Humans have long been entranced by the sparkling splendour of silver: as jewellery, coinage, high status homewares and more. It is often used to symbolise milestones, achievements, celebrations and ceremonies, as well as for it's impressive ornamental value.
But how much do you really know about this precious metal?
As we've been making sterling silver jewellery for many years, we're here to give you the lowdown.
Let's get started ...
Silver: the lowdown
Similar in its composition and character to gold and copper, silver is a very soft, ductile and malleable metal which also takes a very high polish. While it doesn't have the hardness of gold, it still has many uses, especially when alloyed with other metals to make it harder.
Silver is one of the seven metals of antiquity which were known to prehistoric humans, the others being gold, copper, tin, lead, iron and mercury. As it has been in use for so long the history of its discovery and early use are not known.
It's a more reactive metal than gold and is also harder to extract from its ores when mined. This meant that in antiquity supplies of silver were rarer and therefore more expensive until around 1500 BC when the Egyptians discovered new methods of refining it.
Today silver is considerably less valuable than gold, which is rarer in nature and more difficult to mine in bulk.
What is sterling silver?
Fine silver is 99.9% pure silver. In this form the metal is beautiful and suffers from minimal tarnish, but it's generally too soft and malleable for many uses, including making most jewellery.
Instead fine silver is alloyed with copper to create sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper. The copper makes the silver harder, more durable and therefore much better to work with and use, but without compromising on colour.
These percentages are the reason why sterling silver is often hallmarked with the numbers 925.
The only downside to sterling silver is that the added copper will cause it to tarnish, with the metal turning dark brown or black over time, especially in humid conditions. However, it's easy to clean and beneath the tarnish your sterling silver will still be in great condition: it won't rust or perish with normal use.
Learn more about how to clean precious metal jewellery.
Sterling silver jewellery
Sterling silver jewellery is an excellent, high quality choice in most circumstances. The metal will not rust or perish, plus if you look after your jewellery it will look great well into the future. You should even be able to pass your silver jewellery on to future generations.
The softness of even sterling silver can make it unsuited to using with very expensive gemstone settings. Gold or platinum are the metals most often used in this situation as they are harder and the settings are less likely to be damaged.
Because silver is soft you should take a bit more care with cleaning it. Don't use harsh cleansers such as baking soda or toothpaste as they will remove some of the metal over time.
Silver vs gold
Your choice of silver or gold jewellery is primarily down to personal preference, but unless you're particularly wealthy, a major deciding factor is cost. It may come as a surprise to learn that although silver is of course a precious metal, it's vastly less expensive than gold.
How much less expensive? At the time of writing about a whopping 75 times less expensive. This makes gathering a solid gold jewellery collection a very pricey option by comparison to silver.
The reason is primarily that there is considerably more silver in the world than gold. It's estimated that 1.4 million tonnes of silver has been mined throughout human history, while only 173,000 tonnes of gold have been mined.
How do you know it's real silver?
In many cases the silver jewellery you own will be hallmarked or stamped with 925 (sterling silver) or 999 (fine silver). You may also see the stamps SS or FS to represent each.
However, not all silver jewellery is hallmarked as it's not a legal requirement in all countries (including Australia) and we feel that for some designs the hallmark can detract from the finish of the piece.
So how else can you work out if your silver is real?
One test is to use a strong magnet (preferably a rare-earth neodymium magnet). If the magnet joins strongly to the metal, it's not silver or the piece may only be silver plated. However, there are other metals that are not magnetic, so this is not a definitive test.
If you're feeling brave you can also dab a tiny amount of chlorine bleach on the metal in an inconspicuous place and watch for a reaction. Silver (including silver plating) will turn brown or black in the presence of bleach. Rinse the metal well afterwards and use a polishing cloth or silver dip to try to remove the discolouration.
By the way, this should give you a clue as to why wearing silver jewellery in a swimming pool is never a good idea!
Finally, you can also purchase a precious metal testing kit from Ebay or Amazon which should definitively tell you what the metal is if you follow the instructions.
The parting shot
The beautiful bright and warm colouring of sterling silver will suit almost anyone.
In addition those with sensitive skins are highly unlikely to have an adverse affect from it, unlike with lesser metals. Plus of course it's significantly lower cost compared to metals like gold and platinum mean you can easily invest in lots of gorgeous silver jewellery.
Like gold, silver will also maintain its value - and possibly even increase in value - over time in comparison to other commodities. It is also endlessly recyclable and the metal can be reused in many forms.
On top of those benefits, having silver jewellery in your collection will add to its classiness, value, longevity and versatility. Silver jewellery is a truly excellent choice.