Guilherme Radaeli is a lawyer, writer and blogger born in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Part-time techie and overall mad lad.
Learn How to Tell If Silver Jewellery Is Fake
Silver is a rare metal that has caught the eye of humans for thousands of years. Its characteristic sheen, its unique aesthetic when tarnished, and its cultural and religious association with richness and purity has made it a much sought-after material for making currency, ceremonial objects and, of course, jewellery.
In this article, we'll look at:
- what makes silver a valuable investment,
- how other metals can appear to be silver (especially in jewellery), and
- five simple ways to test silver at home.
Why Is Silver a Good Investment?
While not as rare or valuable as gold, silver still has some clear advantages over it as an investment:
- Since silver is cheaper than gold, its market is far more accessible to entrepreneurial traders who aren't millionaires. It's possible to get into the silver market without having to shell out a fortune and make a fortune there.
- Silver is a more useful material than gold to the industry in general, having over three thousand different industrial applications. So while silver's financial market is smaller than gold's, its industrial market is bigger.
- The government has never worried about keeping tight control of silver since gold is used as the common denominator for currency worldwide. This means silver traders have more freedom in their trade. Also, there are multiple historical examples from across the globe of governments seizing gold from their original owners, but no examples of the government seizing silver. Thus silver seems, historically, a safer rare metal to own and trade.
Watch Out: Many Metals May Look Like Silver
Silver isn't without its own problems, though, as a store of value. You can't always be sure you are buying silver. A whole lot of metals can look exactly like silver. Even something as mundane as nickel looks almost exactly like polished silver. Even a properly treated and polished piece of iron can acquire a silver-like sheen. So it's even easier to make fake silver jewellery than it is to make fake gold jewellery.
Another difficulty in knowing if silver jewellery is real is that people who buy jewellery don't usually know physics or chemistry. It is difficult for them to tell real jewellery from fake pieces.
Want to keep yourself from being conned? Then read on to learn some easy methods to help decide if silver jewellery is real.
Most Silver Jewellry Isn't Made From Pure Silver
You see, a common misconception about silver jewellery is that it is made out of pure silver. This is usually not the case. Almost all silver jewellery is made of silver alloys which fall under the umbrella term of sterling silver.
Sterling silver is an alloy, a mixture of silver and another metal, usually copper. Copper bonds well with silver and doesn't change its look, at least not in the small quantities used in sterling silver.
Pure silver is not common in jewellery because silver is a rather soft metal and is only used in its pure form to make jewellery with intricate or woven designs, like silver chains, collars, and some non-stiff bracelets.
Adding a bit of copper (or another metal) makes the alloy harder and more resistant to scratching and bending, making it more appropriate for jewellery like rings, big bracelets, large neck pieces, and earrings, as well as for coins. US law requires "sterling silver" alloy to contain no less than 92.5% silver ("925"). The other 7.5% is usually copper, as mentioned above.
So, if your partner has given you a silver ring, which you later found out to be made out of sterling silver, don't feel cheated that it wasn't pure silver! It's very unlikely that he or she would even find a pure silver ring. Now that you know this, it's time to learn some ways to test your silver jewellery to check if it's fake or not!
5 Ways to Test Silver at Home
- Ice Test
- Bleach Test
- Rare Earth Magnet Test
- Acid Test
- Scratch Test
Test #1: The Ice Test for Silver
I'm listing this test first not because it's the most accurate— it isn't completely reliable for a variety of reasons—but because it's one of the easiest tests to conduct.
While the ice test is much easier to perform on silver pieces with a good amount of surface area (like spoons, coins, and bars), you can also use it with small silver jewellery using a special technique.
You see, silver is an excellent heat conductor since it's a transition metal. Silver is actually one of the very best heat conductors, with copper coming right behind it on that scale, meaning this test also works with sterling silver. This means that ice, when placed in contact with a silver piece, will melt faster than when in contact with pretty much anything else at room temperature.
If you're testing something with a good amount of surface area, do the following:
- First, you'll need some ice. Any ice cube will do, but small ones are preferable;
- Preferably, you'll also want to have another object that is identical or similar to the one you're testing, made of a material that is not silver (steel, iron, nickel, etc.), so you can test them both and compare the results;
- Make sure the objects you're testing are at room temperature. Place the ice on top of the objects. Now watch the ice closely: the ice in contact with the silver piece should melt faster than the one in contact with the piece made out of other metal. The ice on the silver piece should melt completely before the ice on the object does so. If they melt at the same rate, you likely have a fake on your hands!
For small pieces with almost no surface area, like rings and other such things, you can also perform this test using the following technique:
- Hold your silver piece with two fingers in one hand and another non-silver metal piece in the other hand, also with two fingers. Make sure your hands are both at the same temperature, as well as the pieces you're testing.
- Get a large piece of ice, like a bar or slab of ice. You can also do this with two ice cubes, but it's way easier with a larger piece of ice.
- Now you'll want to gently press both pieces into the ice, making sure they're well spaced out from one another and that each piece has about the same amount of surface area of both pieces touching the ice;
- Since silver conducts heat so well, it should start to melt the ice faster than the other object by conducting the heat of your fingers into the ice more efficiently. After a while this should make a hole in the ice in the shape of the object. If the hole made by the silver object is deeper, then it's likely not a fake.
Test #2: The Bleach Test for Silver
An easy way to test pretty much any silver jewellery is by simply using your domestic grade bleach. Bleach is a powerful oxidation agent, and since silver is susceptible to oxidation, it should tarnish pretty quick in contact with bleach. Other, more common metals tend to tarnish differently and at a much slower rate due to their more stable molecular structure.
This test also works with both pure silver and sterling silver.
Since this test involves bleach, be careful while conducting it.
Warning When Using Bleach
This test uses only a single drop of bleach. DO NOT immerse your silver piece in bleach. Don't do this test unless you have a way of cleaning and polishing your silver piece, since the test will create a very clearly visible tarnish mark on it.
- Put your silver piece or jewellery in a place that you can easily wash later to clean up any bleach residue, such as a plastic container, a sink, or a tub. If you're doing this test in a sink, close or screen the drain hole, so you don't risk accidentally knocking your jewellery down the drain.
- Place a single drop of bleach on the piece. Make sure the drop only touches the silver part of your jewellery and not any gemstones or other metals it may be attached to.
- Watch closely as the metal tarnishes. The area in which the bleach drop is placed should start to become darker and darker really quickly until it loses all its characteristic shine and original colour, becoming a dull shade of grey instead.
If your piece takes more than a few seconds to tarnish, then it's likely a fake piece! However, keep in mind that pieces that are only covered with a coating of silver will tarnish during this test just as if they were solid silver. Thus this test can't help you distinguish a piece composed entirely of silver or sterling silver from one that is just covered with it.
Test #3: Rare Earth Magnet Test
This test can be easily done at home as long as you have a powerful rare earth magnet, like one made out of neodymium. You can easily and cheaply buy neodymium magnets online.
Silver is a paramagnetic metal, meaning it only exhibits very weak magnetic proprieties and should not attach to any consumer-grade magnet.
Keep in mind, however, that other metals that look like silver do not exhibit any strong magnetic interactions either, so this test should be used in conjunction with other tests.
- Put your silver piece on top of a non-magnetic surface, such as a wooden table, with no other metallic objects nearby.
- Now put your magnet close to the piece and see if it can attract it. Try touching the magnet on the piece and try lifting the magnet. If the piece remains attached with enough force to dangle from the raised magnet, then it's very unlikely it is made of silver.
Warning About Rare Earth Magnets
Rare earth magnets such as neodymium magnets are incredibly powerful and you can easily hurt yourself using one improperly. DO NOT place your hand or any part of your body between any neodymium magnet bigger than a coin and a piece of metal. Serious injury can occur!
Test #4: Testing Jewellery With Acid
Now here is where things get a little technical. You can perform these tests at home, but you'll need a special silver acid test kit. These can be easily bought through Amazon or eBay.
Doing this test improperly can damage your silver piece. Additionally, the acids used in the test can be dangerous to use. Keep your testing equipment away from children, and when in doubt, consult a professional jeweler.
Follow the instructions provided with the kit carefully. It goes like this:
- Take the small black stone tile provided with the kit and put it on a flat surface for better usage. If you don't have a smooth black stone, you can use a piece of unglazed ceramic tile instead.
- Get your silver or sterling silver piece and carefully rub an inconspicuous part of it back and forth on the black stone or unglazed ceramic tile. Don't rub it too hard! Just enough to cause silver lines to appear on the stone. Make enough lines to cover a small area, as depicted in the video above.
- Get the testing acid and pour a bit of it on the stone over the marks you made, enough to completely cover the marks. Use just enough acid to cover the marks.
- Now get a paper towel or napkin and use it to wipe the acid off the stone while also wiping off the marks you made on the stone using the silver piece.
- Look at the smear of acid in the paper towel or napkin you just used and watch it carefully. It should acquire a certain colour in a few seconds.
Depending on the colour you get, it will mean your piece is made of different materials. Use the following colour code to identify the material:
- Bright Red: Fine Silver
- Darker Red: 925 Silver (sterling silver should look like this)
- Brown: 800 Silver (80% silver)
- Green: 500 Silver (half silver content)
- Yellow: Lead or Tin
- Dark brown: Brass
- Blue: Nickel
Test #5: Scratch Test for Silver Jewellry
This test aims to check if your silver jewellery is actually made entirely out of silver or sterling silver or just plated with silver.
Warning: Scratch Test
The scratch test can damage your jewelry. You can do this at home but only if you have the required equipment and you know very well what you are doing. When in doubt, contact a professional jeweler.
- First, you'll need a jeweller's file. You can find kits of these on eBay and Amazon;
- Get your silver piece and find a very inconspicuous place on it, a place people will never be able to look at when you're wearing it. For example, the inner part of a ring.
- Take your jeweller's file and, using its point, make a scratch on the silver, moving the file a few times.
- Look at the metal in the scratch; is it a different colour?
- You can also pour a little bit of your testing acid right on the scratch and wipe it off with a paper towel as in the test above.
If the colour of the metal beneath isn't silvery, or if the acid test shows a different colour when you tested the scratch you made from the file, then your piece is likely just silver-plated instead of being made completely out of silver.
A Note of Caution
As I said in my other article about testing gold jewellery, a skilled craftsman may be able to replicate most qualities of precious metal using other elements. So even if your piece passes a few of these tests, it's always good to conduct others, just to make sure. The more tests it passes, the more likely it is to be genuine silver.
And finally, remember that it is always better to have a professional test your silver piece.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.