How Do I Know What I am Really Buying? Part 3

Last  time we said: Well it looks like silver, but is it?

And now we get into an interesting situation. Two different metals, one of which is a silver alloy, and one of which contains no silver at all – with the same name: Britannia. But they have very different markings.

The first Britannia was, and still is, a standard measure of silver purity in Great Britain. This metal is 95.84% pure silver and 4.16 per cent copper or other metals. The Britannia standard was enacted in Britain in 1697 to try to prevent craftsmen from melting silver coins and reusing them for flatware and hollow ware. It is traditionally stamped 958.

The second form of Britannia contains no silver at all. It is 92% Tin, 6% Antimony, and 2% Copper. It can be stamped “BRITANNIA” or “EPMM”, which stands for “electroplated Britannia Metal”. It is commonly used to make inexpensive hollow ware that is plated with silver. It is also used to make the statues for the Oscars, which are then gold plated.

German Silver contains no silver at all. It is actually a nickel alloy. The alloy that I buy contains 65% copper, 17% zinc, and 18% nickel. I use it mostly for chains, like the one in the picture below. It gives the look of silver without the expense. People with Nickel allergies need to avoid German Silver.


And just because it is “silver colored” doesn’t make it inexpensive. Some rather expensive metals are “silver colored”, for example, Platinum.  For a while there Platinum was even more expensive than gold, but now it has come down a bit and is about $250 less than gold, per ounce. Still not an inexpensive purchase.  Platinum is a fairly rare metal and requires temperatures of over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit to cast, so it is rarely used by small independent jewelers.  Platinum jewelry can be stamped “Plat”, “Platinum”,  ” 900 Platinum”, “950 Platinum” or  “586 Plat” depending on exactly the purity level of the metal.

There are obviously many other silver colored metals out there, including tin, pewter, lead, chrome, and aluminum. None of these are currently considered to be precious metals. Back in the early 1900’s aluminum was considered to a really amazing metal, because of its silver appearance but light weight. I have seen some incredible engraved opera glasses and hollowware from this timeframe. Today aluminum is used in jewelry manufacture because it is lightweight and can be polished up nicely. But it is not a precious metal.

So we have now reviewed the major types of precious metals, which we expect to pay more money for because of the increased cost of the basic materials. If you are interested in non-precious metals, and why  a crafts person, like me,  might choose to use specific metals for an assortment of projects, I wrote a blog series about that earlier this year. Choosing Which Metal  to Use, talks about what metals were actually used in period and the decisions that modern jewelers have to make.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

Next Time: Plating and Filled Metal

Choosing Which Metal To Use: Part 3

Last week we asked if there were any other issues with metal that we should consider. Well, two things come to mind immediately: metals other than bronze and lead, and knowing your metal source.

Metals were not carefully assayed in the past they way they can be today. The people who created the various pure metals and alloys were knowledgeable, and there is a considerable amount of pre-1600 written material about creating various alloys, but metal purity could not be tested with the same level of precision that we have modernly. Many alchemy texts have information on metallurgy.

When you are reading museum data base entries, the actual metal content of a piece is rarely listed. “Copper alloy” is often used to refer to any sort of bronze metal and the actually purity of precious metals is rarely noted. Until recently it has been much too expensive to test each piece to determine exactly the metal content. Larger organizations, like the British Museum, will sometimes reevaluate pieces as they clean them, and they sometimes test the metal content. Testing content has helped to reveal frauds, and modifications of artifacts, many of which were done in antiquity.

For anyone who has ever followed the types of silver that are available modernly, the two most common would be Sterling Silver (also designated as .925) and Fine Silver (.999).  Those numbers simply indicate the percentage of silver that is included in the alloy. There are other designations, including coin silver (which varies in silver content depending on the date of manufacture and the country), and Argentium Silver (which is a tarnish resistant form of Sterling Silver with special properties). The terms Bali Silver, Thai Silver, and Mexican Silver may be used in a retail setting, but have no legal meanings. Nickel Silver, or German Silver is silver colored, and does not actually contain any silver at all. It is a copper alloy.

There were an assortment of silver alloys that were used in period that are not usually used modernly. Billon has been used since at least ancient Greece. It is a silver colored alloy which usually contains silver and other metals (usually copper), and may sometimes contain mercury. It was commonly used for making coins and medals. Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold, which has been used since at least 3,000BC by the ancient Egyptians. It was used widely in coinage and jewelry manufacture by cultures as varied as the Egyptians and the Vikings. There are major deposits of natural electrum in Anatolia (Turkey).

All of the silver pieces that I currently make for sale in my shop is classified as Sterling Silver. My cast pieces are solid sterling, and the wire and plate that I use in my toiletry sets, needles cases and chains (both knit and link) are all solid Sterling Silver.  I do not currently work with Argentium silver. Sterling Silver alloy was used during Medieval times.

Next time: What about silver plate, silver filled, vermeil, and gold filled metals, and sources of metal?