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Everything You Need to Know About Silver

Your silver tea set or flatware could be made from two completely different processes, both yielding very different values. Sterling indicates that your tea set is composed of 92.5% silver. Silverplate indicates that your tea set hardly has any silver at all.

Sterling marks

You can identify whether your tea set or flatware is silverplate or sterling by looking at the marks on each piece. All sterling items will have a hallmark indicating the composition. Most often sterling is indicated by a lion passant stamp if the set originated from Britain. In Canada or the USA, it is most often indicated by the word "sterling" which is stamped into each piece. Other countries have their own hallmarks to indicate the composition but the list is to great to mention here. We recommend venturing over to the Encyclopedia of Hallmarks for more information (the link is provided at the end of this article).

Sterling marks have been required by law in most countries for centuries. Special laws, like the Precious Metals Marking Act in Canada, offer harsh repercussions for criminals who forge incorrect silver marks. However despite the risks fake silver is very often used in sterling jewellery sold at kiosks, auctions and flee markets. We recommend avoiding buying silver that originates from Mexico, China or Tawain unless you are buying it direct from a very familiar silversmith. If an individual makes it out that they are selling new products made from solid silver below cost or implying that the good is stolen, you can be sure it is fake.

Reputable manufacturers of sterling are more likely to use less pure silver, than no silver at all. For instance, the manufacturer may sell you sterling flatware with an average composition of 90% silver, rather than the 92.5% that you paid for. It is a small difference of a few percent but it is worth noting.

Manufacturers may also use obscure silverplate marks that look very similar to sterling marks. These were intended to fool both less educated customers and perhaps, dinner guests, into believing you had sterling. These trickeries include using especially fancy "EPNS" stamp (silverplate mark), each deeply stamped as if they were real hallmarks, or using lions in other shapes or forms other than the official passant. Beware that in low light conditions, these marks can easily fool any inexperienced buyer and it is often difficult to get your money back.

Others signs that it is sterling is if it has the number 0.925, 0.95, 0.85, or 0.800 stamped into it, indicating the purity of silver as a percent of the total metal weight. Total metal weight does not include wood trim often used on the handles of sterling tea pots, the cement used inside hollow sterling handles or the stainless steel blades most often used on the knives. It specifically refers to the metal composition used in the silver. Only solid silver details will be stamped (ie. stainless steel blades do not carry a sterling mark). Sterling generally refers to 0.925, but at SilverBuyer we are interested in any solid silver item.

Example of a sterling mark

Here is an example of a Birks Sterling mark. Birks most often uses the stamp "Birks Regency Plate" to indicate silverplate.

Other North American flatware manufacturers sterling marks.

Nitric acid

The easiest way for professionals to test metals on the road is through the use of nitric acid and potassium dichromate solution. The solution changes color based on the metal and its purity. Unfortunately this method does permanent damage to the piece, leaving a creamy or coloured mark on top of a scratch made by the tester. As such, it is a test that should be performed in the least visible area. Occasionally filings are scratched off of the silver object being tested and the solution is then applied to the filings. This test is only semi-accurate, requires the use of dangerous acids and damages your investment. Therefore it is not a procedure advised for non-professionals.

WARNING: Nitric acid can cause severe burns and be fatal if inhaled. It can cause acute pulmonary oedema or chronic obstructive lung disease, which is related to what kills mountaineers who stay too long in the 'death zone', located at or above 8,000m or 26,000 feet in elevation.

Furthermore, Transport Canada classifies nitric acid with concentration of 68% or more as an explosive. Beware that this chemical is difficult to acquire in significant concentration as it does pose a public safety / terrorist risk.

Mass spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is the method most often used by an assay office. It is used to seperate the ions of metal and reveal the entire chemical composition of the metal. These machines are highly accurate and generally do not damage the piece being tested. However, these machines are very expensive and are out of reach of most silver sellers and buyers.

Fire assays

Fire assays are the official test, but require that a portion of your set be melted and then tested. Fire assays are the most costly and the most damaging to your investment but they should produce entirely accurate results.

Should I have my silver formally appraised

Appraisals may be good for insurance purposes. You should inform your insurance company of the appraised value so that it is reflected in your premium. You should also take a photo of the set, some images of the sterling marks and create a written list of every piece. Contact your insurance company for any additional requirements. Also confirm how they will replace the set if it is stolen or damaged in a fire. If they are going to replace your lost used set with another used set, then you should inspect your appraisal and ensure it reflects the used replacement price, not the new price. This will avoid additional premiums.

As far as setting a market price for buying and selling used sterling, an appraisal is next to worthless. Most appraisals for mass manufactured sterling flatware sets range between $6,000 and $15,000. This reflects the cost that the wealthy pay to purchase it new from the official silversmith. Since the 1970s demand for sterling has been low and these companies usually only produce sterling flatware for special order making it costly. Furthermore, a jewellers' business model requires significant markups. Unless your item is rare, there is no market anywhere that we have found for used sterling flatware at this price. You can easily pick up a small used set regardless of age for less than $2,000. Currently realized prices on ebay are, on average, below scrap value.

If you are serious about selling your set, it may be recommended to not share the appraised price with the buyer. It will only put them off from making a respectable offer and your flatware will sit there without any offers.

I want to sell it at its retail price

Retail prices are also useless when setting a private sale. Remember your items are generally not professionally polished, certified or guaranteed and you don't have a store with significant selection and overhead such as loans, inventory, insurance, rent and human resource costs. Furthermore, retailers don't have customers that are ready to buy, immediately, with cash-in-hand. It can take several months or years to move inventory. The better question to ask - is what will the retailers pay for my set? Not what they sell it for.

Signs of Silverplate

Signs that you have a silverplated set include marks such as plate, sheffield, EP, EPNS, EPN, EBM, A1 or triple plate for instance. EP stands for "electroplated" and was a revolutionary process invented in 1805 and has been used for two centuries to bond silver atoms to certain metals. Some silverplate is collectable but most is so common that it is strictly used for pleasure and ambiance.

The absence of a mark is also usually indicative that the set is not sterling, especially if you believe the item originated in England. We have found some old American silverware that was not stamped or alternatively had the stamps worn away by time. We at SilverBuyer are generally not interested in items that do not have official marks.

What about a magnet test?

Many 'experts' claim you can use a strong magnet to determine whether an item is solid silver or not. Apparently the sterling items will not be attracted to the magnet while other metals will. Unfortunately this is horrible advice and we don't advise relying on this test. Most silverplate is bonded to nickel-steel (EPNS). While nickel and steel are magnetic, nickel-steel used in silverplate is not and it will not react to a magnet either. So both silverplate and sterling do not usually react to a magnet.

Silverplate as scrap

In terms of scrap value, because the layer of silver is so thin, it costs much more in energy to remove plating than it yields in silver value. However, if the core metal is heavy and made out of brass or copper, it may be worth saving and selling to an industrial scrap metal dealer. Copper is currently trading at $3-4 US/CDN a pound.
We highly recommend visiting the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers' Marks to research your marks.


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