What’s the Difference Between Sterling Silver vs. Silver-Plated Products?

blue pendant with silver necklace

If you appreciate the value of silver, you know that there is a difference between genuine 925 sterling silver and silver-plated. And if you’re not and are still planning to invest in silver products, it’s very important to know what the difference is to tell if you’re paying for the right price.

While there are some reliable stores and sellers that provide you with the right information on the spot, some sellers may swindle you into paying the sterling silver price for silver-plated products. At a glance, sterling silver and silver-plated products can look very similar to the unwitting eye, but these differences can help you tell them apart.

Sterling Silver vs. Silver Plated

First, let’s discuss what the terms “sterling silver” and “silver plated” mean. Silver is a luxury metal alongside the likes of gold and platinum, but it’s one of the less expensive ones on the list. Pure silver, however, is too soft to be used in products like jewelry and dinnerware, so it has to be combined with a certain amount of other metals to give it its durability.

As a universal standard, sterling silver must meet the composition requirement of 92.5% silver (hence the reason sterling silver has the number “92.5” or “925” engraved on it) and 7.5% other metals. Anything less than 92.5% silver is not sterling silver. Because of the 7.5% other metals, however, sterling silver slowly tarnishes if not cared for and maintained properly.

Silver-plated items, however, are made with a base metal (a non-luxury metal, usually copper, nickel, pewter, or any other metal) before a layer of silver is plated over its surface. The resulting effect is that the product looks like silver, but only a small percentage of it is, so it doesn’t have the same value of sterling silver products because it has less of the luxury metal in it. And over time, the quality of silver-plated items will begin to degrade (depending on how thick the silver layer is) as the inner base metal oxidizes, expands, and chips away at the silver.

Which Is Better: Sterling Silver or Silver Plated?

If you take a sterling silver bracelet and a silver-plated bracelet, the sterling silver one will always be the more expensive one because it has more of the luxurious silver metal in it than the silver-plated one. Sterling silver products are meant to be heirlooms, collectibles, or things you intend to keep for a long time – or even can be passed down to your descendants.

That’s not to say that silver-plated is a bad option, though. While there are some silver-plated products made with poor quality that can easily be damaged in a short time, some silver-plated things are made with strong non-luxury metals that can withstand oxidation longer and are coated with a thick layer of silver. And if you can find a silver-plated item in good quality and an affordable price, you’re getting a good deal for your money.

So, to answer which one is better, it depends on what you are looking for. Sterling silver is more expensive but can last longer, while silver-plated is more affordable but won’t last as long as sterling silver can.

Is There Gold and Platinum Plated?

Just like silver, other luxury metals like gold and platinum can be used to coat base metals into looking like it is made with expensive metals. Here’s a video showing how manufacturers create silver-plated items. Manufacturers electrically charge the metal so that it can attract silver particles around it and give it the appearance of sterling silver.

This process also works with other metals like gold and platinum, though there are other ways to create plated items.

Unsure? Check The Label

To the untrained eye, sterling silver and silver-plated look very similar, so it’s easy for someone who can’t tell the difference between the two to be fooled by shady sellers who claim their product is sterling silver or charge a sterling silver price even if it’s not. They may even claim that sterling silver and silver-plated are the same thing, but it’s not. The best way to determine the material? Check the label.

Sterling silver will always be engraved in “925” or “92.5.” This is the amount of silver required to call a product sterling silver. In some cases, the 925 will be accompanied by a logo, a letter, or even a country as a reference to where it was manufactured. So, you might see something like “Italy 925” as a way to indicate that that silver was made in Italy, but you might also just see a simple “925” and that is valid, too.

On the other hand, silver-plated items will be engraved with “EPNS” (electro plated nickel silver), “EN,” or simply “silver on copper” or any other base metal to indicate that it is silver-plated. If you see this label and the seller insists the item is sterling silver, don’t be fooled.

Sterling Silver vs. Silver-Plated Physical Differences

close up photo of silver bracelet
Image by 智 小 from Pixabay

There are other physical differences between sterling silver and plated silver, but if you’re not good at spotting very slight differences, these could be difficult to tell. But let’s say you’re still skeptical about the engraving and you think, well, anyone can engrave silver-plated jewelry with a “925” and sell it off as sterling silver. Here are more differences you can watch out for.

Color

Silver-plated products have a lighter silver color. This is due to the fact that there is only a thin layer of silver coating base metal while sterling silver is made completely (or rather, 92.5%) of silver. In comparison, sterling silver has a much darker color.

Weight

Base metals are much heavier than silver, since silver is one of the more naturally lighter, less dense, and malleable metals. As such, sterling silver is much lighter than silver-plated items because an item made with base metals and coated in silver will be much heavier than something made mostly out of silver.

Durability

While sterling silver will not oxidize, its composition makes it much softer than silver plating. As such, it may be more malleable and prone to shaping. This may not happen to all sterling silver products, especially those combined with more durable metals in its 7.5%, but some sterling silver products will have intricate details and grooves that could eventually wear off.

On the other hand, the shape of silver-plated items is more durable due to the strength of the base metal. But its durability in terms of oxidation, base metals can oxidize faster and will eventually chip off the silver plating.

Price & Resale Value

Sterling silver is more expensive than its silver-plated counterpart. So, if the price is for something advertised as sterling silver is too good to be true, then it probably is. Because it has a lot of silver in its composition, sterling silver items have high intrinsic value and can be resold at a high price. On the other hand, silver-plated items have no intrinsic silver value since only a small portion of it involves silver, so you can’t expect to get a high price out of it even if it does look similar to sterling silver.

Because of the stark price difference between sterling silver and silver-plated products, it’s best to come prepared when buying either of the two, especially sterling silver. By knowing these differences, you can avoid paying for an item for more than it is really worth and making sure you really are getting what the store or the seller advertises.

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