How to test silver is an old problem, and many of the solutions still in use are as old as the soft shiny metal itself. Learn how to distinguish between real and fake silver like a pro with these quick and easy tricks.
How to Test Silver
In 1950, an ounce of silver cost about $9, whereas today, a single ounce of silver sells for over $25. With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why silver is one of the most sought-after precious metals.
It has undergone quite a transformation throughout the millennia. Silver has gone from being a high-end jewelry and accessories material to being used in small denomination coins and then back to being used in fine jewelry.
Of course, there is no single reason why people choose to collect silver.
But whether you’re a history buff collecting silver coins or creating a financial security blanket by investing in physical assets, you’ll need to know how to test the authenticity of your silver.
Below are several of the best ways to assess the purity of your silver.
Understanding Silver Content
Silver is graded based on its purity and specific silver content. When people talk about this precious metal, they’re usually not referring to 100% pure silver.
Especially since even the purest bars are only guaranteed to be 99.9% silver, allowing for 0.01% trace materials. Instead, they’re referring to a silver alloy containing a certain percentage of actual silver.
Below are the three most common types of silver that collectors may come across and their specific silver content.
Solid silver is the purest and most valuable form of silver, containing 99.9% pure silver. Despite this, it’s not ideal for making jewelry or silverware.
Since pure silver is a soft metal, it’s too malleable to create functional pieces and is usually only found in silver bars and coins used for investment purposes.
For a piece of metal to be considered sterling silver, it must be at least 92.5% pure silver.
The other 7.5% of sterling silver is usually copper, mixed with the silver to increase its strength and hardness.
This is the most common form of silver used in a piece of jewelry, silverware, plates, and other accessories and antiques due to its durability.
Even though it’s not as pure as solid silver, sterling silver retains nearly the full value of solid silver.
Does Sterling Silver Turn Green?
Due to the copper content in Sterling Silver, green discoloration will sometimes occur. Sterling silver includes a 925-mark, indicating the minimum 92.5% pure silver content.
International Silver Company
Sometimes you’ll find a piece of silver stamped with “IS.” If you’re after real silver, avoid objects with this stamp. “IS” refers to the International Silver Company, which merely silver plates objects.
This means there is only a very thin layer of silver on the outside of the object and other inferior and more common metals underneath.
Physical Methods to Test Silver
Sometimes the most straightforward and simple tests are the best.
There are several easy physical tests that you can perform to gain insight into your silver’s authenticity. And odds are, you already have everything you need for these tests at home.
Check the Stamp
The easiest way to identify a precious metal is to look at the stamp or inscription.
Today, precious metals are required to have a small identifying stamp on them to validate their identity.
Pure, genuine silver is easily identifiable since it usually only comes in coins and bars and is stamped with a 999 or .999.
However, even a silver product sold in a retail store includes a stamp indicating its purity.
Sterling silver will be stamped as 925 or .925, meaning it is 92.5% pure silver, while lower grades of silver will be stamped with their respective purity.
A silver ring will most likely include a stamp of authenticity on the inside of the band.
Silver Stamp Designations
Other silver stamps you may see include 900, 935, 835, 800, PLATE, or IS. The last two should be avoided, as they indicate that the object was only plated with silver rather than actually made from silver.
This is often the case with dining ware and decorative pieces.
You may also see a lion stamp, which indicates Brittania silver, or silver that is 95% pure.
However, if your silver doesn’t have an authentication stamp or inscription, or you suspect it could be faked, the following tests will help you uncover the truth.
Believe it or not, pure silver is an excellent conductor of heat.
There’s an easy method to test the authenticity of silver using just a piece of ice.
All you have to do is place an ice cube on top of the piece of silver and see how fast it melts.
If the silver is real, the ice will melt rapidly, even at room temperature. However, if the silver is fake, the ice will melt slowly. You can also put a second piece of ice on a regular plate for comparison.
Another easy way to test for real silver items is with the magnet test. For this test, you’ll need an area with flat surfaces and a strong magnet, preferably a neodymium magnet, also called a rare earth magnet.
Is Silver Magnetic?
Place the magnet on a flat surface and then hold the piece of metal in question above it.
If the magnetic fields are strong enough, the magnet will latch onto the metal, proving it’s not real silver. Neither copper nor real silver is magnetic.
A piece that’s drawn to a magnet has a ferromagnetic core, proving it’s not silver. Counterfeit or silver plated items may include metals that are ferromagnetic, such as cobalt, nickel, or iron.
You can also take this test a step further by placing the magnet directly on the piece of metal and then tilting the metal at a 45-degree angle. If the magnet falls off, you’ve got real silver.
Remember, the magnet test is not 100% accurate, as some metals have weak magnetic properties, just like silver.
So it may be necessary to combine the magnet test with additional tests to prove the authenticity of your sliver.
It may sound strange, but giving your silver a sniff can actually help you determine its authenticity.
If the metal has a strong iron or penny-like smell or an old, metallic odor, it’s not real silver.
Pure silver, and even sterling silver, do not have any natural odor.
Chemical Methods to Test Silver
Unlike some physical tests, chemical tests leave no uncertainty.
However, some of them can do a significant amount of damage and devalue your silver, so physical tests should be performed first.
Still, if you can’t decide conclusively if a piece of silver is authentic using the above tests, these chemical tests will give you a definitive answer.
How to Test Silver – Scratch Test
Using nitric acid and a file, you can perform the scratch test. To perform this test, create a small scratch on an inconspicuous spot and apply a few drops of nitric acid.
If the metal is pure or sterling silver, the nitric acid will fizzle and turn a creamy white color.
However, if it is just silver-plated or made from a different metal or different material, the nitric acid will turn green.
Much like testing for pure gold, be careful to avoid damage to your item.
How to Test Silver – Acid Test
There are silver acid tests available on the market today that change color upon coming in contact with certain metals.
To perform this test, simply place a few drops of the testing solution onto the silver piece in question. If the solution turns bright red or dark red, that indicates pure or sterling silver.
Brown color indicates a lower grade of silver, around 80% pure, and other colors, like blue or green, indicate the presence of other metals.
This test should only be performed after trying everything else at your disposal.
Bleach is corrosive and can damage silver, so any exposure to it should be minimized as much as possible and carried out cautiously.
Pick an inconspicuous spot on the object and apply a small drop of bleach.
If the silver tarnishes quickly, it is real but probably worth less money now.
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How to Care for Your Silver
Once you know your silver object is legit, it’s essential to understand how to care for it properly.
Silver products, like sterling silver jewelry and silverware, are vulnerable to tarnish, but these simple steps can help you prevent it from rearing its ugly head.
When you clean your silver, you should do so gently as possible. You can use a solution of mild dish detergent and warm water to wipe away any dirt or grime from the surface with a soft microfiber cloth.
There are heavier duty silver cleaners on the market, but these should be used sparingly. It’s best to use as few chemicals as possible on your silver pieces.
Exposure to moisture is one of the biggest causes of silver tarnishing. After cleaning the silver, it’s vital to dry it thoroughly but gently.
There should be no water left on the silver to air dry on its own.
Don’t Clean Your Silver Too Often
Handling or cleaning your silver too often can actually do more harm than good. Frequent exposure to water and cleaners can cause silver to tarnish quicker.
For this reason, you should also wear 100% cotton gloves to not stain or damage the silver with your skin oils.
It might seem like overkill, but it’s best to take every step possible to protect your family heirloom, silver collection, or silver investment.
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