When exploring older American silverware, the terms “coin” silver and “sterling” silver can be confusing to silver novices. Silver, when pure, is very soft, and can be difficult to work with. Adding another metal to the silver creates an alloy that is easier to sculpt, and which will hold its shape better. The purity of silver alloys is measured by millesimal fineness - the number of parts of silver per thousand. For example, a piece designated “800” silver is 80% pure silver and 20% alloy.
The English sterling standard originated in the 1300s under the reign of Edward I, and requires sterling pieces to have a ratio of 92.5% pure silver to 7.5% alloy. Until 1852, the year in which Tiffany & Co. became the first American silver company to use the “English sterling” standard, most American silver makers used the “coin silver” standard.
The term “coin” silver was originally applied to silver objects created from melted down foreign currency in the form of coins. Because international coins contained varying grades of silver, the objects made from the coins also varied greatly in their silver content. When the U.S. government began using coin silver in 1792, the purity could range from 75% to 95% pure silver. The U.S. adopted a silver standard for U.S. coins in 1837, but as silversmiths continued to use foreign coins to make their silver goods, the actual silver content of coin silver objects still varied.
The term “coin” was often stamped on silver of this time. Typically, coin silver also bears the name of the maker (often a first initial and last name), and may include a city where it was produced. By the sterling era, silver production had shifted from individual silversmiths or small partnerships to larger national corporations that changed the way silver was produced, marketed, and marked. While coin silver patterns were limited and often simple, sterling silver typically featured Victorian embellishment, and was produced in a diverse array of patterns that included an almost endless number of piece types.
Sterling silver normally contains more pure silver than coin silver, although the general difference between coin and sterling silver is fairly small. In fact, and they are usually identical in appearance. The Stamping Act of 1906 was the first national law requiring silver objects to be marked, although some states had already adopted their own laws. The Stamping Act changed the U.S. silver standard to match the English sterling standard. Prior to 1906, the practice of marking a piece “sterling” or “925” was at the discretion of the manufacturer. Many makers were proud that their objects were made to the sterling standard, and marked their items as such. A silver piece may be marked 935, 950, or with a higher grade. Although these items contain a higher silver content than required by law, they are still considered sterling silver. Most American sterling will be labeled with a mark of sterling, either “925,” or “925/1000.”
So now that we've explained the difference between “coin” silver and “sterling” silver, you can share this history at your next dinner party while dining with your favorite silver pattern - your guests will be impressed!