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Sterling Silver or Silver Plate? How to Know!

     By Tom Helms ISA AM

3/1/2009



Over thirty years ago elegant tables were set with cut crystal, sterling silver, and fine bone china. Today, such table settings and use of silver is rare. No one wants to keep silver polished and/or hand-wash the crystal; consequently, few people are able to recognize the difference between sterling and plate or cut verses pressed crystal. As a result, one of the more difficult jobs as an appraiser is to tell a family that what they thought was Sterling silver isn't.


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" and marked as such in America.  


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 hall mark, usually the figure of a lion.  England uses other hallmarks as well such as the  maker, date, city and sovereign, but the important one is the lion which has been in use since 1544.


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


The real problem comes with foreign silver.  Standards vary around the world as do the markings.  In general, solid silver goods bear a three number make like 800, 830, 925, or 900.  These usually are percentages of silver like our 92.5%.  There are exceptions, of course, but not that many.


Silver plate was made for the less affluent who wanted to emulate the rich.  It began to be mass produced from 1840 to 1955 and almost everyone had a "silver" object that give a certain degree of class to the home.  Silver plate consists of a base metal that is not expensive like copper or white metal and has a surface application of sterling silver.  If it was hand done, like in Sheffield, England from 1780 to 1830, it can still be valuable, but most we see is electrically fused and not valuable.


Silver place can NOT be marked sterling, bear a lion hallmark from England, nor bear the numerical marking of good silver.  It can contain trademarks which can be quite elaborate and at times have unusual names such as "German Silver" or EPNS. If the piece is foreign there might be a two number designation such as 10, 40 or 60.


Today sterling pieces are being sold for melt-down value instead of being used to grace the dining table, and silver plate is being tossed to the thrift store.  Sadly the economy, society, and fashion are dictating a new movement:  fast food, restaurants and in some cases, new homes without dining rooms.


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