what is the difference between real/regular silver and sterling silver? Which one is better?

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what is the difference between real/regular silver and sterling silver? Which one is better?

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Sterling silver is a specific alloy that contains 92.5% silver, with the rest being made up of other metals – copper is the most common. This alloy is better for resisting wear, especially when used as jewellery and cutlery – pure/fine silver easily scratches and would quickly have a ruined surface finish.

However, sterling silver can tarnish more easily as it has metals within that can easily oxidise. These metals also impact the visual properties; fine silver is noticeably brighter than sterling, especially when you consider silver plated items. Kind of like comparing different ‘grades’ of gold.

Fun fact, in the UK it was historically used to make coins, hence the official term ‘pound sterling’, so that coins (previously made of fine silver) didn’t have to be replaced as frequently.

Sterling silver is an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper—that’s why you’ll sometimes see the identifying stamp on it that says 925. The alternative is called fine silver which is 99.9% silver. They are both real silver, it’s just that sterling is an alloy (alloy means a blend of more than one type of metal together), and so fine silver has higher silver content and is more “pure” silver.

Which one is better? It depends what you’re doing with it! Silver is actually an extremely soft metal, fine silver is so soft that you can scratch it with your fingernail. So that’s why most jewellery is made with sterling—the little bit of copper makes the material much harder and therefore it’s a lot better for say, the band of a ring. A band ring made out is fine silver would warp out of shape very quickly with daily wear, and that’s obviously not something you want! (Sterling silver can still warp, but it takes a lot longer and a lot more wear and tear to do it.)

However, the softness of fine silver is preferable for other jewellery applications where you have an element that benefits from being softer. The main example of this would be a bezel setting. (When you see a usually rounded-topped stone—called a cabochon—that is set into a piece of jewellery with kind of a ring of silver all around it, that’s called a bezel.) Since the bezel is a thin strip of metal that you want to push down over the surface of the stone to hold it in place, it is easier to do that if it is softer. Once it’s pushed around the stone there’s really nowhere for it to go, so you don’t need to worry about the metal deforming. In this case you benefit from the softness of fine silver, so many people use fine silver for bezels.

Typically in a bezel set ring, the band of the ring and the back plate for the stone would be sterling silver for durability and then the bezel itself would be fine silver to make the setting easier.

Sterling silver also tarnishes more/faster than fine silver because of its copper content, so you might use fine silver for something that’s going to be in an area that will be inaccessible for polishing in order to keep that spot free from tarnish. If you’re setting a clear quartz cabochon you might place a disc of fine silver under the stone so that tarnish won’t develop under the stone.

You can also do something called “depletion gilding” which uses a repeated application of heat to raise the silver content to the surface of sterling silver and essentially creates a thin coating of fine silver on top of the sterling. This is not a permanent treatment and will wear off in time, but it’s a good option again for something like the inside of a bezel with a clear stone that won’t be impacted by wear and tear. You can also do this for enamelling techniques (enamel is done by melting powdered glass onto a layer of metal using a kiln), since enamel only works on fine silver, not sterling. You can get around this by raising a layer of fine silver on the sterling and then put your enamel onto that surface no problem.

So one isn’t “better” that the other, they are both better for different applications, and the difference is just in the amount of silver in the metal.

I am (obviously, lol) a jeweller, so this is the context that I can speak to. Not sure about other things like investing or anything like that! Sorry it was kind of long, but I hope it helped. Feel free to ask clarifying questions 🙂

Sterling silver is not all silver. It’s a mix between silver and other metals (usually copper).

Sterling silver is harder than real silver, so it’s more practical for jewelry and such.

But real silver is more expensive.