One of the most frequent questions I am asked is: How do I know if I have Sterling Silver or Silverplate? Often it’s an old tarnished tea set, or the flatware that was only used during the holidays. If you are new to picking antiques, or you are sorting through a family estate, this article will help you understand and identify the difference between Sterling Silver items and Silverplated objects.
What is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals. Without the alloy, silver can be a bit soft, so it is strengthened with other metals such as copper. This is what we generally consider solid silver. Sterling silver is used for high quality forks, spoons, tea sets, and bowls. This is different from what is commonly called “Coin Silver”. Coin Silver is unique to 18th and 19th century America and contains a lower percentage of silver. It is usually 80%-90% pure silver and was often made from the melting down of silver coins.
What is Silverplate?
Silver plate began as a way to impart the beauty and durability of silver without the expense of solid silver. Sheffield plate was the first method used in England, and thin sheets of copper were heated and bonded to a base metal such as copper or nickel silver. Around 1840 Electroplating was invented and became the standard method for silver plating in most of the world. Most of the plated objects that I come across are electroplated and the age and quality varies.
Some of the most beautiful pieces of antique silverplate were produced in my hometown: Meriden. Known as “The Silver City”, Meriden was home to the Meriden Britannia Company, producing some of the very best silver plated napkin rings, tableware, and silver objects of the Victorian era. Meriden Britannia, Meriden Silverplate Co. Wilcox, Watrous and others were consolidated around 1898 into the silver firm: International Silver. For more information about Meriden Silver, reach out to the Meriden Historical Society. They are an excellent resource.
How can I tell the difference between Sterling Silver and Silver plate?
I like to start by looking at the piece. The easiest way to get more information is from the hallmarks. Hallmarks often give us the Who, What, When, and Where of a piece. For the most part, an object made of solid silver will have a purity stamp. On most pieces of American silver, you will see the word: STERLING, and sometimes 925-1000. British silver has a separate system for hallmarking and you can find more information about it here. Sometimes you’ll find an obvious maker’s mark such as TIFFANY & CO. However, there are also hundreds of pictorial marks like the Wallace Silversmith stag or the Gorham anchor, lion and “G”. I appraise and research sterling silver almost every week, and I have found 925-1000.com to be an excellent resource. Throughout history, the purity of silver objects has been regulated and overseen by a guild or a group of government assayers. This means that you can make reasonable assumptions about the purity and quality of antique silver based on the hallmarks you find.
Silver Plate Stamps and Hallmarks
Since there are no standard hallmarks on plated wares, it can be very difficult to sort them out from sterling silver. In fact, many of the silverplate hallmarks are intentionally designed to look like sterling purity marks! Before you dive into the hallmarks, start by using your detective skills: Does the metal on this piece have a uniform appearance? Are there areas where the plating is worn away? Can you see copper or a dull grey metal underneath? If you do not have any purity marks, and there are no obvious signs of plate wear, take a look at the maker’s mark.
This is helpful for a stamped piece, but what if your object doesn’t have any hallmarks? Now it’s really time to be a detective. If you can’t find a hallmark, ask yourself a few questions: Is this a well-made, high-quality item? It is a beautiful object that was meant to last for generations? Or, are you looking at something that was mass-produced for the consumer market? It is possible you have a reproduction? You will see evidence of workmanship, care, and quality on a valuable piece of silver. I know it sounds a little corny, but I can feel the quality of an object when I hold it.
If you have used all of your detective skills, researched the entire internet, and still can’t find answers, it’s time to consult an expert. There are many rare and valuable pieces of silver from Europe, India, and Asia. Many of these are not signed or marked in an easy to read format. A good silver appraiser can help you identify your silver and find out what it is worth.