If it isn’t Sterling Silver, What is it?

Have you ever been curious about what it is you are buying when you buy “silver” jewelry that isn’t Sterling Silver?

Have you ever wondered if what you are buying is really sterling silver when prices seem too good to be true?

I get asked these questions all the time!

This is the 1st in a 2-part post to help you make the best buying decisions when shopping for silver jewelry.

-Part 1: If it isn’t Sterling Silver, What is it?
-Part 2: Buyer Beware: Things to Watch Out for When Buying Silver Jewelry (coming 10/26)

Whether buying fine jewelry or fashion jewelry, there are several different types of silver available and some less-than-honest things to watch out for.

 Let’s start with what Sterling Silver is…

Sterling Silver is 92.5% pure silver combined with 7.5% other metals, typically copper, which are used to strengthen the silver.

Sterling Silver is usually stamped with .925 to indicate that it is sterling.  If you’ve ever wondered what that .925 stamp is, it indicates that the jewelry is sterling.

Also in the precious metal category are Argentium Silver and Fine Silver (Pure Silver).

  • Argentium Siver replaces most of the copper in the silver with germanium, which results in a silver than is naturally tarnish-resistant.  It is considered a type of sterling silver.
  • Fine silver is stamped with .999 to indicate it is almost pure silver.  It is also tarnish resistant but without the addition of copper or germanium, it is also a very soft metal.  It is most commonly seen as Precious Metal Clay (PMC), but is not commonly used in jewelry otherwise.

If you see Sterling Silver, .925, .999, Argentium Silver, or Fine Silver in the description of any jewelry item you are purchasing, that is an indication it is usually good quality (check part 2 of this post for some unfortunate exceptions).

Not all silver jewelry is Sterling Silver or considered a precious metal…

There are several silver-toned metals that are very popular, especially in department store jewelry or “cheaper” jewelry that you find in online retailers.

The pro is that they are significantly less expensive than Sterling Silver.  The cons vary by type of metal.

Silver-toned materials can be a variety of different metals, but the most common are:

  1. Silver Plated Brass
  2. Pewter
  3. Metal Alloys

Silver Plated Brass:

The brass that is used in jewelry is made of a combination of 60-85% copper and 15-40% zinc.

The brass is then plated with either sterling silver or a silver-toned metal alloy.

Brass is very inexpensive, one of the most inexpensive metals, and therefore very common in lower-end and fashion jewelry.

The cons:

  • Silver-plated brass beads can tarnish to a brass color as the plating wears down; the quality and thickness of the plating will determine how quickly.
  • The plating can chip and flake off of poor-quality plated beads.
  • Brass can turn skin green in some people.
  • Brass can contain lead, although most reputable jewelry designers will pay the nominal difference to purchase brass beads that are lead free.


Of all of the sterling silver alternative metals, pewter is my personal favorite and what I use in my accessories such as wine charms and bookmarks (all my jewelry is made with sterling silver).

Pewter is made of at least 90% tin mixed with other alloys including copper, antimony, and occasionally silver.

Most pewter looks similar to sterling silver, although slightly duller, is tarnish resistant, and will not turn skin green.

The cons:

  • Many bead suppliers falsely advertise their metal alloy beads as pewter because pewter has a higher value.  It is therefore hard to tell if a bead is really pewter or not.
  • For beads that are genuinely pewter, they tend to be priced higher so many jewelry designers don’t use them.
  • Pewter can contain lead, although most reputable jewelry designers will pay the nominal difference to purchase pewter beads that are lead free.

Tierra Cast is an example of a company that makes high quality pewter beads that are then sterling silver plated.  They are beautiful and cost right in the middle of sterling silver and metal alloy beads.

Metal Alloys:

Most Metal Alloys are comprised of zinc, copper, and nickel, in various amounts.

Zinc Silver:

Those with high concentrations of zinc have similar characteristics to pewter.

They also look similar to sterling silver, although slightly duller, and are tarnish resistant.

Those with very high amounts of zinc will rarely turn skin green.

High zinc-based metal alloys are sometimes referred to as Zinc Silver or Tibetan Silver, although Tibetan Silver can also refer to the type listed below.

Nickel Silver, German Silver, and Tibetan Silver:

Metal Alloys with a high concentration of copper are typically comprised of 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc.

Although they have a similar look to sterling silver, they can have a dull gray finish, and may turn your skin green.

High copper-based metal alloys are sometimes referred to as Nickel Silver or German Silver.  Some Tibetan Silver also falls into this category.

Even though they have the word “silver” in their name, there is usually little to no silver in these types of metals.

 Most costume jewelry found at major retail stores is made of metal alloy or silver plated brass.  This is also common in lower priced jewelry found online.

Hopefully this answers the question “if it isn’t Sterling Silver, what is it?”.

The choice between sterling silver or one of the silver-toned alternatives typically comes down to price and how much you want to spend.

Back before I started making jewelry as a business, I bought a LOT of jewelry.  At the time, my decisions were based more on price and I never considered if the piece of jewelry would last.  I quickly learned that there was nothing worse than buying something that fell apart or the plating wore off the first time I wore it.  I went through that one too many times and finally switched over to sterling silver several years ago.

Now, I personally prefer to invest in good quality jewelry (and supplies) that will last for years and years of wear, so I both wear and make jewelry from Sterling Silver.

Sterling Silver is always lead-free, it does not turn skin green, and although it can tarnish, it is easy to keep it looking its best with minimal effort. I find it well worth the investment, but it is a personal preference and different for everyone.

How about you?  Does it matter to you if your jewelry is sterling silver and why/why not?

Stay tuned for the next post about things to watch out for when buying silver jewelry (coming 10/26).  Learn about some of the shady selling tricks not-so-honest companies use (that great deal you got on ebay on sterling silver pandora-style beads may not be sterling silver at all), and some surprising places lead can be found in jewelry (especially children’s jewelry)…

 Visit us online at www.ambertortoise.com.

Share Your Comments


Visit our online jewelry boutique at www.ambertortoise.com.