What is sterling silver? Doesn’t “sterling” mean it is pure silver?
Sterling silver is 92.5% silver. The other 7.5% is copper. Sterling is the silver alloy most common throughout the entire world. It’s so common that many people use the word sterling and think it means pure silver. (This is a common misconception because sterling is used to differentiate between sterling silver and silver plate. We’ll talk about plating another day.) If you melt two or more metals together, it makes an alloy. Any silver alloy with a minimum of 92.5% pure silver can be called sterling. Jewelry metallurgists are experimenting with substituting germanium and other metals such as nickel and zinc for the copper. If heated hot enough a fine film of tarnish reducing germanium forms on the surface of the jewelry, but in my experience it makes the silver brittle. More people are allergic to nickel than any other metal.
What is fine silver? Is it too soft to be used for jewelry?
Fine silver is pure silver, 99.9%. You’ll see it marked .999, .999FS, or 99.9%. In the science world nothing is pure so you should never see fine silver marked pure or 100%. Sometimes pure silver is too soft. It’s great in earrings and pendants. I wouldn’t use it for the main part of a bracelet or a ring. We bang them around too much. BUT, if you wear a ring or bracelet with a bezel set stone you probably are wearing some fine silver because fine silver is soft enough to mould to a stone and hold it in place. It is the “go to” metal for bezels. I prefer to use sterling silver for ear wires and posts, anywhere the metal might be bent by hard wear.
In the MJSA Journal article “The Metal Underneath” Stewart Grice, a jewelry metallurgist says “Enameling on fine gold or fine silver has obvious advantages: These elements do not generate oxides that can interfere with enamel adhesion. Base metal additions, which form alloys of gold and silver, complicate matters. For example, copper oxide prevents enamel adhesion and also results in color problems. Worse yet are the complications that arise when enameling precious metal jewelry alloys that contain zinc, which may be present in both karat gold and deox (deoxygenated) sterling silver alloys.
What are German silver, nickel silver and alpacca?
German silver, nickel silver and alpacca (in Latin America) are also known as maillechort, argentan, new silver, nickel brass and albata. Its usual formula is 60% copper, 20% nickel, and 20% zinc. It contains no silver. It is silver colored, not silver metal. Beyond that, nickel is highly allergenic. I would recommend never wearing anything made of this alloy on your skin.
Will your sterling or fine silver turn black?
It’s probably an inaccurate description to say any jewelry “turns black,” but nearly every metal tarnishes, even gold. (That’s for another day too.) In the case of silver it’s not the silver that tarnishes but the other metals that are added to the silver to make it “sterling.” If you store your silver jewelry in a silver chest with your silverware, it won’t tarnish.
So it tarnishes, what should I do about it?
Here are a few things that help. I keep an anti-tarnish paper which you can use to wrap your jewelry when you’re not wearing it. There are anti-tarnish bags and cloths. I sell Sunshine Cloths which are great for polishing tarnish away. You can remove tarnish using a bowl, lining it with aluminum foil, dissolving baking soda and salt in hot (some say boiling) water, and laying your jewelry on the foil for a short time. Perhaps the best thing here is to let you watch it happen on YouTube.
Some jewelry sales people say “The silver I sell doesn’t tarnish.”
A few things may be at work here why silver or silver colored jewelry does not tarnish.
1. The silver may have been “deoxygenated.” In this case zinc has been added to the alloy and the jewelry you are looking at was mass produced by casting. It’s not a good idea for handmade jewelry because of the zinc.
2. The jewelry may have been “dipped.” In this case the silver has either been dipped in a lacquer or lacquer like bath, or electro-plated with another metal. In time these wear off or even chip. I know of one jeweler who paints her jewelry with clear fingernail polish.
3. It may not be silver metal at all, only silver colored.
There is no substitute for handmade artisan jewelry made using centuries old techniques with quality metals and stones. Know your jeweler. It’s the only way to insure you are buying quality jewelry.