by Sheryl Gross Shatz, Certified Gemologist,  S.C.C.

(This information was organized specifically for members of  SilverForum.
 It comes from the author's What's it Made Of? A Jewelry Materials Identification Guide.)

                    


 

What's it made of? is probably one of the most commonly asked questions owners and potential buyers want answered about a piece of jewelry. Collectors may just be curious but appraisers and sellers need the correct answer. Proper materials identification is essential for pricing, helpful for dating, and useful for attribution.

As is true with all types of materials, the best way of learning to identify silver is to see and handle a lot of it.  It is not scientific or foolproof, but with experience you will learn the "feel" and "look" of silver.  Also, if you have a good sense of smell it will come in handy.  Silver has an odor you may be able to recognize. This can be useful when you are out shopping and testing is not an option.

BASIC PROCEDURES

  1. Compare known to unknown.  Use a piece that you know for sure is silver.
  2. Keep an open mind, anything is possible. Humans are "creative" and combine materials.
  3. Be skeptical.  Anyone can use a "925" stamp.
  4. Be thorough.  Examine all findings and elements of a piece.
  5. Carefully look at each piece that belongs to a set.                            
  6. Do more than one test. Do not jump to conclusions.

 

OTHER WHITE (SILVER COLORED) METALS
 

It helps if you know how to recognize other metals that may be mistaken or substituted for silver.  
1. Platinum Family: 

 

there are six white metals in this family--platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, and osmium--the first three are those most often used in jewelry.
 

Platinum--silver greyish color--does not tarnish--harder and heavier than silver. It can be marked "Platinum" or "Plat", and when alloyed with iridium is marked "900 PL 100 IR" or "90% PL 10% IR".  

Palladium--silver greyish color--does not tarnish--can be used with or as a substitute for platinum and as an alloy for white gold.

 Rhodium--silver greyish color--does not tarnish--used to plate pieces--it's high reflectivity produces a bright durable finish.

 


2. Alpaca:
 

yellowish silver color--an alloy of copper, zinc,nickel, and 2% silver--frequently used to produce low quality Mexican jewelry.
3. Aluminum
silver whitish color--very lightweight--does not tarnish.
 
4. German Silver

 

(Nickel Silver)--silver color--an alloy of copper,nickel, and zinc--contains no silver --can be marked"E.P.N.S." (electroplated nickel silver).
 
5. Gunmetal
 
bluish grey color--iron with a burnished smooth surface.
 
6. Pewter
 
silver grey color--an alloy of tin and lead.
 
7. White Metal an alloy of tin and antimony commonly used for jewelry

 

THIS IS SILVER 

Silver is the most common of the precious metals on earth.  Alone, silver is too soft to be useful and needs to be alloyed with a harder metal.  This is usually copper which is added after the silver has been heated and changed to a liquid. Silver's softness is also the reason it develops a mellow patina. This beloved finish is caused by scratches that have blurred together.  Silver is a greyish color which tarnishes when it comes into contact with sulfur, hydrogen sulfide, or ozone.  Along with mechanization, the industrial revolution spawned polluted air which in turn made it necessary for us to polish our silver. 

The purest form of silver is expressed as .999 fine.  Other forms and their names are:  
 
1. Brittania: 95% silver--can be marked "950"
2. Coin Silver: 90% silver--can be marked "900", "coin" or "standard".
3. Continental Silver: (European)--80% silver--can be marked "800", "825" (82.5%),
"830" (83%),or "850"(85%).
4. Silverplate:

 

 

 

base metal--coated with silver by electroplating.  NOTE--often by doing
an examination with your loupe you can determine that the piece in question is plated.

 The base metal will show through where repairs have been made or there has been a lot of wear. Areas that have lost the plating may be a different color or duller than those still plated.
5. Sterling Silver: 92.5% silver--925 parts silver and 75 parts copper--can be marked     "925" or "sterling"
   


 

TESTING
 

A way of determining if an item is silver is to use a testing kit. These are available from most jewelry supply houses. Some kits are designed for testing both silver and gold.  Most kits contain solutions which have nitric acid in them. Therefore, be careful not to get the solution on your hands and remember to perform tests in a well ventilated area. Usually there is a glass rod (which does not react to the acid) you can use for dropping the solution onto the item.

Be sure to ask for and receive directions on how to use the kit.  Test on a cleaned area of the piece.  Be aware that if the piece has a lacquer finish this will prevent the solution from reacting with the metal.  Also, some kits' directions instruct you to use a file to brighten the area.  This, as well as notching out an area , will damage the piece.

After applied, the solution will change colors if there is silver present.  In kits that have a yellow colored solution (colors may vary between manufacturers) it will change from yellow to shades of red when in contact with silver. A deep burgundy color indicates sterling.  A cloudy pale reddish color means there is silver but less than sterling's 92.5%. If the solution does not change color you probably do not have a silver item.

Always do testing on an inconspicuous area because sometimes the solution may discolor the jewelry and leave a "testing mark",  As soon as you see a color change wipe the solution off of the piece with a soft cloth. Then, use a rouge cloth to repolish the tested area back to its original finish.  I learned from Christie Romero that you can usually avoid leaving a "testing mark" by reducing the time the solution is on the piece.  to do this, apply the solution to the jewelry and then quickly wipe it off with a white tissue or paper towel.  Now look at the paper for your test results.

You can become accurate and confident when identifying silver. Handle a lot of it so you can depend on and trust your identifications. Even well-meaning people can give you incorrect information. Determine the identification yourself. Once you develop and follow a set routine you will discover it is not very time consuming and well worth the effort. Examine each piece the same way and ask yourself the same questions each time so you will not overlook anything.

Sheryl Gross Shatz, Certified Gemologist, S. C. C. , wrote, What's It Made Of? A Jewelry Materials Identification Guide, to assist students, dealers and collectors. For over twenty years she has evaluated and priced jewelry that has been donated to charities. Her article, "Endangered Species Jewelry", appeared in Jeweler's Circular Keystone - Heritage, May 1998, and another article, "What's It Made Of?, Identifying Antique and Vintage Jewelry Materials", will appear in the April 1999 issue of JCK.

To contact Sheryl Gross Shatz and find out how to order What's It Made Of? A Jewelry Materials Identification Guide  email Sheryl at :

SGShatz@aol.com