German silver and sterling silver may be the same color and have a similar shine and gleam, but that doesn't make them the same. The difference lies in content. Sterling silver contains 92.5 percent pure silver, while German silver contains no silver at all. Another name for German silver is "nickel silver." German silver was used to make trade goods that 18th-century European explorers bartered with natives, but these indigenous people were quick to learn the difference and preferred real silver.
Both sterling silver and German silver are alloys -- a combination of metals. To create sterling, copper is added to silver in a ratio of 9.25 parts silver to 7.5 parts copper to make it hard enough to hold its shape when worked into highly detailed objects such as tableware and jewelry. The alloy called German or nickel silver comprises nickel, copper and zinc. Silver jewelry is often made from an alloy of 85 to 90 percent silver and the rest copper, but this cannot legally be called "sterling." Other silver-copper alloys include coin silver, which is 90 parts silver to 10 parts copper, and dental silver, which is 60 to 70 percent silver.
Sterling silver has cash value in the precious metal it contains, as well as intrinsic value in the artistry and skill used to form objects made of it -- not to mention the antiquity and rarity of these objects. German silver has little to no monetary value in its metals, and its value is largely determined by that of the object itself as a collectible.
Sterling silver made in Britain is identified by a hallmark depicting a heraldic lion "passant," a description of the animal's posture -- facing the viewer's left with the body horizontal, left forefoot raised and extended, with the other three feet on the ground and the tail curved up and over the back. It should also bear a stamp reading "925." Other hallmarks may identify the maker and the country, city or town of origin. German silver has its own distinguishing hallmarks based on a unified system in use since 1888 that includes a national mark of a crescent and crown.
Somewhere between sterling silver and German silver in both composition and value is silver plate or plated silver. This shines like both, but will tarnish like sterling. (Since German silver contains no actual silver, it does not tarnish as silver does). It consists of a relatively inexpensive metal base covered with a thin layer of silver by the process of electroplating. Large tableware items such as trays are the most likely to be made of silver plate, as the cost of such items in sterling would be almost prohibitive. Silver plate bears hallmarks that identify the alloy of the base metal, such as EPNS for "electroplate on nickel silver" or EPC for "electroplate on copper."