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What are the Different Types of Silver?

Updated on February 18, 2011

For thousands of years, silver has been a metal that suggests prestige, opulence and status.  As far back as 3000BC, the ancient Egyptians looked upon silver as having mystical properties and it is thought silver was associated with worship of the goddess, Isis.  To this day, silver represents both value for stockbrokers and glamour for the individual.

The origin of Sterling silver is disputed but it is thought that its name is derived from English farmers buying German cattle with silver coins called ‘Easterlings.’  This name was later shortened to Sterling and became the official currency of the English.  The term Sterling silver is now used to describe high-grade silver with no more than 7.5% alloy.

Silver in its pure form is relatively soft and malleable, making it perfect for small, precise and intricate designs.  However, for larger pieces such as necklaces, flatware and chains a more durable substance is needed.  Sterling silver provides this durability, consisting of 925 parts silver and 75 parts metal alloy.  Copper usually makes the best alloy and is used in the vast majority of silver types.

Fine silver is made from at least 99.9% pure silver.  This type of silver is generally only ever used in international trade or for reserve stockpiles in the form of bullion bars.  Britannia silver is a grade higher than that of Sterling and contains 958 parts silver and only 42 parts alloy.  This is often denoted on silver with ‘958’ or a stamp of Britannia.  Mexican silver, although not in significant production, consists of 950 parts silver.  German silver, 800 parts silver, is used in many items of flatware and ornamental features.  Coin silver is generally 900 parts silver to 100 parts copper and was actually used in US coins until as recently as 1964! 

Silver remains a very precious, sought after and attractive metal to this day.   Governments and large corporations often convert cash reserves to silver if the currency markets become unstable.  However, it is the prestige and glamorous look that still attracts millions of people to the precious metal.  Knowing the different types of silver and how to recognise them is vital to ensure value for money when purchasing.


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