The Difference between Pure Silver, Sterling Silver, Coin Silver, Junk Silver, and Silver Plating

Technically, silver is a metallic chemical element whose chemical symbol is Ag (Argentum) and whose atomic number is 47.  It is a precious metal that is used to make jewelry, tableware (silverware), and coins, among other things.  It also has many other uses which we will discuss in future posts.

The millesimal fineness system is used to show the purity of silver, gold, and platinum alloys by parts per thousand of pure metal by mass in the alloy.  For example, if an alloy contains 92.5% silver, it is referred to as “925.”  [NOTE: An alloy is a mixture of two or more metals to obtain desirable qualities such as hardness, lightness, and strength.]

Fine silver (99.9% pure) is too soft to use in jewelry or almost anything else because it bends, breaks, and stretches too much. For this reason, manufacturing jewelers and silversmiths mix copper with it to give it some strength without discoloring it.  Copper is the industry standard.  However, some countries use other alloys as well.  

When you see “.999 fine silver” or “999” stamped on an item, it is considered pure silver.  It is softer and more malleable than sterling silver.  It is used in bullion bars, and is also known as three nines fine.

Sterling silver (also known as standard silver) is what jewelry and silverware are traditionally made from, which is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.  That is why you sometimes see .925 stamped on your jewelry.  In the U.S., only a minimum of 92.5% fine silver can be marketed as “silver.” 

Sterling silver jewelry is often plated with a thin coat of .999 fine silver to give the item a shiny finish (called “flashing”).   Silver will tarnish unless an anti-tarnish coat is added.  Rhodium is sometimes used for this thin coat because it is very shiny and never tarnishes.  However, rhodium is a very expensive option compared to the silver finish.

Coin silver is an alloy of 90% silver and 10% copper.  Therefore its millesimal fineness is 900, also known as one nine fine.  Most United States silver coins are made of coin silver.

Junk silver is an informal term used in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia for any silver coin which is in fair condition and has no numismatic or collectible value above the bullion value of the silver it contains. Such coins are popular among people seeking to invest in silver, particularly in small amounts. The word “junk” refers only to the value of the coins as collectibles and not to the actual condition of the coins.  Also, junk silver isn’t necessarily scrap silver.

A silver-plated item has a thin coating of silver deposited onto a base metal which has a lower value than silver.  Once used as plating, silver cannot be easily recovered, so it is of no value to those who are accumulating silver as an investment. EPNS means electroplated nickel-silver and is sometimes stamped on silver-plated items.


22 Comments on The Difference between Pure Silver, Sterling Silver, Coin Silver, Junk Silver, and Silver Plating

    [...] a recent post I explained the difference between pure silver, sterling silver, coin silver, junk silver, and silver plating.   Now that silver prices are on the verge of soaring, let’s begin talking about the different [...]

  1. Tommy McElroy
  2. I would like to know how much you pay a penny weight for 14K , and also 10k I but a lot of scrap gold and silver and always looking for who ever pays the most.
    Thank you

  3. Kris
  4. I want to get a fair price on a .925 silver platter/trophy. is the market value for ounce of silver bullion used? thanks

  5. Arsheesh
  6. As a coin collector I find it very difficuilt to gauge what the metal is. Is there a simple method by which one can be confident that the coin metal is pure silver (.999) , sterling silver (.900) or just nickle.

    Ihave a question concerning silverware. I have different pieces of silverware made by Berndorf with various markings on each piece,such as 90/3,90/45,20-90,20-90 also there is a bear inside of a circle.Also I have silverware marked BSF 90,would any of this silverware be considered 90percent sliver or coin silver,or is it all silverplated? Please help.

  7. Violet Gruner
  8. i have 10 – $5.00 dollar Silver Canadian coins marked “fine silver ‘ Was is there approx. value? Thank you……

  9. Maggie
  10. I have a silver bracelet in the shape of a dragon – tail meets head. It belonged to my grandmother and I believe my grandfather brought it back from India at the end of the first world war. The markings inside are SURA 90%. What does this mean?

    Many thanks

    I have 6 teaspoons from 1960 from the USN from the international silver co. I don’t know if they are sterling silver or silver plated,they have the USN monogram on them. Can you give me an educated guess at the quanity of silver in them. Thank you

  11. Denise
  12. I have some silver pieces and don’t know what the writing on the bottom means. One piece is stamped International Silver Co. American President Lines sfo654 then under that it has 48oz and then in a three sided box with no top on it is has 64 in it. Could you please explain this to me.
    Thank you

  13. david
  14. dear maggie,
    if you want to know how to test if its silver or not, just buy you a silver acid test kit. its only about 6-8 dollars, and all you do is drop some acid on the suspected silver and if it turns blood red its silver and if it turns green then its not……sometimes you you have to let it sit for a minute because if its plated silver it will take a minute for it to burn through the silver plate.
    your friend chickenman

  15. karlheinz laduch
  16. hoi.
    wat betekend de stempel:6 9999. ?
    er staan tig stempels in mijn zakhorloge waaronder 1 kroon

  17. Andrew Klotter
  18. Just learning what sterling silver and coin silver and .999 fine. Good info, got what i needed

  19. Rose Straub
  20. I have a silver looking coin (foreign) dated 1824 with a profile bust of a man on one side and circled with FERDIN VII DEI GRATIA. On the reverse side – HISPAN ET. IND. REX . 8R .P . I. circles the coin. A
    shield appears in the center of the coin with an oval center containing 3 crosses – the rest of the shield is divided into 4 segments. Two of the segments diagonally from the other contain a standing lion and the other two opposite each other contain castles. Matching columns flank the sides of the shield. A large crown sets on top of the shield. The coin’s rim has alternating tiny circles and rectangles all around the rolling edge of the coin. Can you tell me anything about it? If it is silver and what its value might be? The condition is quite good for its age and still quite a lot of detail is visible. Any help you might be able to give me would be appreciated. Or Tell me where I might research it.

  21. Victoria
  22. Does coin silver have “chop” marks as
    English silver?

  23. LInda
  24. Are there other numbers used to represent percentages of silver?
    I have a piece that is marked 654; it has tarnish and the wear marks show no base metal; it is not marked plate. Thoughts?

    No matter if some one searches for his essential
    thing, therefore he/she needs to be available that in detail, therefore that thing
    is maintained over here.

  25. Tim
  26. Ma’am, is melted 925 into ingots better than just selling 925 junk jewelry? I just wanted to play around with the thought of this but not loose any value. Thank you very much, Respectively Tim

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  27. neha
  28. recently I bought anklet of pure 925 sterling silver jewellery shop name is lean which is in kemport mall Bangalore, actually m confiuse for this silver because I want to change my silver anklet so I change my old anklet from this store and bought this 925 silver so please tell me is this 925 is a real silver jewellery because I give tham my old silver anklet store people said they r a real silver jewellery saler but I m in doubt please clear my doubt that m in loss or is was a real silver actually

    [...] nifty little article has a nice chunk of information about all of the types of silver.  Basically “true [...]

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