Silver Hunting: Jewelry and Keepsakes

By , November 12, 2015

Previously, I wrote about the idea of collecting silver against the possibility of a future “soft collapse” in the economy (see Silver Hunting for a Less-Than-Ideal Future).

Anyone may simply purchase silver outright from commercial suppliers. To do so economically, it pays to know that silver is commonly measured in Troy ounces.

A Troy ounce is heavier than a U.S. ounce. 1 oz U.S.=.911 oz Troy. So, if you’re buying silver by the ounce, you should determine which type of ounce weight your source offers, and know the following formula to ensure you’re paying the right price:

% pure silver X current silver price X .911.

The current price of silver and other precious metals fluctuates constantly, and may be found on line or from a broker.

This formula also comes in handy if you acquire silver as I do: seconhand. Usually, it represents a price ceiling that secondhand prices rarely approach.

The most obvious source for secondhand silver may be the least interesting to me and my family: jewelry and keepsakes.

Mark's primary piece of silver jewelry. Note Sterling mark (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Mark’s primary piece of silver jewelry. Note Sterling mark (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

I had the excellent luck to fall in love with a woman who cares very little for jewelry. Michelle likes earrings, most of which have little or no precious metal content. We both have wedding rings. I have a few silver earrings for my one pierced lobe. That’s the extent of it. Most of the small amount of silver jewelry we own has been handed down by Michelle’s family. I’ve never had to justify the high cost of jewelry by considering it an investment.

Silver keepsakes are fairly common: hip flasks, vases, candlesticks, toiletries, cigarette cases, business card cases, and many other items may be made from sterling silver. These may sometimes sell very cheaply at garage and estate sales.

At the secondhand sales I love to browse (see Museum of Lost Desires) I always keep an eye out for bargains in silver. To help me do that, I carry a “cheat sheet” in my planner to guide me. Besides detailing silver content standards, this list includes information on coin silver and silverware, both of which will be explained in future posts.

Pure silver is too soft to make lasting products, so silver items are almost always a blend or almagam with stronger metals such as copper and nickel. Standards exist for the percentage of silver that comprises “silver” in various applications. These standards are dictated by law in most countries.

From the “cheat sheet”:

Percentage of pure silver in Selected International standards:

French Silver: 95%
Sterling Silver (British): 92.5%
Italian Silver: “mostly” 92.5%
Russian Silver: 87.5%
German Silver: 80%

Sterling silver is by far the most common standard in the U.S. As a rule, sterling silver is always marked “Sterling”, “Ster”, “.925” (sometimes the decimal point may be omitted or not clearly visible), or has British hallmarks (icon stamps). Look these up on line. Most commonly, the stamp is a lion.

Silver from Mexico may simply be stamped “Mexico.”

“Nickel silver” contains no silver at all! Ignore it, if you’re looking for silver.

When I first started looking into this, I doubted whether small silver items, such as earrings or bracelet charms, would have any of these marks. I’ve found that, sometimes upon minutely close inspection, they can be found on almost every item of real silver. These are international standards, and recognized marks of value, so they protect the item’s worth. If you look hard enough, you’ll almost certainly find it on any real silver item.

I should acknowledge that some silver pieces might hold more value currently for other reasons than precious metal content. Here’s an additional clue that might help those interested in that aspect of collecting: The “.925” stamp on sterling silver is a modern hallmark. Items with this mark are generally newer than 1973. If someone tries to sell you an antique marked with this stamp, beware! Although, I hate to say it, 1973 is getting close to being antique, isn’t it?

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