Ever gone jewelry shopping and been shown silver and sterling silver–and then maybe just gotten confused because on some level it’s all shiny metal that looks nice? Correction, if you’re getting expensive jewelry you probably know what the difference is, and you probably only were thinking about that question because you happened to accompany someone else who was jewelry shopping when you don’t normally do that yourself. Or you’re planning on getting a nice bracelet for a friend and now don’t know the difference and are panicking. All valid, honestly. Whatever your origin story, what’s the difference between silver and sterling silver?
We’ll get this one out of the way first. Which one is more expensive? If you’re using silver in coinage, cutlery, or jewelry; you’re probably wondering which one is going to hit your wallet less–before you get to considering the properties of the metals.
It’ll be quick, since sterling silver will run you about $20.88 per ounce, and silver prices will run you about $24.93 per ounce as of the time of this writing. Silver prices are in flux pretty often, but if you want to compare to gold, gold will cost you $1950 per ounce, while platinum is about $980 per ounce.
What is sterling silver?
Basic foundation for a second. Pure silver (the more expensive one), is just straight up silver. Sterling silver isn’t and is an alloy made of mostly silver. By weight, sterling silver is 92.5% silver and the other 7.5% is going to be some other metal. Typically, that 7.5% is going to be copper, but zinc is also commonly used (there are a handful of other elements that can make up the 7.5% that we will get to).
The name “sterling” is likely derived from the Middle English sterre or “star,” presumably from old Norman coins which did have stars on them. It’s been kicking around in Europe since at least the 12th century, likely starting in the area where modern Germany now sits.
Different use cases
You might think that the 7.5% other stuff in sterling silver isn’t a lot, but it does change the use cases for sterling silver. Partly because of its price, of course. Historically, sterling silver became popular in cutlery, especially when the Victorians got obsessed with the idea of not letting your hands touch your food. Sterling silver nowadays makes its way into brasswind instruments like flutes and saxophones, jewelry, and lots of other random things like paper clips and letter openers.
Sterling silver also has uses in medical instruments, as early as the Mesopotamians–probably due to silver’s antimicrobial properties. This is actually a probable origin story for why people throw coins into fountains.
Further Reading: Why Do People Throw Coins into Fountains?
As a metal, silver is not broadly considered a reactive metal. It doesn’t react with oxygen or water to form silver oxide (this would be like iron rusting) within a wide temperature range. It does react with byproducts of fossil fuels (primarily sulfur), and can oxidize when exposed to ozone.
Sounds great, that means silver basically doesn’t tarnish–or at least a lot less than other metals. However, sterling silver isn’t all silver–it’s often 7.5% copper. The thing here is that copper does react with oxygen just in the air. That’s why sterling silver sometimes uses other metals like zinc or silicon to mitigate this.
Silver is also considered a very soft metal. So there are actual benefits to having some not-silver in your silver items. Sterling silver is broadly considered more durable than pure silver.
Here’s some more silver themed trivia.