Sterling silver catches the light like no other, which is why we love the look of sterling silver in flatware, vases, jewelry, and decorative accents. Real silver also has a high value in the market, so items made from the material tend to come with a higher price tag than those that merely look like silver. Knowing whether or not something is actually made of silver is important in terms of more than just cost: People who have an allergy or sensitivity to other metals have to make sure that their jewelry is real silver if they want to wear it without a negative reaction.
Shopping for silver at the flea market, estate sales, and yard sales means that you can find some great deals, but you have to know what to look for. "I always recommend that shoppers look at piles of what dealers are putting out as scrap piles of silver," says Sue Whitney, who has authored five books on antique shopping and decorating with repurposed furniture. "I once purchased a silver tray for $5 from one such pile, took it to my silver dealer and got a check for $1,400. Sometimes, dealers don't know what they have so leave no stone unturned!" Like other precious metals, silver has distinctive properties that can help you to identify it. These tests can give you a good idea as to whether the item you are holding is real silver or a convincing fake. Just remember that there are some tests that you can't do unless you own the piece, and you don't want to risk ruining the item if you intend to get more value out of it. With that said, these are some of the ways you can tell if an item is made from real silver.
Look for markings or stamps on the silver. "The first thing you should look for when you found an item you suspect to be real silver, is markings like a stamp or hallmark," explains Nicolas Martin, flea market expert and founder of Flea Market Insiders. "A silver object that is to be sold commercially is, in most countries, stamped with one or more silver hallmarks indicating the purity of the silver, the mark of the manufacturer or silversmith, and other markings to indicate date of manufacture and additional information about the piece. International sellers of silver will stamp silver as 925, 900 or 800." These numbers indicate the level of purity of the silver. Sterling silver has a purity of 92.5 percent or higher.
The Magnet Test
Most precious metals—like gold and copper—are nonmagnetic, and silver is no exception. Grab some magnets and see if they are drawn to your object. "Silver is not noticeably magnetic, and exhibits only weak magnetic effects unlike iron, nickel, cobalt, and the like," says Martin. "If your magnet sticks strongly to the piece, it has a ferromagnetic core and is not silver." Fake silver or silver-plated items are generally made of other metals. This is an easy test that can give you a good idea on whether your item is real silver or not.
The Odor Test
Sterling silver is odorless, so go ahead and smell the piece in question. Does it have a noticeable odor? If you can smell sulfur or a distinct metallic fragrance, then it is not sterling silver. The item could be silver-plated, but a scent indicates that it is not made entirely of sterling silver. This is a great test to conduct for those of us who have a strong sense of smell.
The Polish Test
Silver needs to be polished on a regular basis. "After checking for stamps and markings and using the magnet trick, pull out the soft white cloth you brought with you!" says Whitney. "Silver also oxidizes and tarnishes. Rub the tarnished piece as if polishing. If no black residue appears on your cloth, it's not silver." Polishing the silver item is a very good indicator of its authenticity. Rust or a lack of oxidation indicates that the item is made of a different material from silver.
The Flake Test
Some items may be silver-plated, which means that they are covered with a layer of real silver. Does the item have flakes that reveal a different metal underneath? Can you scratch it with your finger nail and see another material below it? The item is plated with silver, but is not sterling silver. You can also take a few of the flakes and put them into acid. The acid's color should remain the same if it is pure silver. Of course, this is not a test that you can do while at the store, so only do this test on pieces that you own.
The Ice Test
You will need to have access to ice in order to do this particular test: take a cube of ice and put it on top of the silver item. "Silver has the highest thermal conductivity of any common metal or alloy," explains Martin. "Even at room temperature, authentic silver products will melt the ice at an exceedingly rapid rate. If it melts fast(er), it probably is silver." It's a simple, neat little trick that can tell you if you are dealing with sterling silver or a clever fake.