All that glitters is not gold—and the same rule goes for sterling silver. So whether you’re contemplating a purchase or evaluating a current possession, it’s well worth determining if your silverware is composed of real sterling silver and not merely silver-plated or plain old stainless steel. Given that the price of silver hovers around $16 per ounce, you could either be setting yourself up for a large investment or sitting on some pretty valuable stuff.
Contrary to what one may think, even if silverware is said to be "real" sterling, it's not purely so. Unadulterated sterling-silver is actually too soft to eat with, and wouldn't stand up well to frequent use. Thus, "genuine" sterling-silver flatware is usually an alloy—a mixture of 92.5% sterling and copper, another, more durable metal.
Common stand-ins for sterling silverware are typically composed of stainless-steel, over which a thin layer of silver (or chrome or nickel) has been applied (plated) to give the impression of genuine sterling silver, but with higher resistance to corrosion, rust, and tarnish. (It's actually very pretty and looks real, too.) Plated flatware is more affordable than genuine sterling silverware cutlery but can still look remarkably like the real thing.
Determining Real Silver
Here's how to tell if you're sitting on a silver mine, or if your great aunt's "heirloom" silverware is, well, anything but.
Take a Closer Look
If the piece in question is purportedly an antique, then it’s bound to show some wear. Wear is a good barometer since silver and silver substitutes show their ages quite differently. Over time, silver-plated items tend to chip, exposing the metal beneath; look out for marred edges and handles. Any difference (in color or otherwise) between the exterior and interior metals is a dead giveaway that the silverware isn't authentic.
Buff It Out
Buff the silverware to a shine with a soft, nonabrasive white cloth. If the silverware is real, it will leave a slight (or not so slight) black mark. Real silver chemically reacts with oxygen to form a patina (tarnish) while silver plating bonds to the underlying metal, so stainless steel will leave no such mark.
You don't need fancy solutions to clean silver: Mix a paste of three parts baking soda to one part water, and then scrub, rinse, and buff dry.
Find an Imprint
Real silverware often bears the mark of its maker, so grab a loupe or magnifying glass to find an imprint. Authentic pieces may read, "STER", "92.5%", or simply "925", which stands for its percentage of pure silver. (Imprints of 18/8, 18/10, 18/0, and 13/0 indicate a stainless-steel alloy that's plated with a percentage ratio of chromium to nickel, respectively.)
Consult an Expert
Still unsure? Take your silverware to a certified jeweler or antique expert who will file down a small area on the piece and apply a (highly corrosive) nitric-acid solution to test its authenticity; genuine sterling silver will turn a creamy, white color.