Is it Silver or Silver Plated?

How can you tell if silver items — like flatware, service set or a tea set — are real or plated?

If you have been wondering if that old tea set is possibly worth a fortune, you’re not alone. Here are some ways to help you figure it out.
Sterling or plate?

Silver plating was created as an inexpensive way for people who could not afford Sterling to still be able to enjoy the metal’s beauty.

If an item is truly Sterling silver — which is commonly referred to as “real” silver or solid silver — it will be stamped with one or more of the following hallmarks somewhere on the item (usually on the bottom):

  • Sterling silver
  • .925 (or higher number)
  • Lion hallmark

If none of these are on the item, you probably have a silver plated piece, as it’s very rare for a valuable item of Sterling-grade silver to have no mark at all.

Silver plated items are often, but not always, marked as such — they’ll typically say something along the lines of silver plate, plated, EP (electroplated) or EPNS (electroplated nickel silver).

What’s your grade?

There are many different grades of silver, each based upon the percentage of the item’s actual silver content. (It’s not at all uncommon for a precious metal like silver to be combined with another metal — creating an alloy — because pure silver on its own is quite soft.)

The purity percentages are expressed in decimals, carried to at least three digits, and should be marked on the piece with a stamped hallmark. (See several examples of hallmarks from around the world at 925-1000.com and SilverCollection.it.) You can also bring it into Goldwiser located at 24910 Kuykendahl Rd., Tomball, TX 77375. I’m here Monday through Saturday 10 am to 7 pm to assist you with your discovery and I can also give you the option to sell it, if it’s silver!

Here are some of the most common numbers you’ll see:

 

.835: A common European silver blend

.925: Sterling silver (stamped on the front ring at right)

.950: Sterling silver, usually found in antique pieces and on silver from France

.958: Britannia silver, produced from 1697 to 1720

.999: Purest form available — aka pure silver, fine silver, investment-grade silver

The tests

One definitive way to find out if you have some Sterling silver or Fine silver is to take it to an appraiser like Goldwiser. A common test I can run is a rub test. I rub some of the metal on to a soft stone where I can apply acid. This method is preferred since it causes no harm to the items. For larger or heavier pieces a deep cut or scratch is made in the item and then I would apply a drop of nitric acid. This method will leave a mark and will damage the piece to a small degree. Your consent is asked prior to this test being conducted.

Another professional testing method is X-ray fluorescence (XRF), which won’t damage your silver pieces, but may cause some harm to your wallet.

There are also a couple easy home tests you can do to help point you in the right direction. None of them will provide positive proof, however, so consider them ballpark estimates at best.

Magnet test: If a magnet sticks, you know it’s not silver. However, just because it does not stick doesn’t mean it is Sterling — just that it’s not made with steel. This is the first test that I use.

Ice test: Silver is a very good conductor, and will relay cold or heat very quickly. Put a few ice cubes in a container (not the one you are trying to test) and add about an inch of water. Smaller Sterling silver items will become cold after about 10 seconds; larger ones may take a little longer. This is a helpful method when you have similar items you can compare against. (For example, a possibly silver fork and a fork from a stainless steel cutlery set.)

Sense tests: Silver has a slightly warm yellowish sheen, and a slight scent (which is stronger when heated or wet). These sensory tests won’t help in the case of Sterling vs plate, but can be helpful for comparison’s sake in certain instances.