A few years ago, sterling silver rose in cost to the point that many of the smaller sized jewelry designers could no longer offer it in their designs. I can remember when some of my sterling silver parts cost me $7.00 and now they are over $28.00! Jewelry designers started looking everywhere for affordable sterling silver findings.
Many (myself included) looked to online auction sites for sources. I purchased what I thought was a bargain lot of "sterling silver" fishhook earwires. When they arrived, I saw that they were marked 925, but the mark looked like there was plating on top of it. I'd seen enough real sterling to know that was odd, so I cut one of the wires in half. The center was copper. They were silver plated findings that were marked 925 and were being sold as sterling silver!
Trying to get your money refunded from sellers who are knowingly selling fakes is a pain in the rear. Plus, I figure there are thousands of people buying these findings and jewelry pieces and using them in their designs. They figure it says 925 on it so it must be real.....
Here's some tips for buying sterling silver
1. Beware of auction sellers with prices that are too good to be true! Check their feedback. Quite often you will see complaints. Keep in mind that many of these sellers are running thousands of auctions. The number of people who can tell the difference between the real and the fake (or those who take the time to test it) will be a small percentage of their total sales. A good feedback percentage does not mean its real!
2. Stick to reputable wholesale dealers. Yes, you will pay more, but they aren't going to sell you fake sterling. Its worth the peace of mind. Many wholesalers have tiered discounts so see if other designers will go in on a large order with you to get the best discount.
3. Avoid the Name Games! After all these years, I think this is probably the most important thing to pay attention to. Be cautious of sellers who specifically avoid calling a piece sterling or sterling silver and just include some variation of "silver" in the descriptions. I also prefer sellers who address the fineness in some other way such as 800 silver, coin silver, silver of unknown content, untested silver etc. If something is labelled with 925 and just a series of letters (for example something like SP might not be a makers mark and they could try and say it means silver plate later), you want to see the fineness specifically spelled out somewhere. Sellers will sometimes make their descriptions ambiguous on purpose and count on you just assuming something is solid sterling. They can also say when they described something as "silver", they were just referring to the color. They technically aren't breaking any rules so that can make it difficult if you are requesting a refund.
4. When in doubt ask questions before hand or test it upon receipt! There are a few simple tests that can help you weed out most counterfeits.
Easy Tests For Sterling Silver and Things to Look For
1. The Smell test- I know this sounds weird, but many times you can smell the difference between silver plated items and solid sterling ones. This works best on big pieces. If you rub the metal and it smells metallic, brassy or even what I would call "dirty metallic", its probably not sterling. Clean sterling silver should not have a smell. I sure get strange looks from people in stores when I'm rubbing and smelling things.
2. Stamping and Jewelry marks- Look for marks pressed directly onto the surface of the metal. The mark should not be covered with any plating which makes it less clear or "muddy" looking. Current marks in the USA for sterling silver are 925 and STERLING. There are other grades of silver, but I'll discuss that another time.
3. Alpaca and German silver are NOT sterling silver- If you see someone selling something stamped ALPACA or ALPACA Mexico as sterling, its not. Same thing for anything described as German Silver. These are a mix of alloys that are silver colored and they resemble sterling with patina.
4. Jewelry or findings marked 925 FAS- OK this is a confusing one because there is little or no information as to what FAS means. Items marked with this are sold as sterling, but if you ask, the seller may be from China or it is sourced from China and they say its "Fused Alloy Silver". What the heck is that? What I do know is that the few pieces of "sterling" that I received that showed up marked 925 FAS, do not pass the next two tests for sterling silver. The magnetic and acid tests. So don't risk it! Test any sterling jewelry marked FAS, even those labelled as being from Thailand or Italy, to tell them apart from designs imported by FMC which also uses a FAS mark.
5. Tibetan silver - This is a product that I am seeing more of recently, especially on auction sites. Tibetan silver is not the same as Thai or Thailand Silver but they are often confused with each other. Thai or Thailand silver is usually sterling or better (but some could be as low as 800 fineness) that's made in Thailand and it will be marked as such. Tibetan silver is an alloy that contains 30% silver or less. The rest of the metal is copper, a copper-nickle alloy or zinc.
6. Sterling silver is not magnetic- Get yourself a rare earth magnet, a super strong magnet or even your Bucky Balls. Run it over your known sterling silver pieces and they will not react. Items marked 925 FAS may have a fainter reaction. Keep in mind that some clasps have a bit of magnetic parts inside that will react. So test the chain portion, not the clasp.
*A note on new rhodium plated sterling jewelry* Some jewelry manufacturers have offered sterling silver jewelry that has been plated with rhodium. Rhodium does not tarnish and many modern day gals like it because they do not have to polish their jewelry. To get the rhodium to "stick" to the sterling, a thin layer of nickel must be added. This layer will have a weak magnetic reaction. As long as your supplier is reputable and states it is rhodium plated, it should be fine (you can cut a sample open and acid test the middle as well). Just keep in mind that once rhodium plating wears off, the layers beneath will have a darker color. It is very expensive to re-plate with rhodium and those with nickel allergies might wish to stick to standard solid sterling.
7. Acid testing- You can purchase some very inexpensive silver acid testing solutions online. You will need both the acid and a testing stone. Kits should come with easy to follow instructions for acid testing. Its acid, so follow the safety instructions.
Silver acid: silver acid is a reddish color that changes based upon the purity of the silver. Your test will tell you what colors to look for. Mine has 90-100% as dark red, 80-90% as light red or brown and 65-75% as light green. Since sterling silver is 92.5% silver, it turns a dark red with my kit.
Using 18K gold acid to test silver: You can use 18K gold acid on a silver scratch test and it will turn light blue. It does not appear to be able to tell you the difference between 800 silver and sterling though. *An update - with my current 18K acid it appears that sterling silver turns from light blue to white if you let it sit for a bit. 800 silver stays blue. I am now running known controls for comparison and letting the test sit before reading it as an experiment.*
I'll be posting some additional photos to this article shortly. Here is a photo of some scratch testing that might be useful to you if you are trying to distinguish between 800 silver and 925 silver. This was done with known samples. I wanted to see the color difference in the reds you get between 800 silver and 925 silver with silver acid. 800 silver yields a much lighter and easier to see red color whereas 925 silver is much darker red (it is barely showing up in the photo against the black stone). For the heck of it I also tested the 800 silver with 18K gold testing acid to see if it would turn light blue like 925 and it did. So the color change with silver acid appears to be the best way to distinguish between 800 silver and 925.
8. XRF testing - If you have a questionable piece of sterling silver and you do not want to damage the surface by filing or cutting deeper into it, you can find a jewelry store or pawn shop near you that has an XRF analyzer (x-ray flourescence analyzer). This can be very useful for more valuable, delicate or pieces that could possibly be rhodium plated. The jewelry will not be damaged in any way and they will give you a printout of the metals contained within. There is usually a fee for this testing so call a few places and see what pricing is offered.
9. Testing by weight, water displacement and specific gravity - This is a pretty scientific and proven method and what many metal buyers use. I do not perform this test, but there are quite a few videos on youtube should you like to learn more.
I love costume jewelry. I have no problems or issues with wearing of making jewelry with silver plated goodies. I just firmly believe that if someone says it is sterling silver, it should be real! If it isn't, returns should be hassle free. I hope you find this information useful. If so, please share this post.
Dana (she who smells silver in public)
Update! 8/3/2017. Added information on Tibetan Silver