What do you mean when you say, 'Silver?'

From the shine of bangle bracelets to the polished gleam of formal sterling tableware, who doesn't enjoy the elegance of silver? Second only to gold as a precious metal, silver has been mined for over 5,000 years to provide utensils for religious and household use, mediums of exchange, and jewelry to adorn both sexes.

Today, the purchase price off a piece of silver can range from a few dollars for a simple plated napkin ring right on into the stratosphere for a hallmarked teapot, handcrafted by a famous 18th century silversmith. Eliminating the rare and costly items that you are unlikely to find outside of a museum, there still remains a confusing variety of silver types and prices.
The value of the metal itself, along with workmanship, age and rarity, determine the asking price for a piece of old silver. Most pieces are marked to indicate the percent of silver used (in its pure for, silver is too soft for practical use), with items of higher silver content generally being the most pricey.

If you patronize a knowledgeable dealer for an occasional silver purchase, you'll find silver items clearly marked for content. On the other hand, if you enjoy browsing through flea markets and love the pursuit of a garage sale bargain where prices are lower because of few guarantees, you should know about silver types. Here are a few you're most likely to encounter:

Sterling is the American and British standard for silver, used to produce most elaborate and costly pieces. The sterling standard is 925 parts of silver to 75 parts copper in every 1000 parts sterling silver. Pieces manufactured in the United States are stamped Sterling, occasionally followed by 925. British sterling pieces bear hallmarks, symbols and letters indicating maker place of origin, and year of manufacture, as well as the sterling mark, a standing lion (Lion Passant). While other marks vary, the sterling park appears on all British sterling except for pieces manufactured in Scotland, which bear a thistle mark instead of the Lion Passant. (These thistle-marked pieces are exceedingly rare on the local market).

Coin silver was manufactured prior to the acceptance of the sterling silver in the US (about 1960). Most manufacturers in the early 1800s stamped "Coin Silver" or "Pure Coin" on pieces to indicate the quality- 900 parts silver per thousand.

Sheffield Plate is a confusing term: the city of Sheffield, England remains a major center for the manufacture of sterling and plate, although true Sheffield Plate is no longer made. Sheffield Plate is a silver and copper 'sandwich' with the less precious metal in the middle. It was rolled into thin sheets and used in silverware manufacture at a price far lower than that of sterling. By the mid-1800s, however, the electroplating process made silver plate an even lower priced alternative, and the manufacture of Sheffield Plate was discontinued.

Electroplate is a process of plating a base metal with silver after an object has been manufactured. The base metal is usually indicated in code on the piece: EPNS Electroplate on Nickel Silver (most common today); EPBM Electroplate on Britania Metal; EPWM, Electroplate on White Metal; EPC, Electroplate on Copper.

German Silver is another misleading term. It is not silver at all, but an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. Nickel Silver is another term used interchangeably with German Silver.

The following are some tips on buying silver:

Check marks carefully on silver. If it does not say sterling or bear a hallmark, it is either of foreign manufacture or it is probably not sterling. Prices of sterling silver items generally run higher than other types of silver, at least about twice that of silver plate.

Many Victorian items, such as figural napkin rings, were made only in silver plate and today command high prices. Other antique place pieces are charming and far more collectable than run-of-the-mill modern sterling. If you feel you must have a piece replated to enjoy it, however, be sure to gauge the price accordingly. Professional silverplating is expensive.
Hallmarks can be confusing. All British sterling is hallmarked and some British plate (notably Sheffield) is hallmarked. When in doubt, look for the Lion Passant.

Finally, donít let a flea market seller tell you that a piece marked G. Silver is the same as sterling (it's happened more than once). G. Silver or German Silver, has no silver content, although the piece can be highly collectable anyway.

Next time you covet an appealing Victorian spoon, or an Art Nouveau bracelet, at an auction or a garage sale, look carefully at the markings. A little knowledge in this area can help preserve your bank balance. -Barbara Williams Sackett

From the very first issue of the Antique Quarterly, Summer 1983

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