Jewellery Learning

What is Sterling Silver? Guide to Sterling Silver

What is sterling silver? It is a beautiful precious metal used in jewellery with a luminous white colour. The name “sterling” can only be added to it, however, if it is of high purity. This article explains how sterling silver is made, and what you should look for when shopping for jewellery.

What is silver?

Silver is a precious metal with a luminous white colour.

Because pure silver is way too soft for use in jewellery, it is mixed with other metals, such as copper.

The alloys make it more rigid, and consequently, suitable for wearing as jewellery.

So what is sterling silver?

Silver that has other metals mixed into it is called a silver alloy.

“Sterling silver” is a name for a high-quality silver alloy that contains a high amount of pure silver and only a small percentage of other metals.

Why is sterling silver sometimes called “925 silver”?

Sterling silver contains 92.5% pure silver. This percentage – 92.5% – can also be expressed as a fraction of a thousand: 925 out of 1000.

This millesimal number 952 is often used referring to sterling silver.

Similarly, fine silver bullion which contains 99.9% silver is often referred to as 999.

what is sterling silver - bricks of pure (fine) silver bullion

Bricks of fine 999 silver bullion

Is sterling silver real?

Yes. Sterling silver is considered one of the finest silvers.

It’s popular in jewellery, as well as fine cutlery and tableware.

How do I know my jewellery is sterling silver?

In the UK, the surest way to verify if a jewellery item is really sterling silver is by checking its hallmark.

In Great Britain, by law, any retailer selling an item of jewellery above 1 gram in weight and calling it sterling silver, must have it hallmarked as such by a UK Assay Office.

What does a UK sterling silver hallmark look like?

The UK sterling silver hallmark is an oval mark with the number 925 in it.

Other legal UK silver hallmarks are 8oo silver, Britannia 958 silver and fine 999 silver. Older, or foreign sterling silver hallmarks, might say ‘sterling’, ‘ster’ or ‘925 ster’.

These are the current, official UK Assay Office hallmarks for silver:

what is sterling silver

What does the word “sterling” mean?

The origin of the term “sterling” silver is much debated. Some say it comes from the Old French word esterlin, referring to an early Norman silver penny.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a theory that it comes from the Old English steorling meaning “little star” – because some ancient Norman silver coins were stamped with a small star.

Other sources say the word comes from the time when North Eastern merchants, called Easterlings, paid English traders in Pounds of the Easterlings – often shortened to “sterling”.

what is sterling silver

Norman silver penny with two-star design c. 1080 AD | Image courtesy of PHGCOM,

Why buy sterling silver?

From the consumer’s perspective, silver is a valuable and beautiful precious metal that’s very affordable when compared to the price of gold or platinum.

It has a beautiful, luminous sheen that’s almost impossible to imitate.

As opposed to cheap costumer jewellery, which is plated with a thin layer of precious metal that chips away easily, sterling silver has lasting value and can endure a long time if maintained and worn with care.

Can sterling silver tarnish?

Over time, sterling silver jewellery may tarnish.

It’s primarily the other alloy metals in sterling silver, like copper, that can cause it to take on a black or green hue.

The speed of the tarnishing depends on the water (including bathing, perspiration and air moisture) and chemicals (sulphur pollution in the air, soaps, detergents and cosmetics) that you come into contact with.

Can tarnished sterling silver be cleaned?

It’s very easy to clean tarnished silver.

There is an easy and cheap DIY cleaning method for silver-only items that aren’t set with any diamonds, gems or other materials.

For other silver jewellery items, that contain gems or diamonds, you can simply use a silver cleaning lotion or jewellery wipes available from any good jeweller.

what is sterling silver

A DIY cleaning method for silver-only items (that have no gems or other materials set into it them) can be easily and inexpensively done at home using a bowl lined with tinfoil and filled with water, vinegar and salt.

Can silver tarnishing be avoided?

While you cannot stop sterling silver tarnishing completely, you can take measures to slow it down considerably.

Sterling silver is best stored in an airtight box or zip lock bag when not worn. You can also add a piece of chalk or some silicone beads into your jewellery box to remove excess moisture.

Always take sterling silver jewellery off when in a shower, sauna, spa or while swimming. Wear rubber gloves if you’re washing up with silver rings on your hands.

what is sterling silver

Is sterling silver suitable for engagement rings?

Sterling silver is not ideal for jewellery that requires continuous daily wear and is intended to last a lifetime – such as engagement rings and wedding bands.

It is the softest precious metal available and bends out of shape and damages more easily than white gold or platinum.

Silver also has the highest conductivity for heat and electricity. Therefore, for anyone who works in a profession involving electricity or handling hot items, silver is not a good metal to choose for an engagement ring or wedding band.

Pros and cons of sterling silver jewellery


  • Sterling silver is an exquisitely beautiful, white, luminous precious metal.
  • It is inexpensive compared to gold and platinum.
  • It’s an ideal alternative to costume jewellery. Cheap imitation jewellery is only plated with a thin layer of precious metal which will chips or fade quickly, making it unwearable and a poor investment in the long term. Sterling silver on the other hand has an attractive price point, yet provides lasting value and quality for your money.
  • Jewellery craftsmen love silver because it’s so malleable. Therefore it’s easy for consumers to find beautifully designed sterling silver jewellery items.


  • The main downside of sterling silver is its softness. It may scratch and bend under repetitive daily wear, pressure or sudden knocks. Thin silver rings in particular will not wear well over a long time if you wear them constantly.
  • Sterling silver jewellery will eventually tarnish. So you need to clean it regularly to maintain its gleam.

In conclusion

Sterling silver is a very attractive, lustrous precious metal. It is found in a great variety of creative jewellery designs. While its softness means it’s not the ideal choice for engagement rings, it’s perfect for fine jewellery accessories and gifts. Its price point is below that of gold and platinum, yet it has lasting beauty and value if you care for it properly.

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