Silver is and has been just as popular as gold and used for coins, jewelry and other decorative pieces for thousands of years. I personally prefer silver to gold; to me, it provides a more restrained and minimalistic look, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s less expensive too!
Silver was first mined in what is now Turkey and that area was also where the majority of silver crafts were produced at the time. Throughout history, it has been found in many places all over the world, and today, the top 5 silver producing countries are Peru, Mexico, China, Australia and Bolivia.
Silver is soft, only a little bit harder than gold, and there are many uses for this malleable precious metal. In fact, it is so incredibly versatile that it’s almost magical. It is obviously used for silverware, jewelry and photography, but did you know it is also all around us? It is inside electric switches, under the keys on your keyboard, inside circuit breaker boxes, in eyeglasses, mirrors, behind your car’s dashboard, behind the control panel on your microwave, the list goes on.
And – here is where it gets magical – silver has antimicrobial and germicidal properties. People knew about this very early on; Hippocrates wrote about its healing properties, and the Phoenicians are rumored to have used silver containers to store water and wine. It has been used extensively for medical purposes, in many cases the same way we use antibiotics these days. In the late 1800s, a German obstetrician discovered that applying a weak silver nitrate solution to newborn babies’ eyes helped prevent gonococcal opthalmia, a disease that causes blindness. Recent findings suggest that silver can speed up healing times of both wounds and bone injuries, and you can already buy a few wound care products and band aids that contain silver.
There is also clothing with silver. Since it reduces odor and inhibits the growth of fungi and bacteria, it is perfect in workout wear. Other research has found that silver is a fantastic water purifier, both for drinking water and in swimming pools. Who knows, maybe we can do away with that horrible chlorine soon and use silver in some form instead?
Pretty fascinating stuff. But now, back to silver jewelry. As I mentioned earlier, silver is soft, and in jewelry, you will most often find it alloyed with another metal, often copper. The most common and well-known blend is sterling silver (stamped .925) which consists of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.
Let me tell you right from the get-go here, that shopping for antique or vintage silver is not easy. If you want to become a pro, you can spend the better part of a lifetime learning and memorizing all the markings and stamps.
When you’re shopping for silver charm bracelets, you need to check not only the charms, but the chain as well, if you want to make sure you get a quality piece and not something that’s only plated, or not even silver at all. Oh, and make sure to bring a magnifying glass – even if you have perfect eyesight, it can be very difficult to see the marks without one. (For more, check out my Puffy Silver Heart Bracelet post).
German silver (sometimes marked G. Silver) looks like silver, but it’s not. It is a blend of copper, nickel and zinc, so watch out for that if you’re shopping at a flea market or yard sale (where they can often be found). Also, keep an eye out for things marked Alpacca (or Alpaca), Nickel (NS) or New silver (also called Nysilver) – these are not silver either, but that same type of copper-nickel-zinc alloy. Sometimes you will see 1MA, Prima or Extra Prima nysilver – same thing, the alloy again.
Then there is also silver plating, where a less expensive metal has received a thin coating of silver – probably not what you want if you are looking for a collectible (unless you fall in love with the design and don’t care about the materials).
I touched on silver markings briefly in my gold charms post, but we will go into in in more depth here. All (quality) silver pieces of jewelry will have at least one, but often many stamps on the back. The number tells you the fineness of the silver (like .925), and the “hallmark” tells you who made it and where it was made. It can be just 925 with the initials of the silversmith, or it can be a whole little “picture book”.
Reading the hallmarks can be quite a challenge. Sometimes everything is spelled out, and sometimes, it’s just little squares or symbols with barely visible letters and digits. Most of us are not able to decipher them on the spot, but there are forums, experts and even entire hallmark encyclopedias online. If you are going to be shopping for antique or vintage silver jewellery made by a specific designer at an auction for example, it doesn’t hurt to read up on the typical marks he/she used beforehand.
American hallmarks tend to be easy to read, often written out in plain English, even including the word “Sterling”. Those from other countries can be a bit more cryptic, and each country has its own marks and standards, which varies from each part of the country as well as time period. Often, if you go way back, there were no standards at all. Holland, for example, did not have a national standard until 1814.
Standards for silver purity are also different from each country and has often changed within the countries throughout history. In Denmark for example, the standard for silver used to be .826, then .830, and then, from 1936 and on .925. However, since jewelers had to pay a fee to the assay office for changing to .925, a lot of silver made around that time is still stamped .830 when it is in fact 925 sterling.
In Britain, the standard for Sterling has always been .925 and the British hallmark system is wonderfully organized. It always consists of 4 to 5 marks telling you the fineness of the silver, where the piece was made, who made it, when it was made, and for pieces made between 1784-1890, a duty mark, which certified that the appropriate taxes had been paid.
The French system presents quite a challenge. Instead of using numbers, they use images of animals and human heads, different ones for different parts of the country and for specific time periods, so you need to memorize quite a few if you’re going to be able to tell when and where the piece was made right there at the flea market vendor’s table.
Below is a short list of a few different common grades of silver and where they are from:
999 – Pure silver
980 – Mexico (ca 1930-1940)
958 – Britannia silver
950 - France (1st standard), Japan, U.S. (19th century), the Netherlands (before 1814), Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Mexico
947 - Russia (91 zolotnik)
925 - Sterling silver
916 - Finland, Russia (88 zolotnik), Latvia, Poland, Romania, Spain, Portugal
900 - US coin silver
835 - Germany, Austria, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands
830 - Scandinavia (older pieces), Portugal
826 - Denmark (1893 – 1972), Norway (before 1892)
800 - Germany (after 1884), France (2nd standard), the Netherlands (before 1814), Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Japan, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon. Sometimes called “Continental silver”.
Again, this is only a short list, there are other grades out there too, so if you see one that is not on this list, definitely look it up online.
As you can see, shopping for vintage silver is a whole science, but if you like me love silver, and enjoy the hunt for a true treasure, it is a fascinating and enjoyable one to study and learn.
For tips on how to authenticate silver, see my “Sterling silver charm bracelet or not” post