Silver Hallmarks, Stamps, and Identifying Marks
You might be surprised to learn that sterling silver is not 100% pure silver. In fact, sterling silver is an alloy metal made up of 92.5 percent silver and a 7.5 percent combination of other metals (frequently copper). If you own a piece of sterling silver jewelry, by turning the piece over in your hand, you’ll likely find the number “925” stamped into the metal. That "925" identifies the piece as being made up of—you guessed it—92.5% silver, also known as sterling silver!
That stamp is an example of a silver hallmark, less frequently known as an "Assayer's mark." In most places around the world, these common identifying marks are stamped into products made of sterling silver in order to certify several important things: the purity of the metal, when the item was made, to locate the country of origin, and to identify the silversmith who crafted the item. A stamp of a lion, for example, indicates that your sterling silver was made in England, while a stamp reading “Hibernia” indicates silver made in Ireland.
The hallmark showing the purity of the silver is typically found in the same area as the stamp showing the date of manufacture. Alongside these two hallmarks you’ll also find the maker’s mark, the “signature” of the silversmith who actually poured and shaped your silver. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you’re ready to identify where your items came from. Plus, you’re equipped to detect a phony item should someone try to sneak one past you
How Much is Sterling Silver Worth?
The value of sterling silver at any point in time is always related to the silver spot price. The spot price of silver is the worth of one ounce of silver and a specific time and place—before costs of production and dealer markups. Silver’s spot price is changing all the time, which means your silver could be worth more (or less!) from one month to the next. When large quantities of silver change hands, such as on a commodities exchange (COMEX), those transactions have an outsized effect on the spot price of silver.
All of this means that the current spot price of silver is a barometer for gauging how much sterling silver is worth; it’s not a one-to-one ratio. The best way to use the spot price is as a ballparking estimate. If you’re paying much more than the spot price for silver, you’re most likely not getting a good deal. If, on the other hand, you’re able to sell silver for more than the spot price, that’s a good trade.
Common Patterns in Buying and Selling Silver
Because sterling silver is made up of 92.5 percent pure silver, silver investors and commodities traders typically try to pay less than the spot price of silver for sterling silver. It wouldn’t make sense to pay 100% of the price for something that’s worth 92.5% of the value, would it? Basically, in this scenario, by offering to pay 92.5% of the spot price, the buyer is trying to pay full value for the silver contained in the item, and pay nothing for the other metals used in the alloy (which are worth much less). That’s why, in general, you should count on receiving somewhat less than the spot price when you sell sterling silver.
In addition, various economic and political factors come into play for all commodities prices, including silver. Consistent inflation in the United States dollar, for example, typically means that an ounce of silver is worth more over time when measured in US dollars. In other words, as the value of a single dollar decreases, an ounce of silver costs more dollars. Economic uncertainty is another factor that affects how much silver is worth. If there’s uncertainty about the future value of a currency, many people will trade in their dollars (or euros or pesos, etc) for precious metals, driving up the price of those metals (including silver). In reverse: if the value of a dollar is increasing, fewer people will be interested in buying precious metals as a safety net, decreasing the value of those metals.
The Value of Sterling Silver
Which would you rather own as an investment: an ounce of 92.5% silver, or an ounce of 99.9% silver? That’s precisely the difference between sterling silver and silver bullion, and the reason that sterling silver isn’t typically seen as “investment grade” compared to fine silver.
However, while sterling silver isn’t found in investment portfolios, the reason for its popularity is that it has a multitude of valuable uses in commercial settings. In fact, sterling silver has been found as a component of household items and medical gear in excavations of the ancient Babylonian city-state of Ur, indicating that sterling silver was valued highly even thousands of years ago.
Due to the fact that pure silver isn’t durable enough to sustain repeated handling, silversmiths combine silver with other metals to create what we call “sterling silver.” Unfortunately, introducing other metals into the silver alloy results in faster tarnishing of the alloy. You may have seen sterling silverware developing a thin layer of corrosion after only a few years without polishing. Another common sight is tarnishing around the mouths of sterling silver salt shakers as copper in the sterling silver alloy reacts with table salt.
Other common domestic items which are composed of sterling silver include:
- Silver flatware and tableware: sterling silverware has been an essential part of setting a “proper” table since the Victorian period. During this time, proper etiquette dictated that no food should be touched with one’s hands, and the fashionability of sterling silverware led to up to 100 different pieces (including knives, forks, and spoons each suited for a different purpose). In more recent memory, newlywed couples were frequently given a set of sterling silverware as a wedding gift, to be trotted out on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. It’s worth noting that silver has certain valuable antibacterial and antifungal properties, making it especially suited to dinnerware.
- Musical Instruments: A few musical instruments, including flutes and saxophones, are frequently made of sterling silver. In the case of flutes, sterling silver is a commonly chosen medium out of which to craft the instrument, while for saxophones, only a few manufacturers choose to make instruments out of the precious metal. These saxophones, however, are highly regarded for the unique resonance properties of the silver they’re made out of.
- Jewelry: Due its malleability, commonly accepted status as a precious metal, and relative affordability compared to more expensive metals such as gold and platinum, sterling silver is frequently found in jewelry. Sterling silver’s uses in jewelry can range from pendants and brooches to rings. In addition, sterling silver is often found in jewelry made out of more expensive precious metals as the “setting” for precious gems.
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