Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet Or Not?

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I recently got a question from a reader who was concerned about a silver charm bracelet she had bought on eBay. I thought that others could perhaps also benefit from this Q&A, so here it is:

Q: I recently bought a vintage charm bracelet on eBay from a reputable seller who guaranteed that all 18 charms as well as the chain had been tested as sterling. I took it to my jeweler to have the clasp changed to a lobster clasp. She told me that only 4 of the charms were sterling. The others stamped STERLING were attracted to a magnet, therefore they were not sterling.

Is this magnet test accurate?

She also told me that there was a jewelry maker with a company name of STERLING that had stamped their company name on the back of items giving the impression that the metal was sterling silver when it was actually silver plate.

Have you ever heard of this type of deception or this company?

How can I ever trust if a charm I am buying is really sterling silver?

Magnet Test
A: In regards to the magnet test, it works as a basic test – if a piece is attracted to the magnet, there is some level of a ferrous metal in it. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver alloyed with (almost always) copper, neither of which is magnetic. But just because the piece is not magnetic does not mean it’s sterling silver – it could be any non-ferrous metal. But are there other alloys commonly used with silver that would create magnetism? I asked around, and here is what one professional had to say about it:

“In 30+ years of being a goldsmith, I have never run across an alloy in gold or silver that was magnetic. Not to say that somebody somewhere hasn’t tried it, but you certainly can’t use a magnet to detect gold and silver. Remember that some clasps, such as lobster clasps and spring ring clasps, have steel springs in them and will be attracted to a magnet.”

Also, if the charms are rhodium plated, they will most likely be at least slightly attracted to the magnet, even if they are sterling silver. In the plating process, sterling silver is given a nickel underplate prior to the rhodium. The nickel is magnetic and causes the magnetic attraction (rhodium is not magnetic).

In order to be absolutely certain if it’s sterling silver or not, you need to file off a tiny bit of the supposed plating and do an acid test (or better yet, have a professional do it – that acid is vicious). The silver portion of the piece will turn a milky white, and the other metal will become green. Here is a visual of how that works:

The Sterling Company
In regards to the Sterling company, there were several companies with “Sterling” in the name: the Sterling Company, Sterling Craft, Sterling Silver Mfg. Co. (Baltimore), the Sterling Silver Souvenir Co., and the Sterling Silver Manufacturing Company (Providence, RI). However, the marks used were never just a solo “Sterling”; they used S, SSS and SSMC in addition to “sterling” (from the Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers).

There are also marks that contain the word “sterling” as part of the company trade name used on silverplate. U.S. Sterling and Sterling Plate are found on silverplated flatware and souvenir spoons manufactured before the Stamping Act of 1906 made it illegal to use the word sterling in any way on anything that wasn’t actually made of sterling silver.

I have not personally heard of a company that made charms from base metals and stamped them “Sterling”. Again, I consulted an expert who told me:

“There are many frustrating pieces of American sterling that only bear the mark “sterling”. The best explanation I can give for these is that they were ordered from a silver wholesaler for resale in a retail establishment. The retailer might not have wanted to spend the money on having a store mark put on in addition to the sterling mark, or they might not have ordered enough pieces for it to be worth it to the wholesaler. This would have allowed smaller stores the opportunity to offer their customers sterling pieces without investing significant amounts of capital in stock.”

Test To Be Sure
In conclusion, I would say that the only way to be 100% sure that the charm is sterling silver, take it to a professional. And it doesn’t have to be a jeweler – pawnbrokers are actually great resources for this. They will often give you a free estimate and in order to do that, they need to know if what you have is real sterling silver or not, so they test for it, all for free and with no obligations for you.

How did things turn out for my reader?
She was lucky – she had the bracelet tested again, and it was found that the attraction to the magnet was caused by the jump rings that were used to attach the charms to the bracelet. They were soldered with something (or composed of something) that caused the attraction. Also, three of the charms were rhodium plated, which accounts for the magnetic attraction. Only one charm was determined not to be sterling; it was pewter.

For more on silver, see my post about shopping for a vintage silver charm bracelet.

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