Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by mass of silver and 7.5% by mass of other metals, usually copper.
Over the last few years we have noticed a massive influx of “925 stamped” silver jewellery which is actually silver plated. Not all of it, by any means, as there are plenty of solid sterling silver items, one-off artisan jewellery and vintage pieces. But there are a lot of uninformed importers of jewellery, who are buying what they believe to be sterling silver when it is in fact plated.
Silver is an expensive metal and trade prices have doubled and then doubled again over recent years (I’m a silversmith, and am mortified by how much it now costs to make a small silver ring!), so it really is a case of getting what you pay for when it comes to sterling silver.
Please note that the 925 stamp is NOT a hallmark. This consists of a maker’s mark, an assay office mark and then a fineness mark in the UK. (More details below).
Anyone can buy a 925 stamp for around £5 and apply the 925 mark to whatever they wish.
A quick and rough test to see if it’s plated or solid silver is to file down an inconspicuous area of the item. You can use a fine needle file for this, or even an emery board will suffice. If you notice very quickly upon filing the silver is that coppery gold coloured metal starts to show through, this is the base metal that the piece is actually made of.
Do note, however, that just because an item has only a 925 stamp without a hallmark does not mean that it is definitely plated. We buy in some solid silver items with a 925 stamp.
If this makes you never want to buy silver at a craft fair again, please don’t despair – there are also a lot of honest sellers who sell very fine 925 stamped silver jewellery which really is 925 silver at excellent prices, but beware that very fine silver jewellery isn’t cheap. The current trade price for sterling silver (as of June 2014) is about £400 per kilogram, meaning that a slim silver bangle costs around £10 in materials alone, without labour.
A general rule for buying silver is that if the price seems too good to be true, then it probably is just too good to be true.
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Why are precious metal articles hallmarked?
Gold, silver, platinum and palladium are rarely used in their purest form but instead they are normally alloyed with lesser metals to achieve a desired strength, durability, colour etc.
It is not possible to detect by sight or by touch the gold, silver, platinum or palladium content of an item. It is a legal requirement to hallmark all articles consisting of gold, silver, platinum or palladium (subject to certain exemptions) if they are to be described as such.
The main offence under the UK Hallmarking Act 1973 is based on description. It is an offence for any person in the course of trade or business to:
- Describe an un-hallmarked article as being wholly or partly made of gold, silver, platinum or palladium
- Supply or offer to supply un-hallmarked articles to which such a description is applied.
What needs to be hallmarked?
Any article described as being wholly or partly made of gold, silver, platinum or palladium that is not covered under exempt articles.
Articles below a certain weight are exempt from hallmarking. The exemption weight is based on the precious metal content only, excluding, for example, weight of diamonds, stones etc, except in the case of articles consisting of precious metal and base metal in which case the exemption weight is based on the total metal weight:
- Platinum 0.5 grams
- Gold 1.0 gram
- Palladium 1.0 gram
- Silver 7.78 grams
Any pre-1950 item may now be described and sold a precious metal without a hallmark, if the seller can prove that it is of minimum fineness and was manufactured before 1950.
“Hallmarking dates back to 1300 and represents the oldest form of consumer protection in the United Kingdom.” Wandsworth’s chief trading standards officer, Christopher Roe