers” actually contain silver only in name, such as “Nickel Silver,” with no silver content at all. Thus, it is very important to pay attention to what “type” of silver you’re purchasing. Depending on the country, there are different laws regarding how much silver content must be present for a piece to be regarded as silver jewelry. In the United States, the minimum silver content needed for the pieces to be described as “silver” is 92.5%.

Origins of "Sterling" Silver

The use of decorative silver likely originated in Asia thousands of years ago, and has been seen in use in Egypt and a myriad of other countries, serving as both ornaments, religious pieces, and jewelry.

The use of the name “Sterling Silver” is a more recent development, with several theories regarding its origins. The most popular suggests that Sterling is derived from “Easterling Silver,” the name for a grade of silver used as currency traded in a part of Germany known as “The Easterlings.”

Silver Corrosion and Tarnish

For most Sterling Silver jewelry, tarnish will usually set in with increased length of wear. The tarnish and corrosion on Sterling Silver isn’t because of the silver content, but results from an oxidative reaction of the other metals in the alloy with and the oxygen in air or water. Therefore, if any piece of Sterling Silver is left out in the open, it will tarnish even if not worn. Overtime, the silver may form a soft sheen patina over the surface, as seen in many older pieces of silver. A “patina” usually refers to accumulated changes in surface texture and color, but with silver it is taken to mean a darkening of certain areas that creates a contrasting glow.

Sometimes a black substance will form on sterling silver due to the reaction of sulfur and silver to form silver sulfide. This may be from a reaction with the nickel in the sterling silver and a person skin.

Sterling Silver Care

Maintenance and proper care is important in keeping your silver jewelry beautiful. The most common to clean silver jewelry is to use a soft polishing cloth on pieces you frequently wear. This helps remove any dirt or oils that may get on the piece through contact with skin and the environment. A soft non-abrasive cloth will work, or visit a jewelry store to purchase chemically treated polishing clothes especially designed for jewelry polishing. The frequency of such cleanings will vary with each person, but the hard and fast rule is to wipe the piece anytime you feel the shine is looking dull or before you store the piece away for an extended period. Silver jewelry that won’t be worn for a while must be sealed in a plastic or cloth bag to minimize exposure to oxygen, humidity, and damage.

For a more thorough cleaning, detergents can be used. One method is to use baking soda or other mild non-phosphate detergents and wash with mineral free water by either rubbing with fingers or using a soft cloth. Scrubbers or soft tooth brushes may be used for a stronger cleaning but only if necessary since they may scratch the surface and dull the jewelry’s luster.

There are also chemical cleaners available, but repeated use of liquid cleaners can result in discoloration overtime, therefore use of such cleaners should be sparse and only when other methods fail to clean properly.

How to differentiate Sterling Silver from non-Silver

While the U.S. and many other countries have laws regarding the labeling of silver jewelry, the actual silver content of certain pieces may come into question and require testing to authenticate.

Chemical testing with nitric acid is a common method, but often requires putting a notch cut on some part of the jewelry. The test can be done by purchasing metal testing kits, or even by taking the pieces to a local pawnshop. Since the jewelry could be plated with Silver over a base metal, many testers file a small notch on a less noticeable area to get through any type of plating. Nitric acid will usually turn a light grey when on silver, but bubbles green on contact with some other base metal, such as copper.

Some suggest using a magnet to authenticate a silver jewelry piece, since silver will not stick to a magnet. In theory, if the piece is silver it won’t stick. The problem is that many metals, other than silver, won’t stick to a magnet either, so passing the magnet test does not automatically authenticate the piece as genuine silver.

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