It's true: All that glitters is not gold, and the same rule goes for silver. Whether you’re contemplating a purchase or evaluating a current possession, it’s well worth determining if your favorite silverware is real sterling silver. Note that pure silver is a softer metal that wouldn't stand up well to frequent use. Therefore, sterling silver—an alloy of 92.5% and another more durable metal, often copper—is more durable and is the standard for "real" silverware. Common substitutes usually consist of a metal that’s silver-plated, meaning a thin layer of silver has been applied to the surface of the metal to give the impression of pure silver. It is an inexpensive way to get the look of the real deal. Stainless steel can also have a remarkably comparable appearance to silver. From wedding gifts to estate-sale discoveries, see how to tell if silverware is real in just four easy steps.
1. Take a Closer Look
If the item in question is purportedly an antique, then it’s bound to show some wear. Fortunately, since silver and silver substitutes show their age quite differently, this is a good way to tell if the silverware is real. Silver-plated items tend to chip over time, exposing the metal beneath, and can often be detected by examining the edges and handle. Any discrepancy between the exterior and interior metals is a giveaway that the silverware is not real.
2. Come Clean
Cleaning your silverware is a great way to tell whether or not it’s genuine. Use a soft white cloth to buff the silverware to a shine, and then examine the surface of the cloth. If the silverware is real, it should leave behind a slight black mark on the cloth (since silver chemically reacts with oxygen to form an oxide residue). Silver plating will bond to the metal underneath, and stainless steel will leave no such mark.
3. Check for an Imprint
Real silverware often bears the mark of its maker, so grab a magnifying glass and see if your silverware has such an imprint. Authentic silverware is almost always an alloy made of sterling silver, so this imprint may include the inscription “STER” or simply the percentage of pure silver (e.g., 92.5% or, if the silverware was made in a different country, 925).
4. Consult an Expert
If you’re still not 100% certain, a foolproof method is to take your silverware to a certified jeweler or antique expert. Most dealers will use a nitric acid solution to test the metal (a method best not attempted at home) and will yield a fairly definitive result as to whether the silverware is genuine.
Now that you know how to spot genuine silverware, read on to learn how to tell if gold is real.