Silver Marks: What are Coin, Sterling, Mexican, and German Silver?


Silver has always played somewhat of a second fiddle to gold as a precious metal. Still, the bright, white metal has had its moments, from William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” peroration to the Hunt brothers effort to corner the silver market in 1980.

As gold advanced in price at the end of 1979 and into 1980, a greater interest in silver as a jewelry metal developed, not only as the primary metal but as a component of vermeil, a term for a gold plated or gold filled silver.

Like Gold, it is a malleable metal, capable of hammering without crumbling, and its softness – a disadvantage for the most part in securing gems – makes it convenient to fashion.

That silver would increase in value along with gold is not too surprising. It is the most attractive of white metals and has enjoyed its role as a precious favorite almost as long as its yellow companion.

Because silver is too soft for general use, it is often alloyed with other metals which can contribute their own unique qualities.

Here is a list of the various compositions of silver alloys and their marks:

Mark Alloy % Fine Silver %
.999 Fine or pure 99.9
Hallmark 4.16 95.8
Sterling 7.5% copper 92.5
Coin 10% copper 90.0

Anything with a lower content than 90% fine silver is regarded as low quality silver. Much of this low quality silver is produced for the tourist traffic in Europe, India, Mexico, and the Orient. The fine silver content runs anywhere from 50% up to 80%.

Testing silver is not much more difficult than testing for gold.

Generally, if an item is marked “Sterling” you can trust it. Most silver metal buyers do – unless something is obviously amiss.

Nitric acid reacts very quickly with silver. To determine if the item is silver plated of solid silver, file an inconspicuous slot and apply a drop of nitric acid.

If base metal is underneath the slot will show a green color while the silver plating around the file mark will be gray. Should the item be solid, both the notch and the area around it will be gray.

Only silver does this. No other white metal reacts to nitric acid in this manner. Nickel-silver or the presence of zinc in German silver – both will turn green.

Should the white metal be stainless steel or platinum or white gold there will be no reaction to the acid.

Where you’ll generally find silver plated items is in silverware. Inexpensive jewelry items usually are either silver plated or rhodium colored epoxy dip applied over base metal.

The silver plated dinner ware made in the United States is customarily marked “plate” or “plated,” together with the marker’s brand name and a signature indication. These days, if silverware does not contain a “Sterling” stamping you may be virtually certain that the merchandise is plated.