A simple and easy to understand guide to buying and selling Sterling or other silver items.
As both a buyer and seller of sterling silver, I am most appalled when Sellers list items as sterling when they are not. There is an enormous difference between silver-plated and sterling silver items, and if you are going to buy or sell either, you should know the difference between them.
This can not only save you hundreds of dollars in wasted money spent on items listed as sterling that were not, but can also save you time, and a possible lawsuit or other criminal complaints against you for selling silverplate as sterling.
I have personally been ripped off by unscrupulous Sellers who have no knowledge of silver and/or incorrectly identified the items they were selling. Even when presented with evidence, some have refused to refund my money. These are crooks, outlaws, and Sellers without ethics. They should be charged with fraud, left negative feedback, and disputes should be opened for the items you purchased if they are not what they should be. Don't let them get away with your money without a fight! There are some good internet crime investigation websites that will take your complaint and forward it to the proper agencies and law enforcement in the jurisdiction where the Seller lives.
Always check the feedback rating of the Seller you are buying from.
Silver plate is the process of bonding an extremely thin layer (measured in microns) of silver to a base metal; most commonly used are copper, brass, white metal, or nickel. This layer of silver is so thin and nearly impossible to recover from the item without expensive means, and is not worth the cost of recovery due to the small amount of silver that can be recovered. Silverplated flatware and hollowware are very common, and very inexpensive, with the exception of rare or limited production items, and items made by well-known and respected manufacturers.
If your item has EP, EPNS, Silver on Copper, or other terms marked on it, then it is electroplated silver, it is not sterling. EPNS stands for electroplated nickel silver. Manufacturers are not allowed to use the word "Sterling" on plated items, so you will never see the term "Sterling Plated". However, some unscrupulous sellers, especially on Television ads, will use the term "Layered in Precious Sterling Silver". This is an advertising ploy used to get you to buy their product, thinking it is Sterling Silver. It is not Sterling! It is simple silver-plate. One of those ads that comes to mind is the Prayer Cross that is advertised constantly. This item is a cheap plated cross, and contains no sterling whatsoever.
As copper prices continue to rise, it may be wise to buy silverplated copper items in order to scrap and sell the copper, which is far more valuable than the silver plating on the item. If you suspect an item is sterling, it will marked somewhere. You may need a magnifier or jeweler's loupe to find the mark, but it will be there if it is Sterling. If there is no mark, then it is NOT Sterling. Don't list it as Sterling unless you know for sure it is Sterling Silver.
VermeilVermeil is sterling silver with a gold plating. Again, there are some differences between gold plating, and real, quality vermeil. Real Vermeil is sterling silver with real gold bonded to the sterling, and it is usually quite thick. It is not electroplated, but layered and bonded to the sterling. Good quality vermeil will last a lifetime, meaning the gold will not wear off. It is the type of jewelry you can hand down to generations. You will usually pay a little more for vermeil than plain sterling, but you know you are getting real sterling, and not a thin, gold plated copper item. Vermeil jewelry is good quality and worth looking at for investment. Vermeil is also always marked as .925 or Sterling.
Sterling SilverSterling silver is 92.5% pure silver, which is why it is so much more expensive than plated items. Sterling silver can be melted and the pure silver recovered rather inexpensively. Sterling silver is traded in troy ounces, a troy ounce being equal to 31.2 grams. A troy pound consists of 12 troy ounces.
If you list your sterling you should state the weight of the item as accurately as possible, as most collectors determine the price they are willing to pay by the market value of silver on any given day. When you purchase silver bars or silver rounds, they are marked .999 fine silver, and this is the foundation for the trading value. The market value of silver is based on .999 or 99% fine silver, NOT sterling. Do not give a melt value of your sterling in the listing unless you have done the math correctly.
Melt ValueTo determine the melt value of sterling, we will use the following example:
1 troy ounce of sterling silver = 31.2 grams X .925 or 28.86 grams of pure silver.
If silver is trading today for $17 per troy ounce, then 1 ounce of sterling has a melt value of $15.72, NOT $17.
Furthermore, that value is applicable only if you melt the silver yourself. A foundry or smelter will charge you to melt your silver and assay the pure content, generally this can be from 12%-20% of the pure weight after melting and assaying.
American Silver vs European SilverAmerican made Sterling silver is always marked Sterling or 925. There are no exceptions to this rule. Period! Colonial sterling from the 1700's may contain English hallmarks, but nonetheless, will be marked.
European, and especially British sterling is hallmarked. Hallmarks are made with a die, that is stamped directly into the piece. Most British hallmarks consist of at least 3 marks, the first one being the city of manufacture, denoted by a leopard head, anchor, or other mark. The second mark is the purity mark, denoted by a Lion Passant, which is a standing lion with a paw raised. The lion mark indicates a purity of 92.5% or higher, this is the standard for sterling. The third mark consists of a single letter, which is a code for the year of manufacture. All the various hallmarks are now available online from many different websites. If you do a google search for English silver hallmarks, you will find many references that will help you identify where and when your item was made.
European or Continental silver is generally not Sterling silver, according to the standard of .925. Germany's standard is .800, which is substantially lower in pure silver content. It is only 80% pure. Russian silver is usually marked .840 or 87.5% pure.
France's standard is .950, which is higher in purity than the sterling standard of .925. French silver is also hallmarked and stamped .950 or has a hallmark of a head of Minerva, indicative of 95% pure.
Italian sterling is generally .925, though some older silver from Italy is marked 800 pure.
Other Silver Producing CountriesThere are a few countries that make sterling silver jewelry and other items that do not mark the items. India and Bali are two that come to mind, and I'm sure there are others. Remember that the International Laws regarding purity hallmarks do not apply to local craftsman, small businesses, and private jewelers that create and sell their own goods. Once you know your silver, you should be able to look at a piece and immediately be able to tell if it is sterling or not. If in doubt, have it checked with the acid test!
Testing Silver PurityThere are 2 common ways to accurately test silver. The most common and oldest method is the acid test. This is done by taking a sample filing from your item and applying acid to it. Sterling and pure silver will not change the color of the acid, which is usually red. If the acid turns brown or changes color, then the item is not Sterling. It may have some silver content, but it is not the Sterling standard.
If you attempt to test your items yourself, make sure you take a sample from well below the silverplate. Silverplate will show a positive test for silver if you apply acid directly on to it. You must make a deep groove in the piece so you are below the plating before you can apply your acid. This is the most accurate way to test silver by yourself, as this is the method most jewelers use. However, I have had jewelers tell me an item was sterling, when it was not. Use a reputable jeweler and get their test results in writing. If they refuse to give you their test result in writing, find another jeweler. If they are doing the test correctly, they should not hesitate to certify their results.
You may also use a testing stone to perform this test, as it will not leave a dull mark on the piece you are testing. In order to use a testing stone correctly, you must scratch the piece on the stone, and again, make sure you scratch deep enough below the surface to get an accurate test. You must also be sure you are using fresh acid. Acid that is over 9 months old will deteriorate and will not give you a correct test, even on pure silver. Buy fresh acid from a reputable dealer.
The second method of testing is to send your item to a foundry or smelter. While they will absolutely be able to determine the purity of the silver in your item, it may also need to be damaged or melted to get an accurate assay. This method is usually used when you are scrapping silver and wish to have it destroyed for the monetary value.
Update - September 2013I've received so many messages from both Ebay Buyers and Sellers in the past year regarding the silver that is coming from China that is marked 925, but is not sterling, that I felt the need to address this issue.
I would only like to suggest and strongly recommend that you DO NOT purchase silver from China unless you know your source and are absolutely certain you know what you are purchasing. There has been a huge influx of silver plated brass coming from China that is being sold and marked as Sterling or 925. And they are selling it on Ebay as well as other web sites! These fakes are reaching international markets and upsetting the economy of the nations that have laws regarding the purity of Sterling.
If you purchase Sterling from China on Ebay, make sure the Seller has a return and refund policy, and that Ebay's buyer protection plan is valid for that Seller. You will most certainly want to have the purity verified by a reputable jeweler or other source, and if it is not Sterling silver as marked, return it immediately for a refund. The old saying "If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't" applies here, as most of the Chinese sellers are practically giving away the silver, at prices way below market value. This should be a red flag!
ConclusionWith extremely few exceptions, Sterling silver is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, marked. If you suspect an item is sterling, but cannot find the mark that says sterling, or 925, or English hallmarks, then it is definitely NOT Sterling. The sterling standard has been around for centuries, and if you are lucky enough to find a piece of silver that is 500 years old and unmarked, then you might have an extremely expensive antique. But that is hardly the rule. The rule is "If it isn't marked, it isn't sterling". Don't buy it, and most importantly, don't sell it as Sterling.
There are laws that prohibit selling an item by misrepresenting, or incorrectly identifying the content. If you list an item as sterling, and it is not sterling, you may be subject to a lawsuit. If you don't accept returns or give refunds due to your mistake, you may end up in court. This is commonly called FRAUD. There are laws in every state that prohibit the selling of anything that is misrepresented. Make sure you know what you have and you list your silver plated or sterling items in the correct category and state in your listing exactly what your item is made of.