Identifying Sterling, Silverplate, and Weighted Silver

Collectors of sterling silver should know how to distinguish sterling silver from silverplate, because generally sterling silver artifacts are much more valuable, given that they have more silver (at 92.5 percent purity) and silver is a precious metal. Silverplate, while also potentially attractive due to its outer layer of sterling, may require special care given that the sterling layer may be thin and vulnerable to wearing away, leaving the base metal core exposed.

Identifying Silverplate Items

Silverplate can be deceptive to novice collectors of sterling because it may appear to be silver due to its lustrous silver outer layer while being primarily composed of base metals. Also, non-silver alloys may have deceptive names, such as “German silver” or “nickel silver,” both of which signify an alloy composed of copper, nickel, and zinc. Thus, novice buyers of silver may be prone to overpaying for a piece, believing it to be composed of sterling when it’s simply plated.

Silverplated items are normally marked as such, with special characters such as EP (electroplated) or EPNS (electroplated nickel silver), with the label “silver on copper” (meaning it’s a copper piece with a silver outer layer), or very straightforward with the word “silverplated.” They may also simply have special symbols or letters as marks from the manufacturer. Conspicuously absent from these pieces are the hallmarks designated for sterling.

Identifying Sterling Silver

Sterling silver hallmarks of London over centuries.
Silver hallmarks of London over centuries

Because innumerable hallmarks have been used for sterling silver, depending on the place and time, and sometimes none at all, it will require a keen eye, knowledge, and experience to be a successful collector of sterling. Generally, sterling silver will be marked as such, with “sterling,” “925,” “st. silver,” or with traditional symbols such as the lion passant (a lion depicted with its right fore paw up, as in the graphic above), which was commonly used in England. At times, particularly in early American history, the piece was simply marked with the initials or name of the silversmith, as in pieces made by the American revolutionary Paul Revere. Modern American sterling commonly has the word “sterling” marked on it.

Because some pieces of sterling have no hallmarks, or marks that are not immediately ascertainable, a silver testing kit with nitric acid is necessary for every serious collector. Such testing kits also allow collectors to identify counterfeit items with false hallmarks.

Paul Revere silver marks.
Paul Revere silver marks
Gorham sterling silver hallmarks.
Gorham sterling silver hallmarks

Identifying Weighted Sterling

Weighted sterling is simply sterling silver with concrete, wax, or some other heavy substance used to stabilize a silver piece, such as a candle, vase, or compote dish. So as not to confuse consumers into thinking these items are made entirely of sterling, they are required by law to be labeled as “weighted silver” or “weighted sterling.” Because the heavy, non-silver material may comprise much of the weight of the item, some bargain hunters are only willing to pay a small fraction of the value of the item by weight were it to be made of sterling. These buyers often remove the weighted part by breaking open the item with tools and then sell the sterling scrap to a dealer or refiner for a profit.