Silver is a white lustrous metal. Silver is usually easy to differentiate from lead or pewter which are generally dark grey and not very shiny.

The copper in sterling silver may corrode to form dark brown or green deposits on the surface of the metal.

If there is a white powdery substance on the surface of the object, it indicates lead corrosion and that the object is either not silver, or that it is silver plated.

There is a confusing variety of types and qualities of silver and several 'fake' silvers:

Sterling silver

Pure or 'fine' silver too soft for most purposes and is therefore alloyed with another metal, usually copper. Silver is called 'Sterling' if it is not less than 92.5% silver to 7.5% alloy. This is the American and British standard for silver. This is often incorrectly referred to as 'solid silver'.

British sterling pieces have hallmarks, symbols and letters indicating the maker, place of origin and year of manufacture, together with the sterling mark, a standing lion (lion passant). This mark appears on all British sterling silver except for pieces manufactured in Scotland, which have a thistle symbol.

Items manufactured in the United States are stamped 'Sterling', occasionally followed by '925'.

Coin silver

This alloy of 90% pure silver and 10% copper was used in the United States. Most manufacturers in the early 1800s stamped 'Coin Silver' or 'Pure Coin' on pieces.

Sheffield Plate

Sheffield Plate is a silver and copper 'sandwich' with the copper in the middle. It was rolled into thin sheets and used in silverware because it was cheaper than sterling silver. This technique was developed in England in 1742. Sheffield Plate was effectively superseded by electroplating in the mid 19th century.


Electroplate is a process of plating a base metal with silver after an object has been manufactured. The base metal is usually indicated in code on the piece:

  • EPNS - Electroplate on Nickel Silver
  • EPBM - Electroplate on Britannia Metal
  • EPWM - Electroplate on White Metal
  • EPC - Electroplate on Copper

EPBM was using in England from about 1840.

German Silver

This is not silver at all, but an alloy of 50% copper, 30% nickel, and 20% zinc. A synonym is 'Nickel Silver'.

Britannia Metal

This is a silver-like alloy of 97% tin, 7% antimony, and 2% copper, and first used in 1770. When used as a base metal for electroplating, it is referred to as EPBM.


This term is used for silver which has been gilded.


For the period house owner, silver is normally only found on decorative items.


Silver is not toxic and the home owner does not face any risks from handling or using it.


Silver corrodes on exposure to the air and moisture. Tarnish (silver sulfide) is a dense, thin black layer which does not itself damage the piece. Salty air can result in a form of corrosion called 'horn silver' may develop on the surface. The grey purple or dark grey is usually quite difficult to polish off.

Most damage to silver occurs as a result of polishing to remove the tarnish. Over-polishing will result in a loss of detail in the raised areas of the design.

Frequent polishing of plated objects will remove the silver plating, leaving dull areas of exposed base metal which may be mistaken for stubborn areas of tarnish.

Old lacquer, used to protect the object, may wear or peel off in some areas. This leaves the exposed silver to tarnish, while the rest may remain bright. Old lacquer must be removed prior to cleaning. This is best done with acetone, preferably by immersion.