Is it made out of silver? A beginners guide.

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Base of Silver filled Candlestick with English Hallmarks: Lion for Sterling Silver, anchor for the Birmingham assay.
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Base of Silver filled Candlestick with English Hallmarks: Lion for Sterling Silver, anchor for the Birmingham assay.

My precious...

This guide is meant for beginners and is by no means complete and is meant to just introduce you to the topic and is mainly focused from a British standpoint and parts are about coins.

So you would like to find out if the item in front of you is made out of silver or not?

First of all unless it is bullion rounds, bullion coins or bars chances are it is not pure silver as silver is too soft to create a durable coin, jewellery, cutlery or other items.

British Silver in general is of 92.5% silver purity, the other 7.5% are copper or another base metal to increase the hardness of the alloy.
92.5% is also called Sterling Silver or 925 Silver or a combination thereof.

British silver cutlery, silver vases, condiment sets, candlesticks and other antique silver items generally have hallmarks.
The British Sterling silver hallmarks are in the form of a stamp depicting a lion passant for sterling silver, an assay office stamp such as the anchor for Birmingham, date letter indicating what year it is plus the makers/company mark with initials eg. two examples of famous marks are ‘CH’ for Charles Horner or W&H with a triangle flag for Walker & Hall.
All these marks are usually found close together.
On pocket watches and wristwatches the hallmarks are often to be found inside of the case so you will have to open them up to check.
There's other books and websites that deal with the plentiful hallmarks so I won't go into that too much here.
In vases, candlesticks and similar items it could be silver but have a stamp saying FILLED or Weighted, this means that the base is usually filled with some resign to give its weight even though the rest is sterling silver (such as depicted in the photo above).

I will try to tell you here a few methods of determining whether an object is made out of silver or not.

This could be a coin, collectible, cutlery, condiment, cups.
First it is best to 'feel' the item and if it of low value I would do the graphite/paper test:
Check if the item leaves a mark like that of a pencil when rubbing on a white paper, it doesn't need much force.
This method I used since I was a child determining whether Swiss coins from change were silver or not.
If you try to draw a line on paper with the edge of the coin and it does not leave any grey mark it's pretty safe to say that it is not silver.

If it leaves a mark there's a chance it is silver. But this does not mean it is silver for sure as metals like pewter/zinn leave marks aswell but for coins it is a good indicator trying to sort silver from non silver especially if you have several dates of which they made silver and non silver ones and you weren't sure of the dates.
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Coins

For example as a general rule of thumb British pre decimal coins from circulation were made out of 92.50% Silver before the year 1920.
Up until 1946 they were 50% silver and thereafter copper/nickel. That's true for the Threepence, Sixpence, Shilling, Florin/Two Shillings, Double  Florin, Half Crown and I think the Crown too with some exceptions like the brass threepence. Pennies, half pennies and Farthings etc are copper/bronze.
For American coins the quarter, halves and full dollars were 90% silver until and including 1964, then some thay made 40% silver up until around 1967 like the famous Kennedy Half Dollar, which is only 90% silver in the year 1964.
Generally on coins it is a good idea to check the weight against of what it should be, the more off the weight is the the more suspicious you should be.
Most weights of coins can be found online or through books such as the Krause Standard Catalog Of World Coins (also a great source to learn about world coins, mintages, catalogue $ value and more), for British Coins 'Collectors' Coins Great Britain 1760-1970' is good starting point that doesn't cost too much.
Certain items such as proof coins or high value coins should not come into contact with your fingers as it will devalue them, leaving finger prints and tiny amounts of acid/liquid/organic material from your fingers, even breathing on a proof coin  leaves water on the coin via your breath.

Silver plated

Silver plated items will also leave a mark so to determine if something is silver plated or solid silver you can do the following:If there is a Lion passant stamp on it chances are high it is British Sterling Silver.
If you find a stamps or lettering showing EPNS it is electroplated nickel silver, or silver plated for short.
If it is an old item and you find a signs of corrosion then it will be silver plated and the metal underneath is corroding.
On places where wear occurs such as inside of a ring or the handle of a cup or goblet if you can see a different colour metal like copper shine through it will be plated as well.
With a jewellers loupe that has 10x magnification observe your item in the places where the object has scratches if the underlying metal is of the same or different color.
Also try to look for marks and write them down and then look them up.
Pewter can often be mistaken as silver by the novice as it often contains hallmarks too.

Examining at closeup

Often hallmarks are tiny so  s Jewellers' loupe is a good investment and they are readily available on Ebay, the better ones are called 'Triplet' which are slightly pricier but well worth it as the quality of the lens is better.
Higher magnification does not mean it is better, for example with higher magnified ones it is harder to look into the insides of rings or brooches and the magnification is only good in the center, especially true for 30x or 50x magnification like those that have an led light built in.
You can also use the eyepiece of a telescope if you have one.
If you have an SLR camera with a macro lens you could use that. For being out and about the triplet is most handy. Also having a loupe gives you more credibility and an advantage to haggle on the price with a dealer, for jewellery it is invaluable as you will better see if stones have chips or see imperfections or damage better.

Here's some more things you can do:

  • Check for magnetism: Silver is not magnetic, so test with a fridge magnet to see, if it is magnetic it is not silver or contains very little silver as in silver plated. Being nonmagnetic does not mean it is silver, metals such as zinc and aluminium are not magnetic either.
  • Is it tarnished, dark grey or black? Silver oxidates on air and can become dark even black.
  • If you find white residue in corners of your item, this is likely residue from a silver polish solution which hasn't been washed off completely or was left to dry without washing it off, yet again chances are your item could be silver if you find this.
  • It may sound odd but you will be able to literally feel and smell real silver after a while of determining if something is silver or not.
  • The modern method would be to use an XRF Analyzer (X-ray Fluorescence Analyzer) which determines the objects composition. There are handheld analyzers but they are very costly at over £10'000 to obtain one, big jewellery shops that deal in scrap or universities may have one.
  • I haven't tried this myself but you could also check the density of say sterling silver and find how much water the weight of your potential silver item should displace if it was sterling silver and then compare that calculated value to how much water it actually displaces when placed into water, just note that density of water and silver is different at different temperatures.
  • Unfortunately with large silver or gold bars the only way to be sure is to drill and see for yourself, some gold bars have been known to have a different core such as tungsten.
  • Often there's numbers indicating the silver content, such as 999, 950, 935, 930, 900, 88, 835, 830, 800.
  • Some numbers to look out for on Gold would be 750, 585, 375, 18ct, 15ct, 14ct, 10ct, 9ct, 9kt.
  • If it says 'Rolled Gold' or something like '10 Microns Gold' are not pure gold but still worth money, 'GP' means gold plated.
  • Nickel Silver: This is a bit misleading as it does not contain actual silver, often marked as 'NS' the same goes for Tibetan Silver, Nevada Silver, Alpaca Silver (another name for Nickel silver).
  • Gold On Silver usually means it is silver with a gold plating.If it says Sterling or 925 this could be a good indicator that it is silver, but things ar known to be faked aswell (you can buy Sterling and 925 stamps) so check with the above methods.
If in doubt,  assume it is not silver.

I hope you have found this useful!
Please share your own methods and experience or correct mine in the comments section below.
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