How do you know if something is ‘real’ silver?
A selection of vintage spoons. They all look silver, but are they?
Many people enjoy making spoon rings and fork bangles from old cutlery, but often ask how to identify something as silver. Many items have marks on them that appear to look like silver hallmarks, some items even say ‘silver’ on them, but sadly they aren’t. So let me explain what to look out for, and how to know something is real silver. In particular, we are talking about spoons and cutlery, but many of these tips apply to other silver objects and jewelry.
Sterling Silver Spoon ring, By Dave Wilson.
made from an old English Silver Apostle spoon.
The first quick check is to use a magnet. If the magnet sticks to it, then it’s steel. It might be silver plated on the outside, but solid silver is not magnetic. If it sticks to a magnet then it is not silver. Of course, if it doesn’t stick, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it's silver, but it's one quick way to discount it.
Only Iron and steel items will stick to a magnet.
Top tip. If you are using a magnet to check jewelry, do be aware that many items such as clasps and cufflinks have small steel springs inside them, which “will” stick to a magnet, even if the clasp itself is silver. Test several places to be sure.
German / Tibetan silver & Nickel Silver
After WWII there was a shortage of precious metals. Consequently, several alloys were made, designed to look like silver. Mostly these are alloys of nickel and other metals. Unfortunately, these alloys were given names like “German Silver” “Nickel silver” and “Tibetan silver”. You may see vintage forks and spoons with these names stamped on them. Despite the deliberately misleading use of the term silver, they are just nickel alloy and contain no silver whatsoever.
Vintage spoon with "Nickel Silver" stamped on the rear.
The spoon contains no real silver content.
T.A. is likely the maker.
Important note: - Today the internet is flooded with "Tibetan Silver" jewelry imported from China. The problem is that they also stamp it 925 (illegally). To make people think that it's sterling silver. Sellers around the world buy these for a couple of dollars and then re-sell them on as sterling silver. A quick search on eBay will show up many huge “Tibetan silver” bracelets, which sell for a high price. They are worthless, costume jewelry, and contain no real silver. Likewise, many rhodium plated items from China also have a large 925 engraved on them. Most are simply fake costume jewelry, often copies of designer brands. Remember, a 925 stamp on its own is no guarantee of anything. Anyone can buy a 925 punch for a couple of pounds. It should be an indication from the maker that the item is made of sterling silver. But the availability of the punches, and the Chinese habit of stamping 925 on all the fakes, means it is no longer any guarantee.
example of a one ounce Tibet silver bangle on eBay.
Although it looks silver, it isn't. Note the price, Just £1.19 obviously just costume jewellery. But when these are stamped 925 and sold at higher prices, it can be easy to think it's real silver.
A full legitimate hallmark is probably the only guarantee that something is silver. In Britain and across Europe, there is a long tradition of hallmarks on silver and gold. These marks are applied by a government-certified assay office and show that the item has been tested and meets the required standard of purity. Reading hallmarks is an art in itself, with many countries having different marks which have changed over time. But the internet contains some great resources for researching hallmarks. With British silver, you are looking for a lion, this is the big clue that it's silver. You may also be able to identify the assay office, the maker, and even the year it was made. Due to the size and complexity of British hallmarks especially, they are very difficult to copy, and it is illegal to do so.
British Silver Hallmarks. Probably the best guarantee,
but identifying them takes practice.
Again, after the war, as silver became scarcer another alternative was silver plating. An item could be made from cheaper metal (usually a nickel alloy) and then plated with silver. Hence you get the look and feel of real silver but at a fraction of the cost. English silver plate became very popular in the second half of the 20th century. To make these items look like real silver, the manufacturers also added marks. Whilst these weren’t illegal fakes or forgeries. The intention was to deliberately make them look like silver hallmarks to the casual observer and to fool your guest at the dinner party. They may fool you too!
These ‘pseudo hallmarks’ catch many people out at antique markets, car boot sales and swap meets. You pick up a blackened old spoon, flip it over and see a series of small marks stamped underneath. You assume they are British hallmarks, and the item will be silver. But sadly, not so. Remember to look for the lion. It is important to tell the difference between a real silver hallmark and a silver ‘plate’ pseudo hallmark. It is not always easy…
Pseudo Marks, on a British silver plated item.
Note the EP and the NS are separated to look like traditional hallmarks.
As the silver plating is applied by an electrical process, you will often see E.P.N.S. stamped on items. This means “Electro Plated Nickel Silver”. Again, the use of the term silver may lead you to think that it is – but it isn’t. These items are made of nickel alloy (as explained above) and then electrically plated with a thin layer of silver. EPNS is a sure sign that the item isn’t solid silver. However, the manufacturers were still sneaky and reduced these initials to just N.S. or E.P. designed to look like silver makers marks. But again, they simply mean nickel silver, or electro-plated.
Note: - real silver will darken with time and eventually go completely black. But silver-plated items do contain a thin coating of silver and so will tarnish and oxidize in the same way. Hence an old, silver-plated spoon may age and look identical to a sold silver one of the same age.
British or European hallmarks are a sure sign that its silver. But what if it doesn’t have hallmarks, or you can’t identify them? The only real way to be sure is to test the item. The problem here is that if the item is silver plated, then it may indeed test as silver (which of course the surface is). To establish if its ‘solid’ silver, you need to file the surface to get to the metal underneath. If the item is solid silver this can easily be polished later. But if it is silver plated, then sanding through to the underlying metal can be quite damaging and would need re-plating later.
Testing can be done in many ways. Assay offices and refiners will use very sophisticated X-ray machines. But these are usually out of the reach of most people. The most common method for jewelers and collectors is to use a Troy testing kit. These are readily available from jewelry tool suppliers and consist of several small bottles of acids. When dropped onto the metal, The acids will produce different colors depending on the metal. A small piece of absorbent paper is used to soak up the drop and clarify the color change. A range of acids is available for testing different grades of gold and distinguishing them from base metals. But these kits usually also contain a silver testing liquid. This is also sold as Schweters salts. And this is the only bottle you need to quickly test silver. The acid is usually amber in color. A small drop is applied to the (clean) surface of the item. If the metal is silver the drop will instantly turn bright blood red. Soaking up the drop with the paper will leave a bright red stain on the metal. 999 and 925 sterling will give a very strong and instant result. Lower grade silver such as continental 800 will produce a visible result but not quite so bright red. If wiped off quickly, the red stain can easily be polished out and will not damage the silver.
Typical bottle of "Amber" silver testing acid.
a drop in silver will turn bright blood red.
Warning: - If the item is just silver plated, the acid with show red, but can burn through the plating to reveal the nickel underneath (which will then turn brown). This will need to be replated later. Troy testing kits vary and so always follow the instructions provided. Remember that these are quite strong acids, so use them with due care. But a quick drop will instantly tell you if something is silver.
Specific Gravity Test.
Fakes, especially coins and bars may have thick layers of silver but have a cheap metal core inside. Normally the only way to tell would be to cut it open, destroying it in the process. However, there is a method that uses a clever bit of science, known as specific gravity.
You may have heard the story of the Greek mathematician, Archimedes, leaping out of his bath and shouting “Eureka!”. He had been asked by the king to calculate how much gold was in his crown, but due to the complex shape, he couldn’t work out the volume. Whilst sitting in his bath he noticed that the bathwater rose as he submerged himself in it. This is the key to working out the volume of an unusual shape object. Hence his exclamation. Whether the story is factual or not, Archimedes was correct…
Greek Mathematician Archimedes.
All metals have a specific gravity number, this is a ratio of the weight of the item compared to the same volume of water. Sounds complicated? Not really. Imagine having a glass of water, that water will have a certain weight. Now imagine an identical glass filled with lead. The volume is the same, and they both have the same dimensions. But the glass full of lead will be heavier than the glass of water. Different metals will be more or less heavy (than the same volume of water), and this ratio is the specific gravity.
If you google this, you will see that the Specific gravity of silver is 10.49 meaning it's 10.49 times heavier than water. So, what does this mean? Imagine you have a small cube of shiny metal 1cm X 1cm X 1cm about the size of a stock cube. If it is (pure) silver then it should weigh 10.49g even if it is plated, painted, the result should be very accurate. Note that sterling silver has an SG of 10.36, being fractionally lighter than pure silver.
To calculate the specific gravity, you simply divide the weight in g by the volume in cm3. For example, if we have a 2x2x2cm cube of the ‘yellow metal. We know this is 8 Cm3. On the scale, it weighs 92.56g. We divide 92.56 by 8 which gives us a specific gravity of 11.57g per cm3 A quick look at the chart below and you can see that this is very likely to be 10k yellow gold. Note that higher karat gold would be heavier.
Table of specific Gravity
It is easy to calculate this when the metal comes in a convenient cube that you can measure. But how do we calculate the volume of an object like a spoon or a piece of jewelry? Consider a small spoon. Start by weighing the item as normal, let us say it weighs 15g.
We now need to know the volume.There is no way you can calculate its volume by measuring- The shape is way too complex. This is where Archimedes had the solution….
Tie a piece of thin thread to the spoon so that you can hang it suspended. Place a ¾ full glass of water, on the scales and zero them. The glass (or other container) needs to be tall enough to hold the spoon within it. Now dip the spoon into the water until lit is completely submerged but hanging on the thread and not touching the glass. As you submerge it the water will rise slightly as it is displaced, and the weight will increase on the scales. When submerged, note the weight on the scales. It is important that the spoon is completely submerged under the water and that it does not touch the glass or rest on the bottom. Keep it suspended in the center of the glass. Repeat this a couple of times for accuracy.
Illustration showing the specific gravity test. The spoon weighs 15g, zero the water, submerge the spoon in the water and the scale reads 1.45g
What you have weighed is not the spoon itself but the weight of the water it has displaced. Let's say 1.45g (of water displaced). As Archimedes discovered, this is also the volume of the spoon. 1.45 Cm3 of metal. We can now calculate the Specific Gravity by simply dividing the weight by the volume. 15g / 1.45 = 10.34
The specific gravity of the spoon is 10.34
Looking at the chart, we can see that we are below pure silver, above coin silver and we are only 0.02 off Sterling silver. Within the accuracy of the method, we can say with some assurance that the spoon is very probably sterling silver. Which is 10.36
Note that if the item is plated or painted then this is a very accurate method and non-destructive. Even fake silver bars with lead cores can be detected in this way. However, this does not work if the item is hollow, and the water cannot get inside.
- Weigh the item.
- Place the glass of water and zero the scales.
- Weigh the item submerged.
- Divide the weight submerged by the weight dry to get the Specific gravity
If you are making spoon rings and bending cutlery, check out Pepetools.com for some great ring bending tools, such as the superior ring bender, and especially the Pepetools ring shank bender. Plus, a wide range of hammers, mandrels, and other tools.
by Dave Wilson
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