When purchasing jewelry or cutlery, two commonly used materials that may be seen are stainless steel and sterling silver. Though similar in appearance, they are quite different, and this article will explain how.
Stainless steel is an alloy of steel and chromium. It combines the strength, durability, and functionality of steel with the luster, low-maintenance upkeep, and resistance to corrosion of chromium. Applications of stainless steel include cookware, surgical equipment, architecture, and jewelry, among many others.
Sterling silver is an alloy consisting of 92.5% silver and 7.5% of another metal, usually copper. Pure silver is usually too soft to make anything functional or durable, and therefore alloying the silver with another metal allows it to have the strength of another metal, with the flexibility and lustrous appearance of silver. Sterling silver is used to make jewelry, cutlery, and musical instruments (some manufacturers of brass wind instruments such as saxophones choose to make the instruments out of sterling silver rather than brass). Pictured above is a sterling silver Chinese punch bowl from 1875.
|Stainless Steel||Sterling Silver|
|Made from steel and chromium.||Made from silver and another metal, usually copper.|
|More scratch resistant than silver.||Less scratch resistant than steel.|
|Does not tarnish.||Tarnishes.|
|Less lustrous.||More lustrous.|
The main differences are in the composition and quality of both metals, namely:
- What each metal is made out of
Both stainless steel and sterling silver are alloy metals, meaning they are metals made from of a combination of two other metals. Stainless steel is made from steel and chromium, and sterling silver is made from silver and another metal, which is usually copper, though it can also be zinc or platinum.
Pure silver is not a very durable metal, which is why it is alloyed with a more durable substance such as copper. While this alloying does make sterling silver relatively durable, stainless steel is still the more durable option of the two, and this can be seen, for example, in the fact that stainless steel has a variety of industrial and heavy-duty uses that sterling silver does not.
Stainless steel does not tarnish. Silver, however, will tarnish if not properly cared for.
Sterling silver is brighter and more lustrous than stainless steel. Where sterling silver is shiny and bright, stainless steel has a flatter and duller color to it.
Sterling silver is very light. Silver itself is a light and soft metal, and the weight of the alloy mainly comes from the second metal. Stainless steel on the other hand, is much heavier.
The main advantage of sterling silver, then, is its aesthetic appearance. Sterling silver looks shinier and brighter. Stainless steel is more durable, can last longer, and does not tarnish, but this comes at the cost of a duller and less shiny appearance. This is one way sterling silver can be distinguished from stainless steel. Another way is to look for a marking on the item that says “.925,” signifying the minimum fineness required for an object to be considered sterling silver.
The below video demonstrates how to distinguish sterling silver objects.