Have you ever looked really closely at a piece of silver jewelry and wondered what that .925 stamp means? It’s an internationally recognized marker of properly alloyed silver to achieve the perfect balance of hardness of metal and brightness of color. 925 silver is 92.5% pure elemental silver and 7.5% copper, and by definition, is sterling silver. That .925 stamp is a symbol of quality assurance. There are laws governing the use of that stamp, and it’s illegal to mark something with the .925 if it isn’t truly sterling silver.
Silver, in all it’s variable alloys (metal blends), has been used throughout time not only for jewelry, vessels, and decorative arts, but also as currency up until the 1800's. This means that the material itself has innate value, and as such, is more suited to refining than materials like brass or bronze. Refining is the process of cleaning the metal to make it usable in a new form. By choosing silver, I’m entering into a more closed loop system, where I save all my scraps of silver and send them to the refinery for credit on new silver made with refined materials. My tracking down of each scrap that falls to the floor is rewarded, and those bits add up, further pushing me to recycle them, even if that day in particular I may be feeling lazy, or worse, pessimistic. The system isn’t perfect, and I’m still hounding suppliers to list specific proportions of refined metal to fresh metal, but I’m grateful that it's available at the moment.
Cast bronze and brass can be recycled at specialty scrap metal recyclers, but at this time cannot be re-used in jewelry casting without being refined first because they tend to cause tiny holes (porosity) in the object being cast. Silver, on the other hand, is more forgiving, and the majority of fresh casting grain (the raw material used for casting) is made using recycled silver.
Another big factor in moving to silver is that it's slower to oxidize and easier to clean than bronze (comparing objects that are similar in form, say two chains, two similarly shaped pendants). This is because Copper (Cu) is more reactive than elemental Silver (Ag). While Sterling Silver contains only 7.5% Copper, Bronze is overwhelmingly composed of Copper - around 88% - along with a few other materials such as Tin, Aluminum, Manganese, or even Zinc, a known allergen.
As you may have guessed, silver triggers far fewer allergic or body chemical reactions than does bronze for the same reasons that silver is less reactive than copper in general. For the vast majority of the population, a sterling silver ring does not turn your finger green. Sterling earrings do not blacken your ears. There are of course the rare exceptions, and of course, bodies may change over time to increased or decreased sensitivity (click for more about allergies).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's my favorite material to work with and to wear. When I was growing up in the PNW, my very first ring was a Native American turquoise oval from a visit to Eastern Washington. Later pieces were gifts from family in Poland, which has a rich tradition of silversmithing and jewelry. I feel deeply connected to traditional Polish silver jewelry, largely because those pieces were a means of remembering relatives and friends in Poland I was rarely able to see.
In future posts, I’ll be exploring other ideas around silver as a material, including issues of mining and production, as well as history and nostalgia. I would love to read your comments and reactions to the thoughts presented here, as well as ideas you’d like to read about in future posts.