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So Many Types of Silver - Do You Know the Difference?

Silver has been used for at least 4,000 years. Evidence of silver mining dates from around 3000 BCE, and the oldest silver coin is thought to have been made in Turkey 2,700 years ago. Sterling silver was formalized in 1300 when King Edward 1 (England) created a law stating that all silver objects must meet a standard of 92.5% silver - the sterling silver we know today.

Silver has many properties - it's soft, malleable (easily formed), conducts electricity better than any other metal, and is antibacterial. It is used in medicines, bandages, and creams to kill bacteria effectively and efficiently. 

It is also the whitest and most reflective metal and has been used for mirrors for a long time. That whiteness and reflectivity, along with its softness and malleability, makes it perfect for jewelry.

There is so much silver jewelry out there waiting to be worn by you. Shiny, patinaed, antiqued - lots of finishes for every taste. Silver is wonderful, isn't it? But how do you know what kind of silver you are getting, or if it is real silver or 'silver-colored' base metal? 

That's what we're here to find out. I've included an infographic to give you a quick reference chart as well.

There are five basic types of silver used in jewelry: fine silver, sterling silver, Argentium, silver-filled, and silver-plate. There is also a special type called Vermeil, that doesn't look like silver at all. We'll get to that later.


Fine silver is pure elemental silver. It is 99.9% (or more) silver.

Because Fine silver is so very soft and flexible it doesn't hold its shape well and scratches easily, so it's rarely used for fine jewelry. However, it’s often used to embellish jewelry - have you ever seen those little silver balls on jewelry? They're most likely fine silver.

Fine silver is most often used as bullion and for commemorative coins, where it is usually even purer - 99.99%.


Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, with small traces of other metals like zinc. This is called an alloy, and it makes the silver stronger and more durable. Because of the added strength Sterling silver is used for fine jewelry, silverware, platters, and other silver objects. Sterling silver tarnishes, however, because of the copper in it, and needs to be stored carefully and cleaned regularly.

93.5% / 96%
Argentium silver is a 'modern' silver (it was developed in 1991), much like sterling but with a higher percentage of silver in it - 93.5 % and sometimes 96% silver. It is still alloyed with copper but has germanium in it as well. The addition of germanium means that it is almost 7 times more tarnish-resistant than Sterling silver. It is whiter and stronger than Sterling but is uncommon, often needing to be special ordered.
VERMEIL Vermeil is gold-plated Sterling silver. It has a thick layer of gold around a solid core of Sterling silver. It's an affordable alternative to solid gold. Be careful - if an item is called gold-plate, it is a thin layer of gold around a brass or steel core - don't be fooled! For an item to be called Vermeil the core must be Sterling silver. 
For the budget-conscious who still want nice silver jewelry, a silver-filled item has a thick layer of silver (up to 10% silver) over a brass or other base-metal core. Base metals are heavier than silver, so a silver-filled chain or piece of jewelry will feel heavier than a Sterling silver one. Care must be taken when wearing and cleaning as the silver layer can slowly wear away, leaving the metal core exposed.
Silver-plated items have the thinnest layer of silver over a base-metal core, less than 1% silver. It is the least expensive of the silver family, and the very thin layer tarnishes and wears very easily. 


There are also 'non-silver' pieces out there that call themselves silver. A very common one is German Silver, also known as Nickel silver. There is absolutely no silver in these items - they are made from nickel, which polishes up and looks very much like silver. 

That's it for this episode, folks.  Check out the infographic below, which I've also included on Facebook (@TerryRM Designs) and Pinterest (, to give you a quick reference.

If you want to read more about silver, here are some references for you:

Reading bibliography

  1. Silver
  2. A Little Big History of Silver
  3. Gold and Silver History
  4. Facts about Silver
  5. Silver
  6. The History of Silver
  7. The History of Nickel Silver and Sterling Silver











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