Risk vs Reward: A Beginner's Guide to Buying Silver

December 19, 2020 11 min read

RISK VS REWARD 

A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO BUYING SILVER JEWELLERY ONLINE

There's nothing quite as beautiful as a pair of sterling silver earrings or a lovely ring, but there are a lot of myths floating around on the subject of silver. Let's clear up some of the basics, so that you can navigate the risks of buying silver online and focus on the rewards.

Myth 1: Silver Is Rare, Valuable, and Precious.

This is a persistent one, so let's start here.  Silver is a precious metal for sure, but many people overestimate its actual worth due to the inflation and markup charged by jewellers.  It certainly has value and it's been used through the ages as a form of currency by many different human civilisations, but the actual worth of pure silver is not as high as many people believe it to be. 

The value of silver and other precious metals is set by a service similar to the stock exchange[1], where buyers and sellers can trade goods and other physical items instead of shares. The way the prices work is too complex to explain and not really relevant to this subject, so let's go with a short summary: The price of silver is extremely variable, depending on many factors around the world at any given time, but it's not an extraordinarily valuable commodity.

At the time of writing this post, the actual value of pure silver is approximately $0.86 USD per gram.[2]  By comparison, pure gold is currently worth approximately $62.70 USD per gram, platinum is worth $29.95 USD per gram, and palladium is worth a whopping $75.92 per gram.[3]

Now, let's put that in real terms. A pair of slim 50mm hoop earrings weighs about 4 grams in total, so the amount of silver that would be required to make those hoops is only worth $3.44 - not taking into account the fact that pure silver is too soft for jewellery, so it wouldn't be pure silver.  But, we'll get to that later.

When you're buying silver jewellery, what you're paying for isn't the metal itself, it's the craftsmanship and the time it takes for the jeweller to make the products, plus a generous markup for marketing, overheads, insurance, and all the other related costs. The finished piece is worth more than the sum of its parts.

So, the moral of the story is: if you happen to inherit a couple of lovely silver pieces from your grandmother, don't melt them down to try and sell the metal unless they're hella ugly. They're usually worth much more as a finished piece.  

Myth 2: The Best Jewellery is Made Of Pure Silver.

Many people scoff at the idea of alloyed silver and think pure silver is the only "real" silver, but in reality pure silver (officially called fine silver) is too soft to be used in the kind of delicate jewellery that consumers want to buy. Look at the silver jewellery the ancient Greek people wore as an example. You know how it's all thick and kind of chonky-looking? That's not a fashion choice, it's a necessity for working with unalloyed silver. If you try to work it into a really thin wire, like a chain, then it's just going to break. It needs to be either alloyed with another metal to make it stronger, or applied as a plating to a more robust metal. 

Most jewellery contains approximately 60-90% silver, though the best quality is called 925 Sterling Silver. The "sterling" part is just the name of that particular alloy, but the "925" gives you a clue as to what it's made from.  925 Sterling Silver is made from 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% alloy metal, usually copper. [4]

There are other types of silver that you might see, as well. We've already mentioned the term fine silver, which refers to silver that contains at least 99.9% pure silver. On the off chance it actually is pure silver, it's very poor for jewellery because it deforms easily and doesn't last long. 

You may hear the term silver-plated or gold-plated, which refers to pieces that are made of a different metal on the inside, covered in a thin layer of silver or gold. They don't last as long as solid metals, but they can be an excellent low-cost alternative. 

If you'd like to know more, we recommend this excellent guide from Halstead Bead. 

Myth 3: If It's STAMPED "925", It Has To Be Genuine.

This is one of the biggest cautionary tales I have if you're considering buying silver online.  Just because it is stamped 925, does not mean it is 925! 

Many countries have laws that require retailers to only display the 925 stamp on items that are genuine sterling silver, but not all of them. The most obvious culprit here is China, where it's common practice to stamp any item that contains any percentage of silver, regardless of what the actual silver content is. If you're buying as an investment or because of allergies, keep this in mind when you're shopping. 

Customers of CK Swagworks can rest assured, though. I am always open and honest about the quality of the silver items that I stock, and I test every piece so that you can be sure you're getting real silver. But, read on if you'd like to learn for yourself. Knowledge is power!

Myth 4: Sterling Silver is Hypoallergenic.

Sadly, not true. Everyone is different. It's extremely rare to be allergic to pure silver, but as we've just discussed above, pure silver can't be used in jewellery. If you're reacting to something, it's most likely the alloy metal.[5]

Most silver these days uses copper as the alloy metal, which is fairly low-risk in small quantities, but is a potential allergen for some people. Some types of silver may use a mix of other metals, any of which can trigger different reactions in different people. The biggest troublemakers are nickel and lead. Avoid those like the plague!

If you're not sure what your allergy is, a dermatologist can run a spot test to determine exactly what it is you're reacting to. Remember, no precious metal can be used in jewellery in its pure form, so always think about the alloys.

The most common alloys for each metal are: 

  •  Silver: Copper, zinc, iridium, nickel, tin, boron, silicon.  
  • Platinum: Copper, cobalt, gallium, and/or germanium. 
  • Titanium: Hugely variable, depending on the grade. See here for more information
  • Yellow Gold: Copper, silver, zinc, and/or cobalt. 
  • Rose Gold: Copper and silver. 
  • White Gold: Copper, nickel, zinc and/or palladium (and then rhodium plated). Alternate alloys include chromium and iron. 
  • Palladium White Gold: This is generally just palladium and gold, without any other materials. 

An important thing to note here is that different colours of gold (such as rose gold or white gold) are made of pure gold coloured with different elements to change the hue. Think of it kind of like mixing paints. You've got yellow gold and you want to make rose gold, so you add a few "drops" of copper to give your yellow gold a reddish-pink tint. There are many different combinations beyond the ones I've listed above. I recommend this blog post for more information. [6,7,8,9,10] 

Myth 5: Good-Quality Silver Doesn't Tarnish.

Totally a myth, it's the other way around.  Even pure silver will tarnish, it just depends on which elements you expose it to. It's generally considered an nonreactive metal, but it does have some reactions. It won't react to pure oxygen or water, but it will react with sulphur, which exists in small quantities in our atmosphere. [11,12]

Some alloy metals can slow down or speed up the reaction, depending on what the metal is and what it reacts with. For instance, copper reacts with oxygen, so in a sterling silver alloy that uses copper, the resulting jewellery may also react with the oxygen in the air as well as the sulphur. 

Tarnish is what happens when a metal encounters an element that it can chemically react with. When that reaction occurs, it forms a thin skin on the surface of the metal. The exact colour of the skin will depend on the elements involved, and how thick the layer of tarnish actually is. A prime example of this is the Statue of Liberty, which is made of copper and now possesses a strong greenish patina from reacting with the air.

Unlike rust, tarnish doesn't weaken the metal. It's more like a layer floating on top, which you can clean off with a bit of elbow grease or the right chemicals.

 I like to think of it like you're making a coffee.  If you add water to the coffee, it waters it down and weakens it, like rust weakens iron.  But if you add frothed milk, the foam sits on the top and doesn't weaken the coffee, like tarnish on silver. 

As a general rule, if your item doesn't tarnish, then it most likely doesn't contain any silver at all. There some tarnish-resistant silver alloys out there, but they generally require adding much more expensive metals into the alloy like palladium, which increases the price.[13]  

Understanding the way silver reacts to the elements around you can also help you to figure out if an item is solid silver or silver-plated.  

Silver-plated items will start to darken over time as the silver chips off or wears away, and you can't polish it back to its original colour because the silver is literally gone. Rubbing it will generally make it go darker as you rub off the silver to reveal the base metal beneath, or at the very least not improve the colour at all.

If the item is solid silver, you can generally rub the tarnish off and return it to its original colour with a bit of elbow grease. If the tarnish comes off and leaves the piece unharmed, then it's solid silver.   

Myth 6: Silver-Plated Jewellery Sucks!

Not necessarily true!  Silver-plated jewellery is an excellent low-cost alternative to solid silver jewellery. It can also be an excellent short-term alternative for people with allergies, if the item is plated in pure silver rather than an alloy, as the skin of silver protects you from the metal underneath until it wears off. The main difference is that it has a shorter life-span, and once it tarnishes you probably won't be able to restore it back to its original colour.

All kinds of plated jewellery exists, and if you avoid it then you'll miss out on some really lovely pieces.  Just remember that the plating is kind of like hair dye - it looks great at first, but eventually fades and washes out.

Be gentle with your plated items and you should still get a good lifespan out of them. Make sure you always take them off when you're sweaty, or getting wet, or even if it's just a bit humid - moisture will make them tarnish faster, and once they're tarnished they're goners.

I recommend saving your plated jewellery for dry weather, and keeping them sealed in an air-tight container when you're not wearing them. Stick with other types of jewellery when it's humid, like resin, bead, or glass. Or, better yet, invest in some cool stainless steel or titanium pieces, like our Dazzle Collection. Steel jewellery can get scratched, but it doesn't tarnish. Titanium jewellery is pretty much impervious to any kind of damage, but it's a hard to find because it's much harder to work with than softer metals. 

Myth 7: Tibetan Silver Contains Silver.

Tibetan Silver (also called Nepalese Silver) does not actually contain any silver at all, except in some very rare antiques. It's the commercial name of a silver-coloured alloy of copper and nickel or tin, which is used in cheap costume jewellery.[13] 

It can be extremely hazardous, as it is sometimes also alloyed with other metals that are even more dangerous than nickel, such as lead or even arsenic. I strongly recommend avoiding it. 

This should not be confused with Thai Silver, which is genuine silver that just comes from Thailand. 

Tips & Tricks For Buying Silver Online

Tip 1: Fine Silver = Bad! 

If you see jewellery or housewares advertised as "fine silver" or "pure silver", be cautious. Those terms specifically refer to items that contain 99.9% pure silver, which is too soft for anything that is going to be worn or used regularly. Fine silver is only really used in pure bullion, for trading.

This can mean one of two things: Either the item is actually silver-plated and they're trying to pass it off as solid silver to people who don't know better,  or the seller is just straight-up using buzz words to try and dazzle you. Either way, they're not being super honest, so I'd stick with caution.

Tip 2: When In Doubt, Ask! 

Love that piece, but not sure if you can trust the seller?  You can dazzle them right back with a little knowledge of your own. Ask them what percentage of silver they use in their jewellery. Many resellers simply don't have an understanding of the chemistry involved in jewellery, so they'll either tell you a really obvious lie, or they'll tell you the truth.

If they say 100%, you know they're lying. They either don't know what the alloy is or they don't want to tell you, which means it's probably not silver at all. Now you know that the seller isn't honest, you can exercise appropriate care.

If they tell you the percentage, you can generally trust that they're telling the truth, especially if they're selling Sterling. In my experience, the only ones who know that 925 sterling contains 92.5% silver are the ones who are emotionally invested enough in their business to also trade honestly. 

In the eight years that I've been buying and selling silver online, this particular trick has never failed me - or at least never failed to protect me from silver that later failed my chemical and magnetic tests! 

Tip 3: Better Living Through Chemistry (and Magnetism)!

Are you the kind of person who loves op-shopping, or just have a bunch of old jewellery that you're not sure is real or not?  If so, check out this fantastic trick by Katie Patton you can use to test if an item is real gold or silver (or at least plated) right there in the store through the magic of chemistry!  

 If you don't want to watch the video, the quick summary is that silver and gold react with the elements in foundation, so put a little foundation on your arm and then rub the piece on your arm. If it leaves a black mark, that means it's real gold or silver, because the elements reacted. 

You can also determine the authenticity using a magnet. Pure gold and silver are diamagnetic metals, which means they repel magnets, or push them away instead of being attracted to them. Diamagnetic fields are very weak so you may not notice it when you're testing them by hand, but you can tell if they don't stick to the magnet or if they stick weakly and slide off. 

If they're alloyed or have a magnetic metal like iron at the core, they'll be attracted to the magnet instead. The stronger the attraction, the less silver/gold is in the alloy.  

Tip 4: Do NOT Trust The Stamp!

I read quite a few other guides on this subject while I was preparing this document, and many of them said things like, "If it's stamped with 925 then you know it's real!" That's simply not true. I've purchased samples that were stamped 925 when they weren't silver at all. Do. Not. Trust. The. Stamp!

About The Author

The above guide was written by author, artist, and entrepreneur, V. L. Dreyer.  It is supplied free of charge exclusively through CK Swagworks. Please DO NOT DUPLICATE without express written permission, but feel free to reference and/or link back to this guide in your own work. Thank you!

Bibliography

  1. COMEX CME Group (https://www.cmegroup.com/)
  2. SD Bullion: Live Silver Rates (https://sdbullion.com/silver-prices)
  3. Gold Brokers: Live Precious Metal Rates (https://www.goldbroker.com/charts)
  4. Silver Gallery: The History Of Sterling Silver (https://www.silvergallery.com/history-of-sterling-silver/)
  5. The World Allergy Organisation: Contact Dermatitis (https://www.worldallergy.org/education-and-programs/education/allergic-disease-resource-center/professionals/contact-dermatitis-synopsis)
  6. The Assay Office: Platinum Alloys (https://theassayoffice.com/platinum_alloys)
  7. Gem Select: Various (https://www.gemselect.com/gem-info/did-you-know.php)
  8. Science Direct: Platinum Alloys (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/platinum-alloys)
  9. Science Direct: Silver Alloys (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/silver-alloys)
  10. Total Materia: Silver & Silver Alloys (https://www.totalmateria.com/page.aspx?ID=CheckArticle&site=ktn&NM=239)
  11. The Assay Office: Why Does Silver Tarnish? (https://www.assayoffice.co.uk/news/ever-wondered-why-does-silver-tarnish)
  12. Chemistry Explained: Silver (http://www.chemistryexplained.com/elements/P-T/Silver.html)
  13. Chemistry Explained: Copper (http://www.chemistryexplained.com/elements/C-K/Copper.html)
  14. The Assay Office: Tarnish-Resistant Silver Alloys (https://theassayoffice.com/tarnish_resistant_labexpert)
  15. ThoughtCo: Tibetan Silver (https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-tibetan-silver-608022)

Victoria Dreyer
Victoria Dreyer



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