Differentiating Sterling silver and silver-plated cutlery

Differentiating Sterling silver and silver-plated cutlery

Silver cutlery has long been a symbol of sophistication and elegance in dining. Generally speaking, there are two options of silver cutlery: Sterling silver and silver-plated cutlery. At first glance it is difficult to distinguish between the two, but there are significant key differences in terms of composition, quality, and value.
Sterling silver (925) is a precious metal alloy consisting of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of other metals, such as copper, brass, zinc and nickel, while silver-plated cutlery consists of a base metal coated with a layer of silver. The differences in material composition result in variations in quality, durability, and value between the two types.
As inferred, the term “Sterling silver 925” refers to the degree of purity in the precious metal object. It represents the weight of fine metal in proportion to the total weight, which includes alloying base metal. Alloying base metals are added to increase the hardness and durability of the silver object, as pure silver is a soft metal and easily pliable. The 925 composition gives Sterling silver its characteristic luster, weight, strength, and durability.
On the other hand, silver-plated cutlery is made of a base metal such as stainless steel, brass, or nickel, then coated with a thin layer of silver by an electroplating process. Electroplating is the application of electrolytic cells in which the thin layer of metal is deposited onto an electrically conductive surface (base metal). The thickness of the coating is measured in microns (1 micron = 0.001 of a millimeter). The industry standard for silver-plated cutlery ranges from 20 microns (50 grams) for short shelf-life, to 40 microns (100 grams) for a more wear resistant result. Few exceptions exist in today´s retail market, such as at Robbe & Berking silver products. Robbe & Berking cutlery is plated with 60 microns, which equals 150 grams. The grams of the silver is meant to represent the amount of silver it requires to electroplate 24 pieces of flatware. Robbe & Berking´s silver-plated cutlery has higher plating than the majority of industry standards. This higher quality plating, also referred to as massive plating, gives the higher standard cutlery an extended longevity and stronger durability.
It is also important to note that electroplating can be performed on any base metal, but the best result and highest quality has proven to be plating on nickel silver, as it creates the strongest bond between the Sterling silver layer and the nickel silver base. Regardless, depending on the amount of use and durability of the product, the layers of silver-plated coating can wear off over time, eventually revealing the base metal underneath.
Obviously, the quality and durability of Sterling silver are superior to silver-plated cutlery. Sterling silver is known for its longevity and resistance to tarnishing, making it a preferred choice for heirloom pieces that can be passed from generation to generation. Sterling silver cutlery can always be melted down and recycled into new silverware. In contrast, silver-plated cutlery is more susceptible to tarnishing and wear, as the thin silver layer can easily scratch or chip with use.
Silver has been a valuable metal and commodity for centuries, prized mainly for its beauty and versatility. In recent years, the fair-market value of silver has fluctuated due to various economic factors and market trends. Understanding the current value of silver is essential for investors, collectors, and anyone interested in the precious metal market. The current value of silver is influenced by supply and demand dynamics, economic indicators, geopolitical events, and market speculation. For the past two years, silver has surged on the market. Currently, silver is traded at approximately $28 per ounce. Despite its volatility, silver remains an important investment option and a sought-after material for both silverware and industrial applications.
Predictably, the value of Sterling silver far surpasses that of silver-plated cutlery. Sterling silver has always been considered a precious metal and has intrinsic value due to its silver content. As a result, Sterling silver cutlery tends to retain or increase its fair-market value with time and is considered a worthwhile investment.
Silver-plated cutlery has an understandably lower value since it is produced with a non-precious base metal and only a silver coating, and obviously does not hold near the monetary fair-market value as its corresponding Sterling silver cutlery.
For example, a set of Sterling silver cutlery passed down through generations has an appreciating monetary value in addition to any sentimental value placed on the collection. In contrast, a set of silver-plated cutlery may lose its luster as the silver coating wears off, revealing the base metal, justifiably requiring re-plating, all the while depreciating in value.
As previously stated, the difference between Sterling silver and silver-plated cutlery is not immediately visible unless the cutlery´s hallmarks are noticed and researched. Every country has a different set of hallmarks, symbols or marks that are stamped on silver items to indicate the quality, purity, and origin of the silverware. Knowing and understanding these hallmarks is essential for collectors, buyers, and purveyors of silver items to assist in determining the value and authenticity of the product.
German silver hallmarks, for example, have a long history dating back to the 16th century. These hallmarks provide valuable information about the silver content, the maker, and the location of production. By decoding these marks, one can gain insight into the age, quality, and whether a silver item is authentic or not.
The quality and purity of German silver is distinguishable by its hallmark that typically includes a number, indicating the silver content of a specific item. As mentioned, the number “925” stands for Sterling silver and the highest quality of silver available in today´s market.
The maker's mark is visible on most silverware, either in the form of a unique symbol, a full name or as initials, identifying the silversmith who created the piece. At Robbe & Berking, for example, the name is either fully stamped onto the silver flatware or just the initials of Robbe & Berking - “R&B” – are hallmarked (fig. 1).
The origin and date of German silver is also visible through hallmarks, that reveal the place and date of production of a silver item. The silver symbol in alchemy, the crescent moon, next to it a crown with a cross above, indicate the origin of a silver piece – this symbol stands for Germany (Fig. 2). Antique silver, which is more than 100 years old, may show the presence of a city mark, which can indicate more specifically where the item was produced, such as Berlin, Hanau, or Munich. Additionally, the style of the hallmark can help in dating the item to a specific period.
Fig. 2: Origin hallmark for Germany: Crescent moon and crown with cross above indicate the origin of the silver piece - this symbol stands for the origin of Germany.
If a silver spoon carries the hallmarks "925", “R&B” and a half crescent moon with crown and a cross, it indicates that the item is produced of Sterling silver, was crafted by the silver manufacturer Robbe & Berking in Germany (Fig. 3). Another example would be a silver teapot with the city mark of a bear for Berlin and the date letter "P" for 1901, which signifies that it was produced in Berlin in the year 1901.
Fig. 3: Example of a Sterling silver hallmark system in Germany: Robbe & Berking, Flensburg Germany, 21stcentury, Sterling silver.
While all Sterling silver cutlery must be hallmarked, there is no mandatory hallmarking system for silver-plated cutlery. It depends on the individual country whether silver-plated pieces are hallmarked or not. In Germany, for example, some silver-plated pieces are hallmarked, mostly high-quality pieces, such as Robbe & Berking. The hallmarks on silver-plated flatware at Robbe & Berking include the maker´s mark “R&B”, the quality of the silver-plating “150”, which signifies the 150 grams (60 microns) massive plating and the silhouette of a mammoth, a symbol for strength. (Fig. 4). Other silver manufacturers that produce lower quality standard silver-plate, may only place the maker´s mark, an article series number and a hallmark entitled “silverplate”. Due to the low-quality plating, they do not specify the fineness of the plating.
In conclusion, the differences between Sterling silver and silver-plated cutlery lie in the factors of composition, quality, durability, and value. While both types of cutlery may seem similar, Sterling silver stands out as a superior choice due to its higher silver content, longevity, and intrinsic value. When considering silver cutlery for dining or investment purposes, opting for Sterling silver ensures a timeless and valuable addition to any collection or household. Alternatively, high quality silver-plated cutlery could easily be a chosen substitute.

 Karolina Stefanski, Ph.D.
Photography by David Cluett

Dr. Karolina Stefanski is an art historian specializing in table culture and silver. At Robbe & Berking, Dr. Stefanski holds the silver and yacht ambassadorship for the territories north and south America, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg. Dr. Stefanski advises clients on the subjects of silverware and historically signifcant silver collections. She also researches and writes for academic journals and lifestyle publications. She has studied in Boston and Warsaw, Paris and Berlin,  earning her master's degree from the Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art (INHA, Paris-Sorbonne) and her doctorate degree from the Technical University of Berlin. Her dissertation examines the influence of the French Empire style on silver from Berlin, Warsaw, and Vienna between the years of 1797 and 1848.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

About Maison Lipari

Established in 1972, Maison Lipari has been a family-run, inter-generational business for the last five decades, specializing in providing quality home goods. With an unwavering commitment to excellence, Maison Lipari curates a diverse selection of kitchenware, tableware, fine bedding, and home décor, sourced from over 150 heritage and emerging brands. Each collection seamlessly blends timeless elegance with contemporary flair, catering to a wide range of decor aesthetics. Maison Lipari credits its enduring success to three key elements: their discerning customers, the renowned brands they showcase, and their unparalleled customer service.

With a presence spanning online, retail, and B2B channels, Maison Lipari has become synonymous with quality and sophistication. Over the years, Maison Lipari has expanded from their inaugural retail store to establish a second location, while also catering to exclusive clientele by outfitting private jets, yachts, and luxury residences.

Media Contact:

Melissa Manzo Head of E-Commerce & Marketing