Sterling Silver: What it Is, and is Not

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"Sterling silver" is a frequently misused term, especially on eBay. Some have the impression that any silver may be termed "sterling" however the word sterling applies only to an item which has a guranteed silver content certified as a minimum of 925 parts out of 1,000 parts. The remaining 75 parts are an alloy of copper, nickel, and perhaps other metals.

No silver less than .925 fine can properly be called "sterling."

If you an eBay seller, exercise great care in listing an item as "sterling" since it is illegal under title 15, chapter 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations to in any way represent an item as sterling if it is not. Your error could subject you to the penalties set forth in the National Gold and Silver Stamping Act.

Section 23.6, Misrepresentation as to Silver Content, states: "(b) It is unfair or deceptive to mark, describe or otherwise represent all or part of an industry product as "silver," "solid silver," "Sterling Silver," "Sterling," or the abbreviation "Ster." unless it is at least 925/1,000ths pure silver."

eBay sellers who habitually violate this law risk penalties.

Coin silver or other solid silver which may have a fineness ranging from less than 700 up to 900 depending upon its country or origin is not sterling silver and cannot be termed "sterling."

Sometimes one will see deceptive sellers advertising items which are "sterling silver plated." Those articles are merely silver plated and the use of the word "sterling" is deceptive. In fact, silver plated items are plated with pure silver, not sterling silver.

One also sees eBay sellers advertising items marked "Alpacca" or "German Silver" as being sterling. They are not. Alpacca (also spelled Alpaca) and German silver are terms for an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc. Such wares contain no silver whatsoever. Again, it is a violation of Federal law to represent that such wares are silver.

If you have an item marked "E.P.N.S." or "E.P," it is not sterling silver. It is simply plated. E.P.N.S. means electro plated nickel silver. If you have an item with markings such as "Wm Rogers Mfg" with no other markings, your item is not sterling. It is silver plate.

NOTE: Before you buy anything on eBay represented to be sterling, email the seller and get complete information as to the exact markings on the item so that you can make your own determination of whether the item is indeed sterling. Do not rely on any representations made by the seller if they are not supported by photos showing the hallmarks, as many sellers do not know the difference between sterling, silver plate, coin, or any other metal. Most eBay sellers are "jacks-of-all-trades" and not silver experts. It is your responsibility as a buyer to know what you are bidding on! If you buy an item claimed to be sterling and you find that it is not, and you have not asked the proper questions, the problem is yours, not the seller's.

Is there such a thing as unmarked sterling? Yes. Items such as knife handles, umbrella handles, cane handles, stirrers and sippers, and other items may in fact be made of sterling, but may not have any markings whatsoever. The absence of a sterling hallmark makes an item questionable, whereas an item with genuine hallmarks is beyond question.

Keep in mind that hallmarks, like anything of value, can be faked.

Much high end fine silverware produced in Japan is .950 fine (some is even 1.000 fine), as is some produced in France and other countries. This finer silver can legally be termed sterling.

The .9584 fine silver produced in Great Britain is termed "Britannia standard" silver, which must not be confused with Britannia ware. which contains no silver whatsoever. Britannia ware is an alloy of tin, copper and antimony.

American and Canadian made sterling silver will be marked with the word "Sterling" or some variation of the .925 marking such as 925/1000 or simply 925. Some old Irish silver is also marked with the word sterling, however that marking ceased to be officially used in Great Britain centuries ago.

Therefore, if you have an item with some hallmarks in combination with the word sterling, it is probably not English (however there are exceptions). One sometimes sees American silver such as that of Gorham represented as English. The Gorham hallmark since 1865 is that of a lion facing right, an anchor and the letter "G." Prior to 1865 the Gorham lion faced left. as one would find on British sterling.

Some deceptive eBay sellers would have you believe that the Gorham hallmarks are those of a Birmingham, England maker since the anchor is the town mark on English silver for the city of Birmingham. "A little learning is a dangerous thing."

From 1544 onwards British sterling was hallmarked with a punch showing the figure

of a walking lion facing left, known as the lion passant .

In 1697 the Britannia standard of .9584 was introduced to prevent coinage, which at that time was of a fineness of .925, from being melted down to make silver objects. At that time the punch became the allegorical figure of Britannia. In 1720 the .925 standard was reinstated and from that time until today the Britannia standard has co-existed with the .925 sterling standard.

Denmark has, for the past 80+ years, produced some of the finest hand made sterling, such as the works of Georg Jensen, and those Danish pieces are frequently marked "sterling," sometimes in combination with the international sterling designation of 925.

American Sterling

If you have a piece of American silver which is not marked "sterling" or a variation of .925, it is emphatically not sterling. It may be coin silver or it could be plated silver.

In some instances a piece of American sterling may be marked only ".925." For example, the sterling made by John R. Wendt of New York in the late 19th Century is frequently marked only ".925."

It is also common for American sterling to be hallmarked by the maker and marked with the name of the retailer. In some cases, a piece of sterling may have only the same of the retailer and the word "Sterling" and no maker's hallmark.

One of the most notable and prolific of the retailers is J. E. Caldwell of Philadelphia, and one frequently encounters sterling which bears their name, either alone or in combination with the actual maker's hallmark. From ca. 1850 to the present, they retailed an immense quantity of fine sterling.

Coin silver is so named because it literally was made from melted coinage, which had a guaranteed silver content of .900 fine.

In early American times, you might take a piece or two of old silver spoons and some coins to the silversmith who would melt the items down and reshape them into the new items desired.

The word "Sterling" first appears on American silver circa 1800 when it was used by Baltimore silversmiths circa 1800-1814. Most American silver items made through circa 1860 were made of .900 coin silver and after that date most, but not all, makers changed to the .925 standard. One frequently finds silver flatware of the period with examples of an identical pattern in both sterling and coin. Much early Gorham flatware, for example, exists in both sterling and coin.

A few makers continued to produce coin silver well into the early 20th Century. In a few instances American coin silver may be marked "coin" or "pure coin," however in most cases American coin silver is not so marked. American coin silver is frequently marked with the hallmarks of the maker or of the retailer.

If you have a coin silver item hallmarked only with a number, such as "12" or "13" it is not American; it is European. If a silver item is marked "84" it is probably Russian.

Depending upon the maker, an otherwise ordinary coin silver item may be exceedingly valuable. American coin silver from the late 1600's through the third quarter of the 18th Century can be very valuable.

One should not assume that plated silver is always less valuable than coin silver or sterling silver. In some cases, plated items, especially those of the 19th century, can be quite valuable.

Consult experts, appraisers, silver dealers or reference libraries in your city if you require information about the silver you own.

Never attempt to perform destructive tests on your silver. Never try to cut a notch to see if the silver is solid. Always research an item before you dispose of it in any way. It may or may not have value.

We recently researched a plain silver cup for a client who thought the cup might be of tin or some other base metal. We identified the item as American coin silver circa 1670. The item sold for thousands of dollars on eBay and was donated by the buyer to a major museum.

The study of silver hallmarks is a specialized area and for beginners we recommend the following references:

International Hallmarks on Silver by Tardy

The Book of Old Silver by Seymour B. Wyler

Kovel's American Silver Marks by Ralph and Terry Kovel

London Goldsmiths by Arthur Grimwade

Jackson's Hallmarks, English, Irish Silver & Gold Marks by Ian Pickford

American Silversmiths and Their Marks by Stephen G. C. Ensko

A Silver Collector's Glossary of Early American Silversmiths by Hollis French

Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Judy Redfield. Judy Redfield is an eBay seller.

Please do not ask us to identify, appraise, or comment on silver items in your possession. We regret that we do not have time to reply to inquiries.


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