After many years of trading at All Saint’s Craft Market in Cambridge, I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked by customers ‘is it real silver?’ or ‘is it solid silver?’ or ‘is it pure silver?’

This post will hopefully clarify the difference between these terms both in relation to gold and silver. Without exception, all of my jewellery is made using only Sterling Silver and/or 9 carat or 18 carat gold. None of the pieces are silver plated, gold plated, gold filled or vermeil. So what do these terms mean?  

Sterling Silver

Sterling Silver is not ‘pure’, or more accurately ‘fine’ silver. It is 92.5% silver and 7.5% alloys (usually copper). The reason for the addition of this alloy is simply because ‘pure’ or ‘fine’ silver is 99.9% silver and, in this state, although it is less prone to tarnishing, it is also too soft to be practical in either making jewellery or, in many instances, wearing it. The softness of fine silver would leave the piece of jewellery prone to damage and being easily misshapen. 

92.5% silver, often stamped or referred to as .925 silver (the millesimal fineness) with the additional component of 7.5% alloy makes the silver stronger, easier to shape and work with and ultimately, more durable.

Plated versus Vermeil

Most of us are familiar with the term gold or silver plated. We understand that this means that there is a thin covering of silver or gold over a much cheaper metal, usually copper, brass or nickel. When people complain of ‘green’ fingers when they wear their ‘silver’ ring, this is because it isn’t silver - it’s plated with a very thin covering of silver which, in no time at all, wears down revealing the much cheaper base metal beneath it. Also, people who are sensitive to nickel will find the silver plated piece of jewellery an irritant to their skin. 

In more recent times, gold vermeil has become popular but this can be misleading to customers. An item may be advertised as ‘gold’ and you could arguably look at the price and think ‘ what a bargain!’ - beware and read the small print as it may become apparent that the piece is gold vermeil. 

Gold vermeil is a good cost-effective alternative to solid gold, which is very expensive. It differs from gold plated in that the covering is a minimum of five times thicker than gold plate and so it is more durable and will take longer to fade, tarnish and wear off. Silver is the base metal of gold vermeil pieces while with gold plated items, the base metal is much cheaper (usually copper) and the covering much thinner and therefore less durable.  

Finally, when buying a piece of Sterling Silver or Gold jewellery make sure to check if it is Hallmarked. The piece may be stamped ‘925’ (sterling silver) or ‘375’ (9 carat gold). This is not the same as a hallmark and does not guarantee that the piece is what it claims to be. Your only guarantee is a genuine hallmark. For a full explanation of UK hallmarks, see The Assay Office Guide to Hallmarks