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Meridith Merwald-Gofta
Sterling, Fine Silver, Gold, Goldfilled, and Copper jewelry.
Omaha, Nebraska

What is Sterling Silver, Fine Silver, Alpaca Silver, Gold and White Gold?

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Sterling silver is marked with a stamp on the bottom of the piece. The shape of the stamp varies from country to country, and in the US from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Sterling silver tarnishes simply by being in contact with the air. Pure silver is, like gold, impervious to tarnish, or oxidation on the surface. It is the alloy metal with attracts the tarnish. Rub your thumb over an apparently shiny piece of sterling silver. You may find a dull smudge on your skin that indicates that the sterling silver is beginning to tarnish.

  Pure silver, also called fine silver, is relatively soft, very malleable, and easily damaged so it is commonly combined with other metals to produce a more durable product. The most popular of these alloys is sterling silver, which consists of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. Although any metal can make up the 7.5 percent non-silver portion of sterling, centuries of experimentation have shown copper to be its best companion, improving the metal's hardness and durability without affecting its beautiful color. The small amount of copper added to sterling has very little effect on the metal's value. Instead, the price of the silver item is affected by the labor involved in making the item, the skill of the craftsperson, and the intricacy of the design.

Most high quality silver items are stamped with a "fineness" or "quality" mark. This mark designates the precious metal content of the jewelry, and under federal law, must be accompanied by a maker's mark or registered trademark. Because pure silver is so soft, it should only be used when malleability is required, such as in handcrafted jewelry featuring weaving and other intricate designs.

Sterling silver is most often used for jewelry and household accessories because of its combination of beauty and durability. Acceptable quality marks for sterling silver include: sterling sterling silver ster .925 With proper care, your fine quality silver will last a lifetime. To minimize scratches and other damage, store your silver jewelry either in a cloth pouch, sealable plastic bag or in a separate compartment in your jewelry box. Avoid exposing your silver to household chemicals when cleaning with bleach or ammonia, or when swimming in chlorinated water, as these chemicals can damage silver. Care should also be taken to prevent silver tarnish build-up, a dulling that naturally occurs when silver reacts with sulfur or hydrogen sulfide in the ambient air. To clean your silver, use polishes formulated specifically to remove tarnish. 

 Tarnish is most easily removed when it first becomes visible. Although wearing your silver jewelry often is the best way to prevent tarnish from building up, regular cleanings of all your silver items will prevent tarnish and keep your silver bright and sparkling. Look for the fineness mark and the maker's mark on the underside of the silver item you are considering to ensure the quality.

Because of its visual similarity to sterling silver, Alpaca silver is frequently used in jewelry as a less expensive alternative to true silver. Its stainless finish makes the jewelry easy to clean, requiring only lemon juice or a mild soap to remove any marks or tarnishing. Alpaca silver is popular with South American jewelry companies and is used to create beautiful, traditional and modern pieces.

Alpaca silver was first used in China as a substitute for sterling silver. It made its way into Europe through traded goods, where it was marketed under the name of paktong or white copper. In the 18th century, several German companies adopted the use of a similar alloy, and in 1823 a competition was held to discover which alloy was the best silver imitation. Berndorf, a German manufacturer, sold their nickel silver products under the name Alpaca silver, and the term became commonly used throughout Europe. In 1840, a process called electroplating was developed, allowing a fine metal coating to be plated onto metal and non-metal object, which opened many new markets for nickel silver-plated goods.


Created by combing gold with at least one other white metal, white gold is an alloy that is considered to be both attractive and durable. The qualities of white gold make the substance ideal for a number of uses, especially in the creation of jewelry for both men and women. Here is some background on the creation of various grades of white gold, as well as a couple of examples of how white gold is used.

Just as with gold or silver, karats is the means of accurately measuring or grading a particular gold alloy that will be sold as white gold. The determination of the number of karats has a lot to do with what type of white metal is used in the mix. For example, white gold that contains measured amounts of silver or palladium will classify with a higher amount of carats. The presence in nickel helps to give white gold durability but can also lead to a slightly lower designation of karats.

Perhaps the most popular application for white gold is in the use of jewelry items. White gold jewelry includes such items as earrings, necklaces, ankle bracelets, and rings. More recently, white gold has also been used for nose and belly button rings, as well as in the creation of other interesting pins that are sometimes used as ornamentation with cheek or brow piercing.

The exact properties of white gold will vary, depending on the metals that are included in the mix. White gold that is composed of a gold and palladium mixture will tend to be somewhat more pliable, which is ideal for creating settings for stones. The presence of some nickel in white gold adds strength that is desirable for the creation of rings and other jewelry that is expected to wear gracefully over long periods of time. In just about all cases, items that are created with white gold are usually treated with a layer of rhodium, which acts as a sealant to the white gold. The rhodium also helps to protect the finish of the white gold from scratching and other forms of wear.


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