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Sterling Silver Jewelry
The Icy Glitter of Sterling Silver Jewelry
Silver may not be the top-dog precious metal in the world, but it's pretty close. The most common of all precious metals, and second only to gold in popularity, it's used extensively not only in jewelry but also in photography and electronics. In fact, 44% of all silver is used for the photographic film, and there are people who make a good living recovering silver from used photographic developer solution and electrical contacts. It was once popular for coinage (though only Mexico now has circulating coinage with silver content), and is used in limited quantities in medicine, water purifiers, and cutlery.
Silver jewelry represents the most artistic use to which silver is put, and it's especially popular in its manifestation as sterling silver, an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. This admixture makes sterling silver jewelry much stronger than jewelry made of pure or "fine" silver. While fine silver jewelry does exist, it's much rare than sterling silver jewelry, because it tends to distort easily.
Identifying sterling silver jewelry
Sterling silver jewelry can sometimes be difficult to identify, especially if you're faced with other alloys of silver. Tarnish is a dead giveaway for silver content at least: this sooty black film is caused by sulfur dioxide reacting with silver molecules, and its presence and its faint scent of sulfur is enough to tell you there's silver content in an object. If it's not there, the object you thought was silver is very likely the so-called German or nickel silver, an alloy of nickel, copper, and (sometimes) zinc that contains no silver at all.
Even if you find tarnish, identifying something as sterling silver jewelry can still be difficult, because various alloys of silver are used in jewelry and other objects. Many metallic objects are plated with a layer of silver a few molecules thick, but otherwise contain no silver. These should be identified as such somewhere on the object. Coin silver is 90% silver, and is often used (especially by amateur silversmiths) to make jewelry. Alloys with lower silver concentrations, such as 80-85%, are rare but do exist, though they're more likely to be used in objects other than jewelry.
The most definite indicator that an item is sterling silver jewelry is a sterling mark, which all items of sterling silver are supposed to have somewhere, in an out-of-the-way place. Common marks include stamped letters reading "925", "STER.", "STERLING", or some combination thereof. (The "925" designation indicates that the silver concentration is 925 parts per thousand). For items like rings, tiaras, and bracelets, the mark should be on the inner surface of the ring; for necklaces (especially chains) and earrings, the mark may be on the shank or the catch. The mark is usually tiny, and may require a magnifying glass to make out. Often the mark includes a maker's mark or the country of origin as well, so it's not unusual to see something like "925 ITALY" or "925 MEX" on the inner surface of a ring.