Sterling Silver Jewelry - Origins and Applications
There's always that mild feeling of excitement and relief when you see the "925" symbol etched on a piece of metal. It means you weren't cheated. You can breathe easy. It's silver after all. But then there are always these other sorts of questions that blip in your brain for about half a second and then fade away. It happens a lot about many different things, and usually people go their whole lives without finding out the answer.
Here's one: What does "925" mean?
Here's another: What does "Sterling" mean?
The first one is simple. 925 is a number that represents silver parts per thousand. Meaning, 925 silver is 925 parts silver per thousand, in other words 92.5% pure silver, the other 7.5% usually being copper. So no, you can't rightly say that Sterling silver is "pure" in any real sense, because it is actually an alloy. The reason for this is that pure silver is much too soft to be used in jewelry, as it is easily scratchable and bendable. It would be nice to have, say, a ring of pure silver, but bump your hand into a wall and you'll have a deformed ring. Pure silver (99.9% pure at least) is only used in silver bullion, which are those big blocks you see in movies where some gang is executing a massive theft operation of Fort Knox or something. It is also used in rare coins such as the Canadian Silver Maple Leaf, which is actually even purer than bullion, coming in at 99.99%.
As for the word Sterling, notwithstanding my long held childhood fantasy that somebody named Sterling discovered a giant silver mine in Africa and got the metal named after him, believe it or not, nobody knows exactly where the word comes from. What we do know is that it first started appearing in the historical record around the 13th century. The going theory is that silver was the currency in an area of Germany known as Easterling, and the world got shortened to Sterling from there.
As for silver itself it is considered a precious metal, though the most abundant and least expensive of the those metals considered "precious". Currently, it trades at around $17 an ounce, with gold going for over $1,000 these days.
In jewelry, the 925 Sterling silver body is usually coated with a thin shell of 99.9% pure silver in order to give the piece a shiny finish, as well as prevent it from tarnishing. Silver itself is not very reactive with oxygen and therefore does not form silver oxide at normal temperatures. However, copper does, and it is copper that is the metal of choice for a Sterling silver alloy. Copper oxide is what you see when silver begins to tarnish. A thin coat of pure silver helps prevent this.
What may seem surprising, though, is that silver has only recently become popular in the jewelry realm. The metal gained its fame, rather, in the kitchen, with what we now call silverware, most notably during the Victorian Era of Great Britain, which extended from 1836 - 1901 under the reign of Queen Victoria.
The fact that we now call all forms of eating utensils "silverware" even if they are made of steel or even plastic, attests to the fact that the metal really made its mark there. Back in the 19th century, indulgent dinner parties and radical etiquette customs forbidding any sort of touching of food with one's hands were common among the British elite, who often served 10-course meals (soup, fruit, cheese, sorbet, salad, main, sorbet, dessert, tea...) with each course requiring a different sort of silverware.
Eventually, people couldn't afford all the silver and the metal went out of style in dinnerware and went into jewelry, where it remains today. Though, real silverware continues to thrive in some affluent areas.
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