sterling silver

Gone are the days of fine china, sterling, crystal, folded napkins and fine in-home elegant dinners. Sterling was the highpoint of finery for the dining table. 

But today, it is challenging to tell whether an item is indeed sterling silver or just silver plate. And yet, the differences are easy to recognize – especially when you’re getting ready to sell it. 

Sterling silver stands for the purity of the metal in an object. Since pure silver is a little too soft to work, manufacturers use other metals to harden or stiffen the metal. An item with 92.5% silver content is considered “sterling.” In America, the item is then marked STERLING.

In England, the guild system was in place for hundreds of years, making the regulation and marking of silver a national law. Silver (sterling) is also 92.5% pure but marked with a hallmark, usually the lion’s figure. England uses other hallmarks (maker, date, city and sovereign), but the important one is the lion.

Unfortunately, America hasn’t always been quite as strict as England, and before the 1850s or 60s, some confusion existed since some firms didn’t mark their goods. Others marked items COIN, PURE COIN or variations thereof. Coin silver relates to the percentage of silver in early U.S. coins – 90% rather than 92.5%. The difference is minor and insignificant.

The real problem comes with foreign silver. Standards vary around the world – as do the markings. In general, solid silver (sterling) goods bear a three-number mark like 800, 830, 900 or 925. These usually are percentages of silver like our 925. There are exceptions, of course, but not that many.

Silver plate cannot be marked sterling, bear a lion hallmark from England, nor bear the numerical marking of good silver. It can contain trademarks (often quite elaborate), unusual names (German Silver, EPNS), and, if foreign, usually a two-number designation, i.e., 10, 40, 60.

Silver plate consists of a base metal that is not expensive, like copper or white metal, which has a surface application of sterling silver. If it was handmade, like in Sheffield, England from 1780-1830, it could still be valuable, but the most we see is electrically fused and not very valuable. 

Buyers are purchasing silverplate items for scrap: the silver and copper are claimed and salvaged along with the base metal that might be recycled. Many of the silverplate items were manufactured in the United States by William Rogers.

Hence, the 21st century is melting down the sterling finery that once was showcased on the affluent tables, and the wannabe silver plate goes to the scrapyard.