Sterling Silver Jewelry - Your No 1 Definitive Buying Guide

March 1, 2020

Reading time for this article is 10 mins

Hi, my name is Elise, and I am a jeweler.

After getting a lot of queries about sterling silver, about its sensitization, properties, differences between silver and all of that, I felt too tired of answering these questions on day to day basis.

That’s when I had a sparkling light bulb moment (ding!) that It would probably be best if there were a way that I could compile all these questions into a readable format.

Then happily hand it up to anyone that dares walk into my jewelry store and make them read every single one of the words before deciding whether they still wanted a piece of sterling jewelry was what he/she wanted.

So here goes!

sterling silver JEWELRY BUYING GUIDE

Sterling silver, a piece of good hypoallergenic jewelry for sensitive skin

In this guide, I’ll try and answer as many questions that come to mind as possible, and it’ll probably won’t be much since it’s almost 3 am where I am, and I’m just getting started.

What is sterling silver jewelry?

Ok, hang on a bit, before we define what sterling silver is, you need to understand what silver is.

When faced with the enormously daunting task of purchasing a piece of new jewelry, Sometimes we might be faced with buying either sterling silver or PURE SILVER, but do we know what pure silver is?

Silver, scientifically known as Ag, is a precious metal and is one of the many chemical elements in the periodic table, which is also called Pure silver, and sometimes fine silver. One its naturally occurring form, silver, is almost a white, soft, super malleable (meaning ability to hammer it into different shapes) and pliable material, which is also capable of conducting electricity!

Pure silver or fine silver is silver at its untainted natural form, and it is 99.9% PURE, hence the reason why it is called pure silver.

Pure silver only has 0.1% impurity of other trace elements in it, that’s where the 99.9% name emerged.

Ok, now about sterling silver, is it real?

Of course, sterling silver is real! It is what you get when you mix pure silver with other metals, such as copper, nickel, zinc, etc., this process is called alloying, so we say that sterling silver is an alloy of silver.

(I’ve already described what an alloy and plating are on this post when I talked about zinc alloy jewelry, check it out)

This silver alloy is a popular metal used for many other purposes like the production of silverware, and of course, they can be used for decorative purposes too.

Other metals like Platinum, Zinc, Argentium, and Germanium may be used in place of copper during the alloying process.

Why alloy silver and copper? You may ask, remember pure silver is soft on its pure form, it’s too weak that it isn’t all that practical or advisable to make jewelry from it, and I’m sure you know why?

Imagine going out to a ball, all bedazzled in your diamond engraved 99.9% pure silver, and return home without them because it had broken off when one of the waiters brushed his shoulder against your hair, I know I wouldn’t want that, not sure about you, the reader.

Fun Fact #1

History has it the word “sterling” was derived from an old English, steorling, meaning little star, which makes a total sense since sterling silver is white and shiny like a star.

So now you see there’s a need to make pure silver stronger, and that’s why one of the scientists thought, hey! Do you know what will be great? Let’s alloy this guy with copper (since copper is harder and more durable than pure silver, also copper is a non-allergenic metal), and boom! That’s how sterling silver was born.

How do you know if sterling silver is real?

Alloying silver with copper gave birth the sterling silver, which contains 92.5% of fine silver and 7.5% of copper. This ratio of silver-copper percentage is the reason why you may hear someone refer to silver alloy as 925 sterling silver or 925 silver. To know if sterling silver is real, check for the hallmark stamp on the jewelry, real sterling silvery jewelry would have this stamp. The hallmark stamp is a combination of numbers and letters that show the authenticity and “history” of the sterling silver in question Usually in the format 925 xx or 925 xx XX, these number shows the percentage of silver content, the source (I.e imported or not).

Furthermore, real sterling silver is not allergic, because the non-allergenic nature of copper makes the sterling silver an excellent hypoallergenic for sensitive skin.

Fun Fact #2

In the US, it is required by law that all jewelers “stamp” all REAL sterling silver alloys as 925, .925, 92.5, or the STER stamp, to show the amount of silver it contains. Any piece of “sterling silver jewelry” stamped anything less than 925, .925 or 92.5 is not what they say it is, so remember to carefully check for the stamp the next time you go for jewelry hunting!

And that’s how you know if a piece of sterling silver jewelry is real or not, i.e., by the presence of the quality stamp. If not stated, run mom ferre, RUN! Yes, I do speak French, too.

Sterling silver VS silver (pure silver)

Although both metals contain silver, the sterling silver alloy is quite different from pure silver; the 7.5% of non-allergenic copper which it was alloyed with caused this alloy metal to possess better properties than pure silver.

The properties of sterling silver include

  • hypoallergenic
  • It’s tougher than pure silver
  • relatively cheaper than other precious metals
  • scratch-resistant
  • not as glistening as pure silver
  • malleable
  • can tarnish
  • Still pretty identical to pure silver when seen from a distance.
  • It’s clear that sterling silver is much more practical for crafting jewelry than pure silver, oh, and did I mention it’s cheaper than pure silver, too?

In case you’re more interested in the chemical properties of sterling silver, I post that up as well.

properties of sterling silver
properties of sterling silver – credit from substech.com

But, there’s one problem, though not a big issue, but it’s worth mentioning.

Can sterling silver tarnish?

A lot of people wonder if sterling silver can tarnish, and if so, why?

Yes, sterling silver does tarnish, and, although it is annoying,  it isn’t all that a bad thing, it won’t reduce the quality or luster (at least not until cleaned) of your jewelry. 

Tarnish, according to wikipedia.com, is a thin layer of corrosion that forms on some metals like silver, brass, zinc, etc., when the outermost surface of that metal undergoes a chemical reaction.

Copper and silver, alone, are both do tarnish, so that would naturally imply that a silver-copper alloy would mean twice the tarnishing speed.

Tarnishing is a natural process, (it’s also called oxidization) Oxidation happens because silver reacts with the water, salt and some chemicals in the air, specifically the sulfur oxide, this causes it to produce this layer of residue called patina.

Fun Fact #3

Patina is preserving the silver (or any metal), as it “protects” it from a further reaction, scratch, etc., this process is also quite alike to rusting of iron.

Speaking about rust, I recall some clients asking whether sterling silvers can rust or not.

Does sterling silver rust?

No, they don’t rust, they do corrode, but they DO NOT rust! Rusting is to irons(the metal) as jewelry is to jewelers.

It’s as simple as that.

Rust is an iron oxide, is also corrosion, like the patina that covers silver metals, coppers, or brass. Still, unlike patinas, rust DOES NOT offer any form of protection the metal which is underneath. Rust will eventually disintegrate any metal that it covers, but our beloved silvers stay the same once you clean off the patina. So can sterling silver rust? The answer is a definite NO.

 

Is sterling silver hypoallergenic? Is sterling silver nickel-free?

This question is probably the most asked question by people with sensitive skin.

Yes, sterling silver is super hypoallergenic, and yes, (real) sterling silver IS nickel-free, but there’s a catch to it. Read on to find out more.

From the posts here about nickel allergies, I did mention how almost 30% of the world’s population is sensitive to nickel, and nickel is the number one cause of most contact allergic reaction. The percentage number of people susceptible to nickel allergy is so high that it has its name, nickel dermatitis

I wrote an excellent guide here about nickel allergy food pyramid and another one here about 80+ foods high in nickel which someone allergic to nickel should be aware of, and avoid.

So, is sterling silver real? What is REAL sterling silver?

Since sterling silver is an alloy, comprising of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, some jewelers would replace the 7.5% copper with 7.5% nickel ( sometimes that’ll include nickel together with some other metals), to save cost, and to add to its “whiteness”! And NO, the US government can’t do much about it, at least for now, not with the present regulations it has in place in governing the allowed percentage of nickel being used in jewelry, the reason I say so has been mentioned here.

So what happens when these jewelers choose to alloy silver with nickel?

You get a piece of cheap, shiny, rash-causing allergic jewelry, that was somehow able to sensitize a quarter of the world’s population! And this gives the REAL silver alloy jewelry a bad name all around the world.

  • So the next time you or your friends ask is sterling silver real? 
  • Is sterling silver good? Does sterling silver contain nickel?
  • Is sterling silver good for sensitive ears?  

Forward them the link to this article, and they’ll sure be thankful that you did!

What is a sterling silver allergy? What are the symptoms?

Sterling silver jewelry becomes allergic to our skin when the said jewelry contains any percentage of nickel in it. As much as 1% nickel content in a piece of jewelry is more than enough to set off an allergic reaction on anyone who’s skin is sensitive to nickel, which is the majority (especially women) of the people in the United States.

Can you be allergic to sterling silver?

Research has it that anyone can suddenly become allergic to any given metal. However, there hasn’t been much validation of this research. Still, the complexity of the human body has taught us that anything is possible, I mean, mutations are going on at a molecular level inside the human body.

So, it is certainly possible that someone can be allergic to REAL silver, and by real, I mean 925 sterling silver-copper alloy, just as there are people who are allergic to platinum, gold, rhodium, etc. 

Symptoms of Sterling Silver Allergy

Sterling silver symptoms” are indistinguishable to that of any metal allergy reaction, which is a red rash, directly on the point of the allergen contact, blistering, itchiness, and sometimes little raised bumps might be present too.

Does sterling silver turn skin green?

Due to the composition of a real sterling silver alloy, i.e., 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, some wearers ask if sterling silver turn skin green? Depending on your skin type, it might turn your skin green due to the presence of, you guessed it, copper! (I’ll probably write another article about what jewelry metals turn your skin green in the future.) This green coloration of the skin also happens due to the metal’s oxidation process with the chemical elements in the air. 

You should know that when sterling silver turns your skin green, It isn’t an allergic reaction, but it’s an unharmful reaction to the skin.

Fun Fact #4

The green coloration of the skin that some wearers experience in contact with this alloy (including brass, copper, and zinc) takes place due to a process called “leaching,” which means the body’s ability to absorb metal ions into the bloodstream when it comes into contact with it.

How do we test if it is real?

  • To test if the alloy is real or not, you’d need to perform a simple nickel test, which includes swabbing the jewelry with cotton dipped with the nickel-test solution.
  • A discoloration will confirm the presence of nickel on the jewelry. Still, if it is clear, that’ll mean it is hypoallergenic and will be safe for sensitive skin, especially sensitive ears.

Recommended reads


Other ways to check the authenticity of 925 silver jewelry

  • Check for the jeweler’s hallmark stamp, just at the same time you’re verifying the STER stamp on the jewelry. A hallmark stamp is like a jeweler’s signature to show that he/she is selling what he’s offering you. Buy with confidence one the hallmark stamp is presented and verified.
  • Make magnets your best pal whenever you go jewelry shopping. Like most precious metals, silver is not magnetic at all, but if your magneto friend grabs and won’t let go of the jewelry, then it isn’t a REAL silver.
  • Use a white polishing cloth a do a delicate swipe on the jewelry, and if it leaves a dark, grayish stain on the fabric, then it is real.

How do you take care of sterling silver?

It’s quite easy to maintain any sterling silver, as it mostly involves a periodic cleaning off the tarnish, also now as patina which it produces. Many factors may accelerate or slow down the tarnish process, Such that it may take a few days or even after a few weeks for it to appear. 

The cleaning or polishing process involves applying and wiping, as easy as that, applying the cleaning substance (they come either as liquids or paste) on the polishing towel, then using the cloth to wipe off the jewelry.

I’m putting up a link to some silver cleaners and polishers here on Amazon, in case you’ll need one. 

Ps: As an amazon associate, I may earn an affiliate commission when you make a purchase via the links on the site. (This doesn’t affect the price of your item)

Fun Fact #5

Sterling silver is said to possess some healing and metaphysical properties and powers. It is said that silver is the metal of loving, emotions, the psychic mind, and of course, healing. (More on this topic in my future blog posts)

My Final Conclusion

Sterling silver, when alloyed with ONLY silver and copper, is a super hypoallergenic metal suitable for people who are allergic to nickel. Its luster will last from a few days up to a few weeks before tarnishing occurs. 

If you can verify the authenticity of your sterling, i.e., making sure that it is real sterling silver, you’ll immediately discover a non-allergenic metal which can be used for earrings, rings, necklaces, piercings, and much more.

I hope I was able to answer all the questions you might have about the beautiful silver alloy, let me know via the comment below if you have any questions. Also, make sure to bookmark us as we’ll be publishing more quality articles on tips on living with allergy.

And please do remember to share with your friends and families, I mean, who knows, maybe this will make our government apply strict laws about the use of nickel in jewelry.

What are your thoughts about buying sterling silver for sensitive skins?

Don’t forget to leave a comment, please, thanks!

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Medical Disclaimer

Welcome to Too Allergic. I’m Agnes, I’m not an allergy specialist nor a medical professional, and I’m not posing as such. However, I do enjoy researching and collecting data about things that matter to me, which is about my mom and my son’s allergic condition. Please, do not substitute any information on tooallergic.com for professional advice from a licensed medical practitioner, always confirm with your doctor first.