Sterling silver is a standard of silver established in Great Britain of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent of another metal, usually copper. Copper is often used as an alloy to provide strength and durability to the silver piece, since silver in pure form is relatively soft. Sterling silver was also the standard of Britain's silver coinage during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, when the silver crown was used internationally for trade. Sterling silver thus became a way to display wealth in the household, particularly in the form of tableware. In times of economic hardship or need, the silver could be melted down and turned to coinage.
Though the origins of sterling silver go back to continental Europe around the twelfth century, the alloy gained popularity and became a standard in Great Britain and Colonial America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Depending on where the sterling silver was assayed or verified for purity, distinct hallmarks, such as a lion passant, were widely used to assure buyers and sellers that the pieces were up to standard. In America, manufacturers also followed this practice. Because of the distinct hallmarks depending on region and year, it is possible to date precisely the manufacture of many antique pieces.
Silversmiths such as the American revolutionary Paul Revere gained widespread notoriety and wealth due to the strong demand for sterling pieces. In London, Huguenot immigrants from France who were expelled from their country of origin due to their Protestantism were particularly noted for their exceptional workmanship and artistry, and their products were highly regarded by the growing class of merchants and the aristocrats. Sterling silver at the dining table was the preferred way for the nouveau riche and the old money to display their wealth and refinement.
In the first half of the twentieth century, sterling silver tableware was also a way to display wealth and taste, particularly in the United States. Companies such as Tiffany & Co., Gorham, Lunt, Reed & Barton, Wallace, and International Silver thrived. In the United States, it became common practice by manufacturers to mark sterling silver with the word "sterling" or "925."
Since then, middle-class families have found new ways to display wealth, though there remains a thriving market of sterling silver collectibles, particularly online. Because much of the sterling silver produced has been melted during market tops of precious metals, around 1980 and 2011, many pieces have become scarce and may appreciate significantly in value as their scarcity is fully realized. To this day, the market for silver jewelry remains remarkably robust, given that silver is the most lustrous white metal and is more more affordable than gold.
Today, silver investors generally prefer buying pure silver bullion coins and bars to sterling. The increase in demand of silver bullion is so strong that, combined with reduced mining output of silver and other metals due to depressed prices in recent years, there will likely be shortages of the metal in the next few years. These shortages are likely to boost the value of all types of silver.