If your silverware is marked sterling it is likely sterling silver unless, of course, it is a forgery. See the article how to tell if silver is sterling or plate by the back stamp or marks for more details. Silver plated items typically have little intrinsic value. There are many silver plate marks that resemble sterling marks. If the item is not marked ‘sterling’ or one of the typical silver plate marks listed in the above linked article, it can be confusing and require advanced knowledge and experience with silverware to identify the mark. There are several tests that can be used to distinguish between the two.
- Look for wear spots that indicate that silver plate has worn off of a plated piece. You may see a different color of metal metal on high wear zones, such as the bottom of spoons and the tips of fork tines. If you are looking at a set of silver look through several pieces – just one wear mark means the whole set is silver plate.
- Feel. Sterling often has a buttery smooth texture. To learn this test take sever known pieces of both sterling and silver plate. Rub your thumb with varying force across the surface. You may feel that the sterling feels more slippery. With practice this can be a very reliable test.
- Density. This test requires a lot more experience handling silverware or the use of a water displacement density test. Sterling silver has a density of 10.3 g/cm3, brass 8.4-8.73 g/cm3, nickel silver 8.70 g/cm3 and copper 8.96 g/cm3. We suggest bouncing several known pieces of sterling and silver plate flatware up in the air and have them land into your palm. Sterling may have more of a thump when it hits your hand. To explain it another way, you should feel it slightly more. I also use this method as a rough and tumble way of determining karat weights of gold.
- Smell. Silver plated items when tarnished will often have a sour acrid smell. Sterling will smell sweeter. Practice this with both known pieces of sterling and silver plate. If the pieces are freshly polished there will be no difference in smell.
- Acid test. Very rarely do I resort to an acid test with flatware, as I handle it every day. This test will cause permanent damage to plated items and sterling items will have to be polished with automotive metal polish or buffed with a machine to remove the acid mark. Test silver acid solution can be bought from a jewelry supply retailer. Find one by searching “jewelry supply silver test acid” in your favorite search engine. Sterling silver manufactured in North America during the 1700’s to early 1800’s can have tremendous value as compared to silver manufactured in Europe during the same period. A poorly performed acid test can destroy the value of this historic and highly desirable silver.
Acid Test Procedure.
Select the least visible part of your item like the back or underside. Do not test on a hall mark or makers mark as the mark may be ruined. Drip 1 drop of acid on the item. If blue or green color appears you have silver plate. If it is turns a white milky color you likely have sterling silver. We say likely because if you have Sheffield plate where a thick layer of silver in annealed to a copper base layer or if you have a very thick electroplate a false positive may result. To further test the silver use a file to cut into the piece to reveal the metal underneath and retest with a drop of silver test acid. Obviously one should be very careful with this as damage to the piece could result. If the piece was sterling the acid mark can be removed with automotive polish such as Auto-Sol. Or any metal polish that contains a fine abrasive. It is a good idea to practice on known pieces of silver plate, sterling and European 0.800 grade silver to have a solid understanding of how this test reacts.
- XRF – X-Ray Florescence. By far the best and nondestructive method. The drawback is XRF machines are on the expensive side. Hand held models currently cost between $12000-$17000, but it’s getting better – only five years ago I was quoted $30000. This does no damage to the silver and can determine the exact silver contend deep inside the piece. Metal refiners and scrap metal yards have this equipment on site and may scan your item for a small fee (or bring a box of donuts and coffee). I find managers at scrap metal yards have a soft spot for Tim Horton’s coffee.
Thanks you for reading this article. If you found it useful, then link it on social media because sharing is caring. Our next article will focus on resources to become effective with many aspects of silver identification and learning about the history of your prized silver possessions. This will allow proper identification without the use of acid tests or XRF.
Spoons and Forks,
The Silverware Guy