How To Identify Silver

There are different ways to identify real silver from “fake”, although some methods are more difficult with small items.

The first and obvious way is through visual inspection. Silver metal has a silvery colour, and older items will develop some tarnish. If the metal looks yellow or brownish, then it is not silver. Also visually inspect the item for markings. Sterling will have the word stamped on it, or may have a number such as 925, 900, etc. along with the name or symbol of the maker.

One of the ways is by the ring test. Real silver has a nice ringing sound. If you have tapped an items made of crystal before, you will remember that certain “ting” sound that it makes in comparison to one made of simple glass. The sound that silver metal makes is not quite like that of tapping crystal, but it is similar. It is not as long or acute. If you have access to a U.S. 25 cent coin made between 1932 and 1964, you can made a direct comparison to a current 25 cent piece. The old one was made with 90% silver. The current ones are made of over 90% copper and the rest nickel.

The ice test is useful for testing larger items (ie: not small earrings). If one places an ice cube on the item to be tested, it will begin to melt almost immediately. This is because of silver’s property of having the highest thermal conductivity of all metals.

Since silver is essentially non-magnetic with normal magnets, there are two tests that can be performed. Using a common strong magnet made of rare-earth materials (such as Neodymium), the magnet should not stick to the metal. The second test is for larger pieces with a flat surface, such as silver bars. By placing the item at a 45 degree angle, then placing the magnet on it, the magnet should slide down slowly (as opposed to a free drop). This is because the highly conductive property of the silver causes eddy currents to form as the magnet slides, which become small magnetic fields that act as a brake. Neither of these two tests alone are conclusive, however, since some alloys can be made that have a similar colour to silver using non-magnetic metals.

All the methods above are still not conclusive, and require some experience to use correctly. Another method that should be used in addition to all of the above is to use a silver test kit. These kits generally consist of a black testing stone and a bottle of acid. Testing can be done by placing a small drop of the acid on the item to be tested or by rubbing the piece on a clean part of the testing stone, then applying the acid onto the area of the stone where the piece was rubbed. The acid such as that sold by Shor International Corporation will react with the metal, and will result in a creamy colour if the silver contains 90% or higher in silver, gray colour if the percentage of silver is between 77% to 90%, and light green colour if between 65% to 70%. The acid in the kits is mainly nitric acid, and it does weaken over time. It is important to note also that this is not a recommended test for items that must not suffer any damage. When the item is rubbed on the stone, it can leave a mark, since a very small amount of the metal is being rubbed off. If the acid is placed directly on the piece being tested, it will leave a dull mark or pitting on the surface of the item. Be aware that proper precautions must be taken with the acid. Avoid contact with the skin and all other materials, and completely avoid smelling the fumes. Nitric acid fumes will destroy the mucous membranes in our lungs, and in serious cases will cause death from asphyxiation.

The following History Channel video clip shows a sample acid testing:

Another method that is most accurate is to do a fire assay. Its accuracy is as high as 1 part per 10,000. This method requires taking a sample from the piece to be tested, then heated in a furnace to melt the sample and separate the metals. It is a method best suited for large pieces, and perhaps sent to an assaying company.


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