Types of silver

There are many different types of silver. This is because pure 100% silver is soft and malleable. For most practical applications silver is mixed or alloyed with other harder metals, typically copper. Different types of silver are therefore defined by the type and amount of other metal used in the silver alloy.

The amount of metal used is measured on a millesimal fineness scale. That is a thousand-part scale, in which 1,000 fineness is 100% pure silver, and 500 fineness would be 50% silver.

Pure silver bars.

Pure 999 fine silver bars from Metalor.

100% pure silver is not currently possible to produce. 999, known as “three nines fine”, is therefore accepted as fine or pure silver, and is the most common type of silver found in investment bullion.

925 fineness – 92.5% pure silver – is an internationally accepted type of silver used commonly in jewellery, but has a long place in British history. Termed Sterling Silver, it was first established in the 1300s by King Edward I as the minimum standard for English silver coinage, and continued to be used for centuries after. Today it is still the minimum accepted standard in the United States and many other nations. Sterling Silver is still one of the most common types of silver seen today.

In the UK it is a legal requirement to hallmark silver items to identify which type of silver it is. This involves three compulsory marks: the maker's mark, assay office and fineness. The fineness number is contained in an oval which indicates the metal is silver. For example, Sterling Silver is stamped 925.

Hallmarks which help denote which type of silver has been used in manufacturing an item.

Across the EU it can vary from country to country, but hallmarks are still commonly expected and used.

Silver grades

Besides Sterling Silver, a number of other silver grades are commonly used. Examples of these include Scandinavian Silver (830 fineness) and Britannia Silver (958 fineness). These traditional terms are generally derived from national conventions.

The table below shows some of the common silver grades:

Type of silver Fineness
Fine Silver 999
Argentium Sterling Silver 960
Britannia Silver 958
French 1st Standard 950
91 Zolotnik Russian Silver 947
Sterling Silver 925
88 Zolotnik Russian Silver 916
84 Zolotnik Russian Silver 875
Scandinavian Silver (a.k.a European Silver) 830
German Silver (a.k.a European Silver) 800 - 835
Coin Silver 750 - 900

Different grades of silver

Though soft and malleable, pure silver is reasonably resistant to corrosion. The other metals used in alloying are not so resistant, therefore the addition of other hardening metals tends to decrease tarnish resistance. Historically, manufacturers were forced to compromise between strength and preventing corrosion when choosing between the different grades of silver.

Fine 999 silver can possibly be used on items that are not subject to a great deal of wearing. Items such as earrings, brooches, and picture frames may use fine silver. Rings, bracelets and cutlery however are better made from lower grade but hardier silver alloys.

Copper is the most typically used metal in a silver alloy. Additionally, small amounts of zinc or nickel are common. However, some sterling silver jewellery can be harmful to those allergic to nickel.

There has been much metallurgical research to produce a tarnish-resistant silver. In 1990 it led to the production of new alloys including ‘Argentium Sterling Silver’. This is an alloy of silver, copper and germanium. Though far more expensive than traditional Sterling Silver, it is virtually tarnish-free.

Other types of silver

In addition to the actual metal and its alloys, silver is often used to describe anything with a mirror-like sheen. Platinum and palladium are both metals with a silver-like appearance, but they are far more valuable, harder, and have more resistance to tarnish than silver. Both are commonly used for high-end silver coloured jewellery.

Unlike platinum and palladium, jewellery termed ‘Tribal Silver’, ‘Tibetan Silver’ or ‘Nickel Silver’ are of little value. They have no silver content, and are simply silver-coloured base metals.

Silver is itself used as an alloy with gold to produce ‘White Gold’ which also has a silver appearance. Both gold and silver jewellery are also rhodium plated to give a hard and tarnish-resistant silver finish.

Historically silver coins were made from fine silver, Sterling silver or coin silver. However, due to the growing value of silver, common currency in the United Kingdom after 1947 contains no actual silver.

Most common currency 'silver' looking coins are now in fact base metals. The metal content of these coins is worth less than the face value.

  • There are multiple types of silver
  • Silver is graded by fineness
  • Sterling Silver (925 fineness) and Fine Silver (999 fineness) are the two most common types of silver