13 Tests to Tell if Silver is Real or Not
Silver is a precious metal that's prized for its gleaming appearance and implications of luxury, especially when made into jewelry. While not as costly as gold, silver has a value that increases over time and can deliver a return on investment in the future. However, jewelry makers have developed processes to create jewelry that looks and feels like silver, but isn't, resulting in buyer confusion. So, how do you tell if silver is real or not?
Fortunately, there are a lot of easy tests you can apply to a piece of silver to determine its metal content. They include looking for markings, using your nose, and putting it on a piece of ice to name a few test options. Not only does testing tell you if your piece is real silver or not, it also helps you get an idea of the value of your piece. An article in the New York Times provides an in-depth look as to why you should know as much as you can about your silver jewelry and the benefits of testing.
Read on to learn how to tell if silver is real or plated, or an outright fake and save yourself a lot of money in the meantime.
Why Do You Need to Test Silver to Find Out if It's Real?
Jewelry makers often turn to plating their pieces in silver to get the most out of their effort and costs of manufacture. It's also done to make jewelry more affordable and produce in large quantities to make more sales. While this isn't a deceptive practice, it does make it harder for buyers to figure out if their jewelry is real silver or fake, especially when buying on the secondhand market.
The process, known as silver plating, results in an appearance that looks like real silver, but isn't. The jewelry won't be marked as silver, nor will it state that it's silver on the packaging. This is to make the buyer aware that they're not purchasing a piece of silver jewelry and let them know that they're getting a piece of costume jewelry.
When costume jewelry reaches the secondary market, it's unlikely that it's in its original packaging that states it's not real silver. Most of the time, real silver jewelry is marked as such, but this isn't always the case, and you have to trust that you're buying a piece that's made from real silver. Learning how to do the following tests protects you from buying a silver plated piece that's being represented as real silver, and saves you money.
13 Tests to Tell if Silver is Real or Not
There are multiple methods you can use to figure out how to tell if silver is real or not. Some tests are definitive, while others let you know that further testing may be required. Silver has definitive properties that are detectable through tests that don't require damaging the piece, but if doubt remains, a more invasive test may be needed to come to a final determination. Always make sure to test the jewelry in a discrete area, such as the back, in case damage happens from your efforts to determine authenticity. The following tests range from using your vision, your nose, and light chemicals to tell if your silver jewelry is real or not.
Hallmarks or Stamps of Authenticity
Items of jewelry that are made from silver have to be marked with a stamp that indicates the purity of silver used in its manufacture. A majority of silver jewelry pieces are made from sterling silver and are stamped with .925 on the back. This denotes the fact that the jewelry is made from an alloy of silver that's 92.5% silver and 7.5 nickel. You may find jewelry marked with lower amounts of silver, such as .900 and .800 for coin silver, but the .925 stamping is the most common. You may also see "STER" or "sterling" as an accompanying mark or by itself.
Hallmarking has been in use for about 700 years, and can help identify the maker of a piece. The Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, & Makers' Marks has a wealth of information regarding hallmarks that are found on silver jewelry from around the world.
All you need to do is look for a stamp on the back of a pin, the inside of a ring, or near the catch of a necklace. It's worth noting that there was a period of time when jewelry manufacturers were stamping silver plated jewelry with .925 due to the use of sterling silver for plating. Not all pieces of sterling silver jewelry get a stamp, especially if they were made by small-time jewelers or hobbyists making pieces for personal use. If you think you have either one of these pieces, you'll need to test further using different methods.
Touch the jewelry with a magnet
Silver plated jewelry typically uses ferrous metal for its core due to its low cost and strength. Ferrous metal contains iron, and magnets easily stick to iron even in small quantities. In contrast, silver has little in the way of magnetic properties and will not stick to a magnet.
Simply place your jewelry onto the magnet and look for adhesion of some kind. If you feel resistance when placing the piece on or removing it from a magnet, you can be sure that your piece is not real. Not all silver plated pieces use a ferrous metal as a core, which means you need to use a different test to determine if your piece is silver or not.
Testing With an Ice Cube
Silver is a metal with a cool appearance, but it has the highest thermal conductivity in the world of metals. When you place silver on an ice cube, the metal quickly transmits the cold temperature through its mass and into the atmosphere. A real piece of silver jewelry will melt the ice not long after it's placed onto the cube.
This test can be more difficult to perform with complex shapes, but it's easy to test chains and flatter pieces with an ice cube. Make sure to have a clean, dry cloth handy to wipe the piece dry afterward and prevent tarnish from setting in.
Wipe Clean With a Cloth
Take a clean cloth, preferably one that's white, and rub the piece against the cloth. Real silver starts tarnishing the moment it's exposed to air, and will leave black streaks on the cloth. Using a white cloth makes it easier to detect the streaks. The bonus to this test is that you keep your silver pieces clean and looking great.
The drawback to this method is the fact that silver plated pieces will also streak and require additional testing.
Using an Acid Test
This is one of the most definitive ways to test for real silver, but you also have to use safety equipment, a test kit, and risk damaging your piece. Test kits for silver jewelry are readily available, and come with the items you need to find out what your jewelry is made of. The following is an overview of how the kits work, and you should always follow the instructions in the kit for safety and to get the desired chemical reaction.
Depending on the type of jewelry you're testing, you need to scratch it with a jewelers file or scratch it against a stone that comes with the kit. If using a jeweler's file, make sure to file deep enough so that the scratch is deeper than the surface.
Drop a little bit of acid onto the line you created in the jewelry or on the line you made on the stone. The acid will turn a color that indicates the properties of the metal. Sterling silver will turn dark red, while fine silver turns bright red. Lower silver content turns different colors depending on the alloy content. If you see blue, dark brown, or yellow show up, it means the piece is made from metals other than silver.
Using Bleach to Test
Regular household bleach works well to determine if silver is real. Take a cotton swab, dip it in bleach, and rub it on the back of the piece. A chemical reaction occurs that causes the silver to turn black instantly.
Check the Color
Silver plate is generally warmer in tone and shinier than sterling or pure silver as it takes on the tone of the base metal. Pure or alloyed silver has a cold tone and doesn't shine as brightly. One dead giveaway that the item is not pure silver is the appearance of a green color on the piece. Another tell is the appearance of rust.
Perform a Visual Inspection
You might think that a close look at the piece won't reveal much, but if certain signs are present, you can quickly tell if the piece is real silver or not. The visual inspection is most effective with older pieces that have been worn and handled as it will create wear marks in the metal. Over time, the finish wears away or erodes the plating, revealing the metal underneath. Silver undergoes the same wearing process, but is more durable and stays the same color at all times.
Look for Flaking
The process of silver plating results in a layer of silver on top of another metal with the end result looking like the piece is real silver. However, even though silver bonds well to the base metal, it's not a durable bond. Over time, the silver starts flaking which is a clear sign that the piece is plated. The flaking can be picked at with a fingernail or knife tip, revealing the metal underneath.
Give it a Sniff Test
Real silver emits almost no odor, while other metals have a detectable smell. Place the piece close to your nose and inhale deeply. If you can't smell anything, it's real silver. A metallic smell indicates that there's another metal used in the manufacture of the piece, and the piece is silver plate.
Using a lighter
You can use a lighter to heat the metal and watch for a black mark to appear. If the mark shows, you know it's real silver. Make sure to do this test on an area of the jewelry that won't show. The mark is easily cleaned with vinegar or jewelry cleaner and a cloth.
Check the Weight
This test requires visual estimation and a scale, but it's more definitive because silver plated pieces are usually made with lighter metals. Silver is dense, which means it weighs more by volume. That is, a fake silver piece and a real silver piece of the same size have different weights with the silver piece always weighing more.
Make Your Piece Ring
This test works only on pieces with enough surface area to strike a coin against, but it's an option if no other testing methods are available. Strike your piece with a coin and listen for a ring. Silver resonates when struck and makes a ringing sound, whereas striking non-silver metals results in a dull noise.
Getting Your Jewelry Tested by a Professional
You can get a definitive result from most of these tests, but bringing your pieces to a jeweler is your best option for a result that can't be disputed. A jeweler has experience behind them and tools at their disposal to determine if your piece is real silver or not without question. If you don't want your jewelry damaged by testing with acid, seek out a jeweler who uses an X-ray gun that's designed for testing the metal content of jewelry without harming the piece.
Having your silver jewelry tested for its silver content helps you get a baseline value for your jewelry at the very least. You have an idea of what the market will bear if you decide to sell and know that you've received fair value for its metal content. It also helps you value your jewelry for insurance purposes in case of theft or loss. Last, but not least, if you have designer jewelry pieces, you can get a better valuation as well as avoid damage when you have them tested by a professional.
Benefits of Testing Your Silver Jewelry
Knowing the metal content of your jewelry helps you with their value, how to best store them against damage and tarnish, and enjoy the luxury of wearing something that's made from silver. The effort you put into testing your silver jewelry is worth making due to the amount of satisfaction you get from its ownership.