Sterling silver is made from over 90 percent pure silver with a combination of over 7 percent of other metal alloys for added strength. Copper most commonly is used for the alloy in sterling silver to add durability to the metal without detracting from the color. Sterling silver flatware was mass produced during the 19th century as well as the 20th century, so the manufacturer and pattern of sterling silver flatware are more important than its age when it comes to collector value.
Turn the flatware over and examine the item for a maker’s mark. Companies have historically stamped their name or identifying characteristics on their flatware so that the item could be identified as theirs. Websites that offer images of various makers’ marks include Leonce Antiques and Antique Cupboard.
Learn about specific company patterns, as most companies were eager to create distinctive patterns that could be identified with their company. Reference books include “Sterling Flatware Identification and Value Guide” by Tere Hagan and “American Sterling Silver Flatware 1830s-1990s: A Collector’s Identification and Value Guide” by Maryanne Dolan.
Visit the website of the manufacturer if you know the maker of the flatware, as many companies offer online pattern identification guides. An example is Oneida, which offers a photo gallery of over 600 current and retired patterns.
Find the patterns that belong to a specific company at websites such as Replacements.com, which offers an alphabetical listing of silver manufacturers that is linked to a gallery of their silver patterns.
Visit antique stores or collectors shows if you cannot determine the maker or pattern after researching in books and online. Call ahead to stores to inquire if they specialize in sterling silver flatware and if they can recommend someone who does, if they do not. Many experts in the field can provide identifying information on a variety of makers and patterns.
Look at the back of the flatware for the inscribed word “sterling” or the number “925", indicating that it is sterling silver. The 925 indicates that the flatware is 925 parts silver and 75 parts alloy. Try flexing the flatware, as sterling silver is strong and should not bend easily.