The Difference Between Silver Plate and Silver

The Difference Between Silver Plate and Silver

OK, antique buyers and silver lovers: Listen up. In this blog post, we’re going to talk about the difference between silver plate and sterling silver—two very different things that anyone who buys silver or sells silver should be aware of. Think of it as Silver School, and this class as Silver 101.

Ready? Let’s begin!

First on the agenda: What exactly is silver? Silver is a metallic chemical element—symbol Ag, atomic number 47. Silver has the highest electrical conductivity of any of the elements on the periodic table, and also the highest thermal conductivity of any of the metals. It occurs naturally as native silver, but also as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals. Most of the silver that we see today is a byproduct of gold, lead, zinc and copper refining. Silver is valuable, and it’s often used in investment pieces, whether they be jewelry, tableware, utensils (think: silverware!) and coins. Chances are, you or your family probably own a few silver antiques, and they’re probably sterling silver, which is much more valuable than, for example, a silver-plated piece.

Silver teapot

Silver teapot mark

(This Japanese silver coffee pot is an example of a “Silver 950″ mark, telling us that this is 950 parts silver out of 1,000, so the purity is better than 925 sterling silver. This was also acid tested to confirm, as you can see by the mark.)

So how can you tell if you have a sterling silver antique or something less valuable, like silver plate? That’s where the second part of our lesson comes in! Sterling silver is 92.5 percent pure silver, which is why it’s so much more expensive than silver-plated pieces. (The other 7.5 percent is usually something like copper, which is used because pure silver by itself is too soft to use for pieces that will stand the test of time—like your silver antiques!) Look for the stamp “925” or “sterling” on your silver piece—if you see either of those marks, you’ll know that your silver is sterling. It’s extremely, extremely rare that a piece of pure or sterling silver is not marked.

Silver plate dish

(This Reed and Barton dish has identifying marks and is silver plate.)

Silver plate, of course, is different. Though it looks very similar to sterling silver—at least on the surface—its foundation is quite different. Silver plate is a thin layer of silver that’s fused to the surface of another metal (typically copper) using heat. While some silver plate pieces can be valuable, most are not—and in fact, due to the rising price of copper, sometimes that metal is worth more.

Silver plate sauce boat

(This silver plate sauce boat has no marks at all. Sometimes silver items have no marks at all, so they must be tested. In this case, we tested the boat for our clients’ clarification.)

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between silver plate and silver antiques, but there are two ways to do it. One is an acid test, which is also the most common method. This is done by taking a silver sample from your antique and applying red-colored acid to it. Sterling and pure silver will not change the color of the acid, but silver plate will change its color.

Sterling silver acid test

(As you can see, this piece has been acid tested–the item is scratched so that the metal under the surface can be reached. (If a piece is silver plate, the metal underneath might be copper.) Acid is applied to the area and you wait for a couple of minutes; the color it turns will give you the answer. If it turns green, it is silver plate. If brown, it is silver.)

Trying to find the difference between silver plate and silver, we’ll also gladly test your silver antiques for you for free at Sarasota Antique Buyers if you’re not sure what kind of silver piece you have on your hands, and in fact, we recommend doing this to make sure you get an accurate result. Feel free to bring them to us at our downtown Sarasota antique store, Sarasota Antique Buyers, but please call for an appointment (941-726-0401) as the test can take up to 30 minutes. And that is the end of your first Silver School class—stay tuned for more lessons to come!

Need any more questions answered, need to talk to an Expert. I urge you to call. we are only to happy to help.

Sarasota Antique Buyers
(941) 726-0401


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