Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925.
Although the origin of the word “sterling” is controversial, there is general agreement that the sterling alloy originated in continental Europe, and was being used for commerce as early as the 12th century in the area that is now northern Germany. ()
Silver plate typically refers to a process of applying a veneer of silver alloy in extremely small (thin) quantities to other metals often copper. One of the most commonly seen types of silver plate is electroplated nickel silver (EPNS).
EPNS was introduced in the 19th century as a considerably cheaper alternative to sterling silver. In many ways silver plate is sterling what costume jewelry is to fine jewelry.
How to tell the difference between sterling and silver plate:
In America: In the US sterling silver comes in many forms, flatware; knives, forks, spoons etc. Holloware: Vases, teapots, cups etc. Jewelry (both fine and costume), Sculpture, and many other forms. All of these pieces, if they are sterling silver will be clearly marked with the word “sterling”. There are makers out there who try to deceive the buyer by marking their wares with confusing symbols trying to give the impression of being sterling. These pieces usually use a system similar to the British hallmark system with a series of 3-5 small symbols that often will have Old English-style lettering reading EPNS or EP or SP. The primary rule to remember is if it is American and it does not say “sterling” it is NOT sterling. Once you have determined it not to be sterling the subtleties of which type of silver plate it might be have very little effect on the market value.
In the UK: In the United Kingdom the history and practice of marking sterling silver goes back hundreds of years. The practice of accurately marking silver and gold is overseen by the Assayers office. Each year the assayer assigns a unique symbol to be stamped on the sterling object to differentiate the year of production. Records of such unique mars date back to the 16th century.
A typical set of antique British silver hallmarks showing (left to right); 1.Standard Mark, 2.City Mark, 3.Date Letter, 4.Duty Mark and 5.Maker’s Mark.
This set of marks tells us that this piece was made of Sterling, in the city of London, in the year 1789, during the reign of King George III, by the silversmith Thomas Wallis.
The rest of the world: The marking practicing for the rest of the world can vary greatly and can often be confusing if not read properly. We recommend contacting a professional silver appraiser if you have any questions.
Foss Appraisal would be happy to assist any readers with identification of silver marks.