Types of Silver

The following is a description of different types of silver and terminology used by different people and found throughout the internet to describe alloys and products of silver.  In some cases, no silver metal is actually used.

Alpaca -  also known by other names such as German silver, alpacca, nickel silver, paktong, new silver, nickel brass, albata,  is an alloy generally composed of three metals: 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc.  Other formulations exist, and occasionally other metals such as tin, lead or cadmium may be used.  The metal typically contains no silver at all, but it looks and feels much like silver.  The name "German silver" refers the development of this alloy in the 19th century by German metalworkers in 1823 in imitation of the Chinese alloy known as baitong or paktong (which means white copper).  Many people develop a greenish colour where the metal is in contact with the skin during habitual use.  This is because of the copper content of the metal, which leaches out and reacts with compounds in human sweat.

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy (the world's best-selling medical textbook designed for professionals and editions for private use)  indicates that ingestion or prolonged contact to copper, such as vessels of copper or copper alloys used to store acidic food or beverages can leach out the copper and cause toxicity, a condition called acquired copper toxicity.  This toxicity can cause self-limited gastroenteritis with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  More severe toxicity which can be caused by absorption of large amounts of copper through the skin may lead to hemolytic anemia and anuria, and may be fatal. If you wish to purchase and wear items made of this alloy, you should avoid anything worn against the skin, but instead opt for objects that can be pinned on clothes or to admire it for its artistic value and beauty.

Argent Acier -  this is a French term which has been seen used throughout the Internet.  The correct term should be acier argent, which translated literally means silvery steel, but is actually used for stainless steel.  Although the word “argent” is French for silver, there is no silver metal in the alloy.  Some watches with this term have been seen priced upwards of $1,500.  Some watches do have a silver plate, and the proper term then would be acier argenté.

Argentium silver – a silver alloy that is available in 935 and 960 parts per thousand of silver metal by mass that has been developed and marketed by a company called Argentium International Limited.  Although the exact formulation is unknown, one of the add-on metals is germanium.  The company guarantees traceability of its raw silver and certifies that argentium is produced using only recycled silver.  The hallmark of argentium silver is a flying unicorn.  The company states that argentium silver is brighter and less resistant to tarnishing than sterling silver.

Britannia standard silver - a fine silver alloy produced in Great Britain and containing 958.4 parts per thousand (.9584) silver metal by mass.  Not to be confused with Britannia ware.

Britannia ware – a metal alloy which contains no silver whatsoever and is actually made up of tin, copper and antimony.

Chinese silver – the term refers to actual artifacts made of silver.  They were handmade pieces of art hammered out by Chinese masters that depicted traditional oriental scenes including landscapes, bird, flowers, dragons, and human figures and were made for export to the West  in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century and included hallmarks in English.  A nice Chinese tea set can fetch up to $25,000.  Many listings can be found on eBay these days for Chinese silver, particularly claiming to be from the Qing Dynasty.  As a word of caution, it is up to the buyer beware, as many of these items contain no silver metal.

Coin silver – a silver alloy used in several countries to make specialty or collectible coins and typically contains amounts of silver ranging from less than 700 and up to 900 parts per thousand of silver.  Items marked as being made of coin silver, mean literally that, where silver coins were melted down to create the item.  Silver coins hallmarked only with a number, such as "12" or "13" are likely European, and if marked "84" are likely Russian.

Colloidal Silver – refers to a liquid suspension preparation in which minute electrically charged particles of silver are suspended in a liquid medium.  It can be prepared easily at home using a minimum of 99.9% pure silver.  The solution is then used for medical purposes to exploit the antibacterial properties of silver, for both internal and external applications.

Electrum - is a common, naturally occurring alloy and is sometimes classified as a variety of gold, and other times as a type of silver.  It is actually composed of between 45% to 90% gold, and the rest is silver with trace amounts of copper and other metals.  As a result, it can vary in appearance, ranging from a pale golden colour, to a "dirty" silver colour.  Electrum has been used since ancient times.  It was  mentioned in an expedition sent by Pharaoh Sahure of the Fifth dynasty of Egypt.  Sahure was a son of queen Neferhetepes and ruled Egypt from around 2,487 B.C. to 2,475 B.C.  It was also used as currency in the form of coins dating to about 600 B.C. in a kingdom called Lydia.  Lydia was an iron age kingdom that was a province of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.  It was located in the western part of Asia Minor, an area known today as the western Turkish provinces of UşakManisa and inland İzmir.  The word Electrum is Latinized form of the Greek word ἤλεκτρον (èlektron).

Faux silver – items made of other metals or plastic that contain no silver metal at all.  Sometimes the silver finish is a applied through a thin electroplated metal that is applied to the base material in order to give it the “silvery” look.  See also alpaca and silver color.

Fine silver – fine silver or pure silver is 99.9% or greater in purity.  Pure silver, much like pure gold which is also called 24 carat gold, is generally too soft for real-world use.  It is then mixed in alloys with other metals in small percentage to make it more resilient, while maintaining the original ductility and beauty of the silver metal.

French silver – the French first standard uses an alloy of 950 parts per thousand of silver metal, and 5% of copper and other metals.

German silver – is a silver alloy made of 800 parts per thousand of silver metal, and 20% of copper and other metals.  It is one of the standards used in Germany since the late 1800s.  It is important to note that this alloy is completely different from the other alloy also referred to as “German Silver” and which has no silver metal at all – see “alpaca” above.

Liquid silver – refers to a type of silver jewelry made with a technique of using multiple strands of beads of silver metal.  The beads can be of differing shapes and sizes, ranging in shapes from round to long, thin segments that look like miniature straws.  The resulting pieces range from earrings to bracelets and necklaces.  The technique creates stunning pieces that flow and mold to the surface or body like a liquid metal.

Mexican silver – is a silver alloy made of 950 parts per thousand of silver metal and 5% of copper and other metals per weight.  From 1930 to 1945, Mexican silver had millesimal value of 980, and some Mexican silversmiths still use this standard today.

Pewter – a malleable metal alloy with a silvery appearance and low melting point of around 170 to 230 degrees centigrade.  It is traditionally made of  between 85–99% of tin, with the remainder consisting of copper, antimony, bismuth and sometimes (though rarely today), a very small percentage of lead.  Sometimes, small amounts of silver are added.  It was traditionally used to make tableware and vessels, and as far back as the ancient Egyptians and the Romans..  Today it is used primarily for certain jewelry items and decorative vases and figurines and pendants.  As an example, some drinking vessels made by a prominent Brazilian pewter manufacturer cost upwards of $120 each.  Although included here because of of the collectible nature of pewter objects and its silver-like appearance, it is not considered as a noble metal and is not silver.

Russian silver – is typically found in three different standards: 84 zolotnik (which contains 875 parts per thousand of silver metal and 12.5% copper and other metals), 88 zolotnik (which contains 916.6 parts per thousand of silver metal and 8.34% copper and other metals), and 91 zolotnik (which contains 947.9 parts per thousand of silver metal and 5.21% copper and other metals).  A zolotnik  was originally a gold coin circulating in Kievan Russia in the late 11th century and is now used as a kind of unit of measure, which is equivalent to  1/72 of a pound, or 4,266 grams.  The most prevalent is 84 zolotnik.

Silver clay – is a precious metal clay made with a combination of binders, water, and very fine particles of silver.  It is molded by hand into the desired shape or object, then fired in a kiln like clay.  The firing process burns off the binding materials and fuses the metal particles together.  The finished item sustains a shrinkage in size of between 8 and 35%, depending on the clay, and is available in silver metal content of between .650 and .999 silver metal.

Silver color, silver tone – Items described as silver color or silver tone usually have no silver at all.  They are usually made of different base metals, or even plastic.

Silver plated – this is a manufacturing process in which items made of a base metal are then immersed in a solution containing a silver compound and then subjected to an electric current to cause the silver atoms to be deposited onto the item, thus forming a layer of pure silver covering the original item.  The thickness of the plate varies by manufacturer, and items subjected to prolonged or heavy use will lose the silver layer.  Also, these items will usually tarnish more quickly as the pure silver reacts more readily with the ozone in the air to form silver oxide, or with sulfur particles in the air which form silver sulfate.  Silver plated items will usually have a marking such as "E.P.N.S.", which means electro-plated nickel silver or "E.P" for electro-plated copper items.

Sterling silver – sterling silver is an alloy of silver that contains 92.5% silver, and 7.5% of other metals by mass, usually copper.  It is often also referred to as 925 silver, and is the most common alloy of silver used for jewellery. The 7.5% copper has been found to give silver the added stiffness, durability, and resistance to tarnish from normal use.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “sterling” is believed to have originated from Middle English from steorra 'star' + -ling.  This is because Norman silver pennies from the period of about 1075 A.D. were printed with two stars (issued by William the Conqueror).

By law, no silver alloy of less than 925 parts per thousand of silver metal may be called sterling silver.  In the United States, it is illegal under title 15, chapter 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations to label any item as “sterling” if it does not contain this amount of silver metal.  Under the U.S. National Gold and Silver Stamping Act,

Section 23.6, Misrepresentation as to Silver Content, states: "(b) It is unfair or deceptive to mark, describe or otherwise represent all or part of an industry product as "silver," "solid silver," "Sterling Silver," "Sterling," or the abbreviation "Ster." unless it is at least 925/1,000ths pure silver."

Tibetan silver - sometimes referred to as Nepalese silver, this is a metal of which recent formulations should be treated with caution.  Although many years past, there used to be an alloy called Tibetan silver that had a similar composition to sterling silver, the term is being used liberally now for items being sold online in such places ad eBay, Etsy, and Amazon and contain dangerous elements that can lead to poisoning.  Some of the common compositions consist of a silver coloured alloy that are made of copper and tin or sometimes nickel.  Some items are made of cast iron, then coated with this metal.  Althoudh nickel can cause skin reactions in many people, worse still is that many items contain high levels of dangerous metals, such as lead (which can cause death due to lead poisoning in children if swallowed) and arsenic (a powerful poison and carcinogen).  TierraCast Inc., a manufacturer of cast pewter jewelry components in Santa Rosa, California, issued a buyers' advisory on eBay based on initial tests conducted in 2007 to investigate copyright infringement of some of its designs.  From seven items tested, six contained nickel, copper and zinc as the dominant metals identified by X-ray fluorescence analysis.  The seventh item  contained 1.3 % arsenic,  and, a very high percentage of lead content at  54%.  A follow-up study in 2009 conducted on 5 items found identical results to the first six items, with only one having 1.23% silver, and other trace amounts of chromium, aluminum, tin, gold and lead.

Vintage or antique silver – this refers to items made of silver, but which have been made several years earlier (usually over 20 years) and have usually been worn before.  Frequently, these are items that surface through estate auctions.  Most items made in the U.S. through about 1860 were made of .900 coin silver.  American silver items made between the 1600s to late 1800s can be very valuable.


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