Sterling silver has a history that dates back to the 13th century, as it was used as a form of coinage under the reign of Henry III. The lustrous metal alloy is a combination of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper, which makes silver more substantial. Since the 1840s, sterling silver has been used for luxurious flatware and jewelry. But the valuable metal does have limitations, as it can be difficult to work with and tarnishes easily.
One of the most desirable attributes of sterling silver is its luster, as new shiny silver eventually is worn down into patina glow, which is a desirable effect for collectors, according to the book “The International Silver Trade” by Thomas Patrick Mohide. This gentle wearing is the result of the slight scratches and dings the metal’s surface endures with age. Patina’s soft glow is also appreciated in jewelry, and some jewelry makers purposely weather the surface prematurely to bring about this effect.
A sterling silver flatware set is more expensive than stainless steel, retaining its value with proper care over the years. Antique silver serving sets and utensils can be traded or auctioned, depending on the design, model and artisan signature. For this reason, silver heirlooms can be insured and counted as part of an estate, which is not typically done with cheaper metals. Antique silver pieces are often auctioned through luxury trading companies, such as London-based Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
One of the biggest disadvantages of sterling silver is that it tarnishes, an effect caused by the copper alloy oxidizing as it comes in contact with air, sulfur and water. This effect can also be increased as the metal comes in contact with sulfuric foods, such as eggs and cabbage. To help stave off tarnishing, silverware should be immediately washed and dried completely after coming in contact with these foods. But it is inevitable that any piece of silver, even jewelry, will need to be polished occasionally over its lifetime.
Though pure silver is a soft metal, when it is made into an alloy, it has a higher melting point. This is a detriment for jewelry manufacturers, as it can be difficult to fuse or solder pieces of the metal together to create more elaborate designs. When working with small pieces of sterling silver wiring or sheets, the range of designs is more limited than gold, according to Brandon Holschuh’s book “The Jeweler's Studio Handbook.” Artisans often have to use brute force to pound, sand or sculpt the jewelry. Another option is to add another alloy to sterling silver during the soldering process to help increase the melting point.