NEW YORK – Silver is both a precious and a noble metal meaning that it is relatively rare, impervious to corrosion and is quite decorative to a mirror shine. So, just what collectible form does silver take anyway?
When polished, silver has a very high gloss and lends itself well for use as both a decorative item such as mirrors and candlesticks as well as a functional, everyday item like jewelry and coins. Its durability by itself, though, is too malleable and so requires an alloy during production to strengthen it. At times, silver is sometimes the alloy itself. Here are six silver categories in order of value and collectibility – and one that isn’t.
Pure 100% silver is just too soft to be used without an alloy such as copper or zinc to provide strength and durability. Utilitarian objects such as teapots or jewelry can be made with fine silver meaning less than 1% alloy, but it tarnishes and scratches easily.
Mostly, very fine silver is intended as an investment in the form of ingots or coins with virtually no alloy at all. “Fineness” is measured by the “nines” and written as “three nines fine” or stamped as .999 for silver bullion or silver proof coins, for example, which means that .001 percent is considered to be natural impurities. The highest content silver ingot was “five nines fine” or 999.99% pure silver from Bolivia or any Canadian Maple Leaf that is a “four nines fine” or 999.9% pure silver coin.
Finessness is also defined in other ways. Britannia silver, for example, is .958 silver with an alloy of copper, but still classified as fine silver. Other countries have similar fine silver definitions such as .750 silver from much older German, Austria-Hungarian and Swiss coinage while the United States has silver coinage having 40% silver content from 1965 to 1970.
This is one instance where silver is more the alloy than the final finish. According to U.S. federal regulations, vermeil, (ver’may; also known as silver gilt), “… consists of a base of sterling silver coated or plated on all significant surfaces with gold or gold alloy of not less than 10-karat fineness.” The most famous vermeil is a collection of flatware used for official state functions at the White House purchased in 1956 from the estate of Margaret Thompson Biddle.
Vermeil is a less expensive process than producing something in a higher grade of gold and is lighter and more durable. The crown jewels of England, for example, are mostly vermeil, much to the disappointment of those who overthrew Charles I when they tried to sell them. While the silver may be at least the quality of sterling silver, the thin gold overlay gives it a higher auction value.
Candelabras, flatware, photo frames, decorative bowls, jewelry, rings and so many collectible and decorative objects are labeled as sterling silver. It means that 92.5% of its total weight is pure silver. The rest is usually copper or another harder metal like bronze to provide strength. Since 1868 in the U.S. and earlier elsewhere, each sterling piece needs to be legally hallmarked (stamped) with .925 or the word “sterling” to identify it as sterling silver along with the stamp, or hallmark, of the silversmith who produced it.
The most prominent pieces of sterling silver would be flatware produced from about 1840 to 1940 in Europe and the United States, particularly from well-known silversmiths like Paul Revere. Production of sterling silver flatware declined markedly after 1940 as mass production using hard plastics and other more accessible materials made them easier to keep clean and were more affordable.
For most of early American history, official coinage was 90% silver and 10% alloy such as nickel or copper. But there was relatively little silver to produce other commercial products such as flatware, plates, bowls or tea services. Instead, coins were melted down and repurposed, as we say today. The resulting new teapot, bowl or flatware was sometimes stamped with “coin” or “pure coin,” but not consistently. And because the fineness of coins varied, so did the silver fineness of the new object. However, today coin silver is defined as 90% silver that may be hallmarked with .900.
Silverplate and Sheffield Silver
What can be made with sterling silver can also be made as silver-plate providing greater access to a wider consumer market at less cost. Instead of mostly sterling silver overlaying a thin layer of alloy, a thin layer of silver was electrically bonded to an item that was mostly alloy such as copper. The results are similar to sterling, except it is much lighter and over time the thin layer of silver-plate, depending on its thickness, can separate from the underlying alloy especially in humid conditions.
The process of adding a thin layer of silver over an alloy was discovered in 1740, by accident as the story goes, in Sheffield, England. With early Sheffield silver (as it is now known), edges were noticeably soldered with a ‘sandwich’ of thin silver rolled between alloy over both inside and outside a bowl. By 1840, electroplating was more commercially productive and early Sheffield silver is now quite collectible. Weighted silver is just another term for silverplate as it is mostly an alloy with a thin overlay of silver. Silverplate is not usually stamped or hallmarked as the amount of silver overlay isn’t of sufficient quantity to qualify for regulation or inspection.
Silver objects that can be traced back through hallmarks at least 100 years can be classified at auction as “antique silver,” especially before the advent of mass production and the discovery of silver in the late 1850s in Nevada. More of the items were handmade or produced in smaller quantities. For that reason, silver objects before 1860 have a particularly higher auction value for collectors than a similar item produced more recently. Still, silver items produced before 1940 will be classified as antique silver, too. It’s the hallmark that will tell its true age.
And The One Silver That Isn’t
If it looks like silver and feels like silver, it could be just nickel instead. Known as German silver, nickel mimics silver, but with a duller shine. Any item that is not marked as sterling silver or silver-plate would be composed of 60% copper, 20% zinc with a top overlay of 20% nickel.
Generally speaking, nickel silver has no silver content at all. Only its name suggests that there is because it can appear to shine like silver. The difference can be determined simply by rubbing it with a cloth. If it shines brighter (and it is a duller shine than silver), it is nickel. Silver requires more of a polishing agent to remove tarnish and has more of a mirror finish. If you see the letters EPNS on zippers, for example, it is an acronym for “electroplated nickel silver.”
While there are different ways that silver is used, they will all be weighed for its silver content the same way (except sterling-plate). Get the total weight, then subtract the percentage of alloy to get its silver content. Whether buying or selling silver, weight should be only in troy ounces.
There are two types of ounces to be aware of: troy ounce (t oz) and avoirdupois ounce (avdp or standard). A troy ounce is 31.10 grams while the standard avdp ounce is 28.35 grams. So if you are buying by the troy ounce, but selling at the standard ounce, the difference is already 3.5% in the dealer’s favor. Be sure that the scale that weighs your silver shows it as 31.10, not 28.35.
Knowing the percentage of silver to alloy will make the difference as to its value and collectibility, even if the silver content isn’t quite bullion, but is just a favorite for everyday use or special occasions.