The Difference between Silver, Sterling Silver, 900 Silver, 800 Silver, Alpaca, Nickel Silver and Silver Plated Jewelry


Vintage Sterling Silver Wide Cuff Bracelet with Dimpled Rope Pattern (American Tribal, 1970’s)

This article looks at the difference between the various metals used for jewelry that include the word “Silver” or are often mistaken for silver. It is a companion piece to our article on gold and gold jewelry. If you buy silver jewelry for collectible purposes, business purposes or simply because it’s beautiful, it is important to know exactly what you are buying. The purpose of this guide is to prepare you, as a consumer, when shopping for silver jewelry.

Before getting into jewelry specifics, it’s good to have a grasp on some of the fundamentals of Silver. Silver, like gold, is an elemental metal. This means that pure silver is made up of nothing but Silver atoms (represented on the periodic table by the symbol Ag). Other examples of elemental metals include copper, aluminum, platinum, iron and lead.

In its pure elemental form, silver has a white metallic appearance. It also has a high luster (shiny), is very soft (scratches easily) and is quite malleable (can be hammered into different shapes).  When people discuss the “price of silver” or “spot price of silver” or “silver bullion prices” they are referring to pure elemental silver, or more exactly, 99.9% pure silver.

raw silver

Raw Natural SIlver with White Matrix

“Pure” metals, like elemental silver or elemental copper, are distinguished from metal alloys – which are metals made up of two “pure metals”. For example, brass is an alloy that is made up of copper and zinc. To make brass, copper and zinc are melted together. Likewise, one can make various silver alloys by combing silver with other elemental metals.

Silver jewelry can be made from near pure silver (99.9% silver known as “fine silver”) or one of any number of alloys. Fine silver (99.9%) jewelry is somewhat uncommon. The most common silver alloy used in jewelry today is “Sterling” silver, which consists of 92.5% silver and 7.5% some other metal (often copper, but sometimes zinc). The majority of silver jewelry in the United States, and most developed nations, is made from “Sterling” (92.5%) or finer silver.

Fineness Marks and Hallmarks

Because different alloys of silver contain different percentages of pure silver, it is important to know which alloy was used to make a piece of jewelry. For several hundred years now, most major silver manufacturing countries use what are known as “fineness marks”, “hallmarks” or a combination of both.

A fineness mark is a mark put on a piece of jewelry to indicate the percentage of pure silver it contains. There are two common types of fineness marks for silver – word marks and numerical marks. The numerical marks usually represent the number of parts of pure silver out of 1000 contained in a piece of silver. For example, Sterling silver is 92.5% silver or 925 out of 1000 parts silver. This simply means that by weight, the piece is 925 parts silver and 75 parts some other metal. Therefore the “shorthand” mark “925” is used to indicate that something is sterling silver. Other common numerical marks include:

800  (80% silver or 800/1000)






830  (83%silver of 830/1000)





835  (83.5% silver or 835/1000)








900  (90% silver or 900/1000)

950  (95% silver or 950/1000)







980 (98% silver or 980/1000)






999  (99.9% silver or 999/1000)

As mentioned above, fineness can also be indicated by a word. The two most common words encountered in the United States are “Sterling” and “Coin”. Sterling is, as discussed above, 92.5% silver.PTDC0011






“Coin” means that the item is 90% silver. The term “Coin” is a reference to early coins which were made out of 90% silver. It is very unusual to see the mark “Coin” on pieces made after 1900. Some silver jewelry is marked just “Silver”. This is common on British territory (e.g. Chinese export silver) pieces and indicates “Sterling Silver”. Also, there are several abbreviations for Sterling Silver in use now or in the past including:

“SS” (this mark can be confusing because a lot of stainless steel is also marked SS)


“Stg. Sil.” (example photo below)






U.S. Law (and the law of most developed countries) prohibits the marking of any non-silver item with a silver purity mark. (See, for example, 15 U.S.C. 8 S. 296). However, a set of stamps to make these marks can be purchased online for about $20.00 —- by anyone. Therefore, the fineness mark can only be trusted as much as the person who put it there.

Hallmarks Distingushed

Unlike a fineness mark, a hallmark is a mark that indicates that an official (usually a local assayer) in a particular country guarantees that the item is made from a certain percentage of silver. While hallmarks can also be counterfeited, it is somewhat unusual.  Hallmarks usually consist of a picture or a combination of a picture and text. Pictures used are often of local or historically important animals, current or prior rulers / sovereigns and certain plants.

The United States does not use hallmarks. However, many countries with far greater histories of silversmithing employ or did employ at one time, a complex hallmarking system. There are a number of excellent guides available on the internet that can assist you in identifying a particular hallmark. Our favorite is Set forth  below is a common example of a hallmark previously used in Mexico and often encountered on vintage silver jewelry found at U.S. Fleamarkets, Yard Sales, and Estate Sales.






This Mexican Mark is meant to represent and Eagle. It really does not look anything like an eagle in most examples. Be weary of eagle head marks on Mexican Jewelry. Those are counterfeit marks and are quite common on tourist bangles.

If you encounter an item that is not marked with a fineness mark or hallmark, or an item that does have such a mark but you suspect is not silver, you will need to test the item  or have it tested by someone else. With experience, it will become less and less necessary to test such items. See our article on testing silver for more info (to be published on or about June 15,2014) or simply google “silver testing”.

 Silver Plate and Silver Filled Jewelry 

In addition to real silver jewelry, there are two common substitutes that use small amounts of silver to mimic the real thing: Silver Plated Jewelry and Silver Filled Jewelry. There is nothing wrong with this type of jewelry  – as long as it’s not marked or sold as real silver jewelry.

Silver Plated jewelry is NOT real silver. It is brass, copper or other metal jewelry that has a very thin layer of silver applied on the surface. There is no calculable value to the amount of silver in silver plated jewelry so it should be judged on its aesthetic, artistic and collectable qualities rather than its inherent metal value. Most silver plated jewelry in the marketplace today is electro-plated. Electroplating is a chemical process where a base metal item (e.g. a copper brooch) is placed in an electrolytic solution and connected to the “cathode” end of an electrical circuit (e.g. a large battery).  A piece of silver is connected to the “anode” end of the circuit and then placed in the solution apart from the copper piece. Electrical current carries tiny silver “cations” from the silver bar to the surface of the copper piece. With sufficient time, a thin layer of silver forms over the copper piece. Once the process is complete, the copper piece appears to be made from silver.

Silver Plated jewelry often does not have any mark on it anywhere that would indicate it was silver plated. Occasionally you will, however, see the following marks:

“SP” – meaning Silver Plate

“Plate” – more common on flatware and table pieces

“EP” – meaning electroplated

“Quadruple Plate” – allegedly meaning the piece went through electrolysis four times

“EPNS” – meaning electroplated nickel silver

“S80” – this is a mark that appears on a lot of Chinese silver colored jewelry that is often also marked 925. This is not silver jewelry. It is merely plated with “925” Sterling Silver.  S80 Silver is apparently a plating compound in many emerging market countries.

Sometimes the silver plate mark is confusingly blended with marks that look like hallmarks. This is especially common on pieces imported from Britain and Holland. Do not be fooled by these marks. An example appears below. Another confusing mark on silver plated pieces is the name of a manufacturer that includes the word “silver” such as “International Silver Co.” or “American Silver Co.”. These names do not mean that the item is silver. Rather if there is no mark indicating purity on the piece (e.g. 925 of “Sterling” or a hallmark), then the piece is almost certainly silver plated.


Example of the EP mark meaning “Electro Plated”






Silver Filled jewelry is jewelry that is made by taking two thin sheets of silver and pressing between them a sheet of brass, copper or other base metal. It is not very common. It is akin to “gold filled” jewelry. Silver Filled jewelry has a quantifiable amount of silver in it (often 1/5th by weight but also as low as 1/20th). Silver Filled jewelry goes in and out of use based on the spot price of silver. When silver becomes expensive, silver filled jewelry gets more popular. Common marks for silver filled jewelry are:

“Silver Filled”

“1/5th Sterling” (sometimes consisting of only one sheet of silver on top of brass, copper etc.).

“1/20th Sterling”

“Sterling Cap” (always consisting of only one sheet of silver on top of brass, copper etc.).

Nickel Silver

Nickel Silver goes by many names and often looks exactly like silver to the untrained eye. However, the one thing it’s not, is silver. Nickel Silver contains absolutely NO silver — zilch, zero, nada. It is a metal alloy formed by combining copper, nickel and metal. Except when newly polished, it has a luster and often “greens” (oxidizes) with age. It is very common in Mexican and Latin American tourist pieces where it is sometimes termed Alpaca.

Alpaca (Nickle SIlver) Cuff Bracelet

Alpaca (Nickle SIlver) Cuff Bracelet







Other common names and marks on Nickel Silver jewelry include:

German silver


EPNS (electroplated nickel silver)


There is nothing wrong with Nickel Silver jewelry and some of it is quite beautiful. However, it’s important to know you are buying nickel silver and not real silver. We are especially fond of early Mexican Alpaca jewelry that quite often features genuine gemstones. It has become a nice collectible in its own right and is much more affordable than silver jewelry.

Other Imitators

There exist countless other “silver” colored metals and even plastics that can be mistaken for real silver. When in doubt, have the items tested by a professional or learn to test silver yourself. In time, you will be able to distinguish all of these substitutes based solely on weight, look and feel. Please feel to free ask any questions or suggest additional details that might make this post more effective. Thanks as always for reading out blog!


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27 Responses to The Difference between Silver, Sterling Silver, 900 Silver, 800 Silver, Alpaca, Nickel Silver and Silver Plated Jewelry

  1. Michele says:

    Thank you for this information. You have introduced me to a few new terms, but I didn’t find one of the ones I was looking for. What is Tibet Silver? I guess from reading this article that it is most like alpaca silver. Thanks!

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for reading our blog. “Tibetan Silver” is one of those tricky trade terms that means different things to different people. Most of the stuff for sale on the internet that is described as “Tibetan Silver” is made from silver-colored base metal alloy (similar to alpaca). However you will occasionally see people refer to low-grade antique pieces of Tibetan origin as “Tibetan Silver”. That is the exception though. Most so called “Tibetan Silver” is base metal with NO silver content.

    • Barry Rummel says:

      Most of the time, Tibetan “silver” is just another name for pewter.

  2. tas fashion murah says:

    many S80 sale on ebay from china .. is it fake silver ?

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for your question. As long as the piece is not being sold as solid “Silver”, it is not techincally “fake”. S80 Silver is plated base metal. In the U.S., you could not use the word “Silver” in the title without a qualifier clearly explaining the piece was plated. Chinese regulations, to the extent they exist, might not be equivalent. An interesting legal question exists as to when the item becomes subject to U.S. regulation— when marketed, or only when it arrives mislabeled in the U.S.? I do not know the answer to that question.

    • Dorothy Woodall says:

      Hi! I am trying to find out what 15CE 900 means on silver jewelry. Thanks! Dot

  3. Tavares says:

    Thank you for this good info! I wish I read this info before I purchased several listings from china.

  4. charles says:

    Your Description of the ‘Different’ Classifications used is MOST interesting. started making
    ‘REAL SILVER jewelry as a hobby over 50 years ago, and used to buy my silver from ‘Johnson Mathey’ who supplied me with ‘SHEET’ or ‘WIRE’ as I ordered.
    I came across ALL this Silver Jewelry from China and ‘KNEW’ that it was too good to be true to be SOLID SILVER at the prices, but I still got Sucked in and Bought a number of pieces to give as gifts. before the first one arrived. They keep coming and DO NOT LOOK too bad, but knowing that they are NOT Silver, puts a damper on things and I definitely will NOT be giting them.
    Surely something can be done to STOP these people from Advertising and Selling this ‘CRAP’ as ‘925’ or ‘STERLING SILVER’. I STILL do not know HOW they can make the articles out of ANY Material and sell it for the prices they do and Ship it across the world. I live in Canada and Wish we had the luxury to be able to produce sooooo inexpensively.
    Thanks for your explanation and awakening to the NEW World that GREED has created.

  5. I have several items that are marked 925 that tarnish to look almost like copper; I polish them with baking soda and they look like silver again. I was hoping someone might have information to share on this topic.

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for your question. Silver tarnish can show up in a variety of colors from black to brown to tan to even a purplish iridescent. It depends on the type of silver alloy and the air / contaminants to which the the item is exposed. Do you have indoor pool? Sometimes the presence of chlorine from a pool will tarnish silver to more of a brown color (rather than the usual black).

  6. I periodically shop for sterling on ebay and see many listing under sterling that are clearly plate I quite often receive items that have been represented as sterling that are claimed to test sterling but do not have a sterling mark; some of these pieces are marked Alpaca, German, or Tibetan which you have address; others test positive for magnetic susceptibility and I am curious if it is100% reliable to determine an item is not sterling using magnetic susceptibility? I have heard that a clasp that is positive for magnetic susceptibility may be due to a spring in the mechanism but I only accept this explanation if the clasp has a sterling stamp. I suspect that acid testing reliability is subject to the skill of the tester. Thoughts?

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for your question! When it comes to buying precious metal jewelry, the best thing you can do is to but from a trusted seller who will stand behind there product. I believe that most of the time people sell non-silver items by mistake. There is a lot of confusion regarding what is, and what isn’t silver – especially on ebay. To answer your question, — NO — magnets are not a reliable test for silver. It goes both ways — many non-silver items (e.g. silver plated) brass will pass the test and many genuine silver items will fail the test. Genuine silver items fail for a number of reasons — some are plated with a magnetic top coat, some have steel parts (such as the spring you mentioned – or a pin, or a staibilizer). Also, very strong magnets (e.g. rare earth) will react to the the metals used to make silver alloys (for example cobalt). Acid testing is pretty straight forward– esepcially for a presence /absence test on silver. We don’t sell test kits but I’d be happy to recommend one if you are interested. Thanks again!

      • polruan says:

        Does acid testing leave a noticeable mark on the piece tested? I have a Danish piece that I believe to be silver, but has only a maker’s mark (initials). I would be prepared to have it professionally tested too, but imagine that they too would use acid testing.

      • hunterridge says:

        Hi and thanks for reading our blog. A skilled jeweler or appraiser will be able to test the item without damaging it. Acid testing with a touchstone is OK. DO NOT allow the person performing the test to apply acid directly to the piece or to file into the piece – neither is necessary.

  7. Claudia says:

    what is Hill Tribe silver?

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for reading our blog. Hill tribe is a term used to refer to jewelry, accessories and utilitarian objects manufactured in the “hinterlands” of Thailand by various peoples who trace their origins to mainland China. It is almost impossible to determine whether a piece is authentic Hill Tribe unless you can accurately identify the provenance (similar to the problems with Native American pieces in the USA). In terms of silver content, authentic pieces are usually somewhere between 85% and 99% silver.

  8. max says:

    hi and thanks for the valuable info. I received a cuttlery set as a present, and the mark on all of the pieces states 900 and next to it 24.80. What does this mean? The knives e.g. have a silver handle but the sharp part is of stainless steel.

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for your question. My expectation is that the handles are 900 silver. However, i have to note that often the manufacturers of flatware will use a number to indicate the amount of silver that was used in the plating process for plated pieces. I do not think that is the case here, but it warrants additional research. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.

  9. LWats says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I feel more confident about the silver I’m looking at and the right questions to ask a seller!

  10. ck says:

    Hi! This is great info!

    I have some vintage & antique silver jewelry that is simply marked “SILVER.” Have you seen jewelry marked as such, and if so, did it test sterling?

    • hunterridge says:

      Hi and thanks for reading our blog! Items that marked just “Silver” with no other marks, are often pieces that were manufactured in the far east (or any number of British / American colonies and territories) and then exported to the West. Rather than use the purity or hallmarking system native to the country of manufacture, the pieces were simply marked in english “SILVER”. Silver content varies but is usually at least 900. Japanese pieces then to run in the 950-999 range and Chinese export pieces tend to hit a little over Sterling in our experience. Based on the style of the piece, you can usually figure out where it was made and can then research local silver standards. If you send a photo we’d be happy to throw a guess in the ring. Thanks again.

  11. Haze says:

    Hi I have a metal belt with a belt buckle that has either a crocodile or alligator within a lozenge shape marked 100%. I have tried to find anything similar on the internet to no avail. Could you maybe help me. I have tried to take a picture but it always seems unclear. Haze.

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