What You Need to Know About Silver – Before You Buy!

There’s nothing like setting the table with gorgeous vintage or antique silver And adding silver bowls, trays or other silver items around your home is an amazing way to bring a classic touch to your home decor.  If you’re just starting out, here’s five important things to know before you buy silver.

I’m grateful to silver seller Jeanne (on instagram @Valley_Vintage_VA) for answering some questions for me and sharing some fantastic advice on purchasing and caring for silver. If you’re looking for lovely silver plate or sterling pieces, Jeanne offers wonderful items on her instagram. Be sure to pay special attention on Sunday when she lists her latest sterling finds.

This is the first of three posts  on collecting and using silver over the coming weeks.  Don’t miss the second part, a Guide to Cleaning, Polishing and Storing Silver.

You don’t want to miss these posts, so be sure to get on my email list. When you join my subscriber community, I’ll send you Splendor on a Shoestring, my guide to finding tableware, silver, china, linens and home decor items on a budget.

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As a special bonus, when you join you’ll receive Splendor on a Shoestring, my guide to finding silver, china, linens and other home items on a budget

1. What’s the difference between sterling silver and silver plate?

Functionally, a fork is a fork, of course, whether it’s silver plated or sterling silver. Both sterling silver and silver plate pieces can be gorgeous and collectible. But there are some important differences between the two. Sterling silver is pure silver combined with a secondary metal in order to add strength. A piece must be 92.5% silver to be sterling.  Silver plating is the process of applying a very thin layer or sterling silver to a base metal object, usually nickel or copper.

Often, there’s not much visual difference between plated and sterling pieces. There is generally a difference (often substantial) in the value of the pieces, however. And a sterling item will require different care and handling than a silver plate piece.

In the photo below, one candlestick is sterling and the other is silver plate. Can you tell the difference?

It’s not easy to tell sterling from plate at a glance. The surest way to tell is to look for a hallmark that designates the piece as sterling or plate. More on hallmarks below. In the absence of any marks, try putting a magnet on the piece. If the magnet holds, the piece is probably silver plate. It’s a neat trick but please don’t try it unless you own the piece or have permission from the owner.

Sterling silver and silver plate

So is sterling silver better than silver plate?

I’ll explore this in detail on an upcoming post but I do want to address it briefly here The answer is, honestly, that it depends. Consider the age and condition of the item, how you’ll use it  and the price. There’s nothing wrong with silver plate, especially if you’re just starting your collection or you’re sticking to a budget. But silver plate is generally not as durable as sterling, so it will require a gentler touch when you’re cleaning or polishing it. Very generally, sterling is a better investment for pieces you’ll use frequently or pieces that will take more wear and tear.  Sterling can handle more frequent polishing or cleaning, whereas it’s possible to accidentally rub plating off and expose the base metal.

Obviously there are going to be pros and con either way. But in my opinion, the “better” option is the one you love and will feel comfortable buying and using.

No matter what you choose, it’s important to learn how to tell the difference between silver plated pieces and sterling silver. That will make you an informed consumer and ensure you don’t pay sterling prices for plate. And you won’t  accidentally polish the silver right off your new teapot.

By the way, the candlestick on the left is sterling and the right is plate. Did you get it right?

2. Silver pieces develop tarnish when exposed to the air AND to certain chemical compounds

The idea that silver will slowly tarnish if it’s left sitting about is pretty well-known but contact with acidic or oily compounds can also cause discoloration. That can come as an unpleasant surprise if you’re not expecting it. Acidic foods like tomatoes are a common culprit. The good news is that these discolorations can very easily be buffed away.

Managing tarnish is perhaps one of the biggest concerns people have about using and collecting silver pieces. If this worries you, Jeanne suggests using your pieces regularly, as that’s one of the best ways to avoid or remove tarnish. It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s absolutely true. Silver left languishing will continue to tarnish but pieces that are used often don’t develop that dreaded patina. And of course using your pieces often is half the fun of collecting silver!

That doesn’t mean you’ll need to spend hours polishing  you silver after every meal, either. The act of using and washing your silver will do a lot of prevent tarnish. In the event your pieces develop reactive discoloration from contact with foods, a quick dab of silver polish or rub with a polishing cloth will reverse course. To keep larger items or pieces you have on display shining brightly, just give them a quick wipe down once a week with a silver polishing cloth. Store pieces you don’t use often in protective bags or cabinets and that will help keep them shiny and free of tarnish.

When it comes to caring for silver, a few minutes of prevention is definitely worth hours of cure.

I’ll be covering how to clean and store your silver in an upcoming post. Be sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter so you don’t miss it!

cleaning a silver pot

Related: Is one of these Myths About Using Silver keeping you from enjoying your silver?

3. Silver pieces can be professionally cleaned, repaired and restored.

If you see a once lovely silver piece that’s fallen into sad condition, don’t despair. Though the piece may look tarnished, dented, pitted or otherwise beyond saving, it may not be a lost cause. Experienced silversmiths can thoroughly clean even very stubborn tarnish or discoloration. If a piece of silver plate has lost portions of its finish, new plating can be applied. Pieces that have broken or cracked can sometimes be repaired. You can even have an old monogram buffed out and replaced with your own initials, if you choose. Jeanne does caution that removing monograms typically only works on sterling pieces. It’s difficult to buff scratches, marks or monograms out of silver plated items without removing all of the silver.

Silver restoration and repair is not cheap, of course, so you’ll need to consider the value of the piece (both sentimental and fiscal) relative to the cost before you decide. But if you love a piece or if it’s been in the family for years or you simply view it as an investment, it’s worth consulting a silversmith. And consider that although pristine silver is a delight, your silver can still be perfectly usable and lovely even with a few dings or flaws.

4. Silver is generally marked with important information about the piece

Most silver, at least from the past 150 or so years, is engraved with identifying information in a discreet place. These hallmarks are designed to identify the maker or decorator, the date of creation or the point of origin. Perhaps more importantly, the hallmark indicates whether a piece is sterling or plate. Some silver hallmarks are as blunt as the full name of the manufacturer or metal composition, while others are simply mysterious symbols.

There are hundreds of hallmarks, so it’s not feasible to try and commit them all to memory. Once you become familiar with certain manufacturers or patterns, it’s easier to quickly recognize their symbols or markings.  If you’re shopping for silver, it’s a good idea to have reliable resources available to interpret silver hallmarks or look up information on manufacturers or patterns. And if possible,  memorize common hallmarks like EPNS or SP, both of which mean an item is silver plated. You can see examples of some markings and hallmarks in the gallery below.

5. Silver pieces aren’t a solo act

Most silver manufacturers produce their wares in specific ornamental motifs, known as patterns. The majority of collectors start by selecting one or two (or more!) specific patterns. Then they acquire  a set of items in their pattern. Some patterns have been made for decades,  while others had short runs. Certain patterns have a seemingly infinite number of pieces. That includes obvious items like cutlery but also highly specialized serving utensils, trays, napkin rings, vases, vanity sets, and more. But other patterns have far fewer items, especially old patterns or patterns that haven’t been made in a long time.

Notes on selecting and purchasing silver patterns

  • Please know that your silver doesn’t all have to be the same pattern. It’s fine to mix and match if you wish, and that can be very helpful when you’re still building a collection. Look for a relatively modern pattern from the early to mid 20th century if you want a collection with lots of matching pieces. If the original manufacturer isn’t making pieces any more, there are companies who produce new pieces using old patterns. For instance, your pattern may not have originally included steak knives, a modern company may offer them now.
  • You may be able to purchase an existing set of pieces, especially flatware. But prepare yourself for the possibility that you’ll need to track down individual pieces, which can take time. Half the fun of collecting silver is hunting down missing pieces or rare items, though, so don’t let that discourage you!
  • The age of a pattern and the duration of time it was manufactured can affect both the value of pieces and the availability. It’s usually not too difficult to find basic flatware pieces and assemble a collection of place settings. But items like teapots or serving dishes were often made in fewer quantities and are much rarer, and therefore more expensive.  Also be aware that parts like lids or glass liners have often been lost or broken. That makes items that are fully intact rarer and more expensive.

If you fall in love with a pattern keep in mind that you can always enjoy it as part of a mixed table setting or as a complimentary accent to another pattern. For example, I have the use of a set of Gorham Versailles pastry forks, passed down several generations. They’re wonderful but I don’t have any other pieces in the pattern, nor am I inclined to start collecting them right now. I use the pastry forks as a dramatic accent to the rest of our silver so we still get to enjoy them. They add a wonderful note to dessert.

I asked Jeanne what the most important piece of advice she had for new silver collectors was and this was her reply:

“Decide on a pattern one may like and start with the serving pieces. I recommend lemon or pickle forks because they are so versatile. Not only for lemons and pickles, they can be used for cheese & meats, charcuterie trays , etc. You can always mix sterling patterns, which is lovely.”

I think Jeanne’s advice is spot on! Check out the set of lemon forks pictured below, you can see how useful they’d be and they’re quite striking.

If you’re shopping for silver, be sure to go follow her account Valley_Vintage_Va on instagram and snap up some of her lovely wares. Please note that I am not affiliated with Jeanne or her shop.  I wanted to offer advice and guidance from a silver expert and she graciously agreed to chat with me about silver care and collecting for this series.

Silver truths you need to know

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Disclosure: I’m an affiliate for amazon.com, Azure Standard and other companies. Clicking on links in my articles and purchasing products may result in the seller offering me compensation. I only share products I use and enjoy. Affiliate relationships help me cover the cost of producing content for Hey Big Splendor.