The following is a comparison of sterling silver jewelry and stainless steel jewelry and their differences in jewelry applications. Please note that despite their similar appearance, these two metals have significant differences in functionality and structure.
While both sterling silver and stainless steel belong to alloy metals, they differ in composition, durability, versatility, weight, maintenance, and cost-effectiveness. Therefore, it is essential to understand how to distinguish between these metals.
Contrary to common belief, silver is actually a chemical element, not just a metal. Its chemical symbol, Ag, stands for Argentum, which means “silver” in Latin. Silver is a precious metal, but it is not rarer than platinum or gold, making it one of the noble metals.
Sterling silver is not 100% purity; it contains 92.5% pure silver, with the remaining 7.5% being other metal components.
Brass is typically used as the alloy component as it can enhance strength and hardness. Other elements such as zinc, boron, platinum, germanium, and silicon may also be added to the alloy for increased durability.
Sterling silver is malleable and ductile, making it suitable for crafting various jewelry pieces, especially those with intricate details. It can be easily reshaped and resized to ensure a perfect fit. Its strong malleability allows for unique designs, whether it’s rings, necklaces, or brooches, as it is easily sculpted. This also makes repairs more manageable.
925 Silver has a wide range of applications and comes in various colors and finishes. When buying silver jewelry, you can choose from polished silver or matte silver. You can also opt for gold-plated silver jewelry. Silver pairs perfectly with almost all colored gemstones.
It has the potential for appreciation. Sterling silver has long been considered an investment as it belongs to one of the high-end precious metals. Like gold, silver has a track record of appreciation over the years.
Sterling silver is a delicate metal, more susceptible to damage and losing its luster. It is prone to scratches and can bend or deform with prolonged use.
If not properly maintained, pure silver can lose its shine.
Stainless steel is harder than silver and various other metals. In jewelry, stainless steel is often used to produce structurally simple and one-piece items.
Very durable. Stainless steel does not corrode, rust, or discolor. More importantly, it does not dent or scratch easily, making it ideal for everyday wear. People wearing steel jewelry do not need to remove it for bathing or swimming, as any moisture or humidity will not damage it.
Low allergenicity. Stainless steel has low allergenic properties, making it an ideal choice for those with allergies or sensitive skin.
Low maintenance cost. After polishing, it provides better luster and a smoother surface. It maintains the same appearance regardless of how long it has been worn.
Stainless steel is generally less expensive. This makes it more affordable and accessible for people who want to buy quality jewelry without breaking the bank.
Stainless steel is very hard. Its hardness makes it difficult to manually repair or adjust its size if it gets damaged. You need to have it professionally repaired.
It does not appreciate, making it unsuitable for investment.
How to distinguish sterling silver and stainless steel jewelry
- Observe the markings:
If you have bought or dealt with precious metals before, you may know that they come with quality marks, symbols, or even a series indicating their purity, type, and authenticity.
While precious metals do not necessarily require standard quality marks, jewelry must have the manufacturer’s mark. Acceptable marks for sterling silver include “925,” “S925,” and “.925.” Stainless steel bars have AES code systems or ASTM code systems. A 4-digit code can guide you in understanding the type of steel you are dealing with.
- Listen for the sound:
To determine if the ring sold to you is genuine silver, gently tap it and listen for a bell-like ringing sound. Pure silver will produce a high-pitched ring/tone that lasts for 1-2 seconds. For an accurate test, consider tapping the silver with a metal coin or your fingers. Real silver will create a high-pitched sound, while fake or non-silver parts will not produce any sound.
- Test its malleability:
Silver is a malleable/ductile metal. So, if you want to test a piece, try bending it with your hand. If the piece does not bend, it might be steel.
- Conduct the oxidation test:
Silver will oxidize when exposed to air – meaning air will cause silver to lose its luster and turn black over time. You can wipe the ring with a white cloth and check the cloth to test if it’s a pure silver ring. If there are black spots, the ring is made of silver or silver-plated. If there are no markings, the item might be steel.
- Look at the color of the breakage:
Stainless steel is a shiny silver metal. You can also check the fracture on the metal. Stainless steel fractures have a gray-white color, while silver fractures are whiter.
- Look at the weight:
Silver is heavier than steel for the same size.
You can also test the hardness of the metal by filing one end. If the test item is made of steel, most available metal files will not affect it.
Differences in Jewelry Applications Between Silver and Stainless Steel
- Silver is lighter and brighter: Although both metals have a silver color, silver jewelry is noticeably lighter and brighter than stainless steel, especially after polishing. Speaking of luster, silver possesses a charm that stainless steel lacks. While silver may lose its luster over time, you can clean it to restore it.
- Silver is more malleable for crafting more intricate jewelry: Silver is more malleable than stainless steel, making it more suitable for crafting complex or uniquely shaped jewelry, while steel jewelry tends to be more straightforward in design, making it more difficult to modify later on. Hence, most stainless steel jewelry pieces are relatively simple.
- Silver has a shorter production cycle than stainless steel: The melting point of stainless steel is generally between 1400°C and 1510°C, while silver has a melting point of about 961.8°C. Therefore, the temperature and smelting time required to produce steel jewelry are approximately 1-2 times longer than that of silver jewelry.
- Stainless steel has a longer material lifespan: Stainless steel is more resistant to wear and will not fade over time like silver.
- Silver is more environmentally friendly: Based on the higher price of silver compared to steel, most people are less likely to discard it easily. Moreover, silver raw materials are more easily recycled to create new jewelry.
- Silver is more valuable than stainless steel: 925 sterling silver jewelry is always considered more valuable than stainless steel jewelry. The resale value of silver jewelry is higher than that of stainless steel jewelry.
- Stainless steel jewelry has simpler maintenance: The maintenance cost of stainless steel is relatively low. It can be cleaned with a soft cloth and warm water. For stubborn dirt, mild dish soap can be used. Avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials to clean stainless steel as they may damage the surface.
Sterling silver jewelry requires more maintenance to keep its shine. It should be regularly cleaned with a dedicated silver polishing cloth or solution designed for cleaning silver. Sterling silver should also be stored in a dry, cool place and kept away from chemicals like chlorine that could cause discoloration.
- Gemstones on steel jewelry are more prone to falling off: Due to the high hardness of steel jewelry, most of the gemstones on steel jewelry are fixed with glue, and over time, the gemstones may become loose and fall off. Silver, being softer, often uses prong settings to secure the gemstones, providing more stability.
- Lower cost for steel jewelry: Stainless steel is a relatively inexpensive material, making it an affordable option for those on a tight budget.
Both stainless steel and 925 silver have their unique advantages and disadvantages in jewelry manufacturing. Stainless steel is a durable, cost-effective, and versatile material, making it ideal for those looking for everyday jewelry. On the other hand, 925 silver is a higher-quality choice. Ultimately, the choice of which material to use depends on personal preferences and specific needs.
I hope you have gained some insights from reading this article and have a deeper understanding of the different characteristics of sterling silver and stainless steel in jewelry making.
Whether you prefer the softness of 925 sterling silver or the hardness of stainless steel, each material has its unique advantages and suitable scenarios. Therefore, when choosing your jewelry, make wise decisions based on personal preferences, usage needs, and budget considerations.