Sterling SilverBy Mark Chervenka
Perfumes and Novelties
The root of the word sterling is English but it is derived from the early origins of the English name of German metalsmiths. Those Germans migrated to England where they were called "Easterlings" because of the direction of their homeland. In 1300, King John officially recognized their skill by asking them to refine silver for minting coins. By 1343, the first two letters of Easterling were dropped and the resulting word sterling began to be associated with silver.
Under U.S. law, articles marked "sterling" or "sterling silver" must test a minimum of .925 parts (92½ percent) pure silver with no more than 004 variation.
This ratio of 925/1000 is called the "sterling standard" and has been used in the United States since the mid - 1860s. England requires a slightly higher silver content for silver and uses a ratio of 958/1000; that ratio is called the "Britannia standard".
New silver entering the US today, should technically carry three permanent marks. One mark for country of origin; a second mark for purity, or fineness, of silver content; and a third mark identifying the maker or distributor.
In practice, though, very few new pieces carry these marks. Of the pieces purchased for this article, for example, only one piece carried all three marks (Fig 1); only two pieces carried a maker's mark and just three bore a country's name (two from Thailand, one from Mexico).
The majority of silver reproductions, like other reproductions, come into the US with the country of origin on easily removed labels such as string tags, paper stickers, cardboard packaging and wrapping papers. But all the samples had permanent fineness marks of either .925 or sterling.
Telling which silver items are new and old follows similar guidelines for other reproductions–look at details and quality.
Most of the reproductions show at least some coarse grinding marks (see Fig. 2-A) and rough edges left from high speed production tools. Screw-on caps from the new perfumes are often interchangeable. Also look for similar shapes.
Fine details, like the cherub's face in Fig 8, for example, are often blurred. Details can also vary from spot to spot on the same piece. The nicely textured surface on the front side of Fig. 9 is lost on the back side of the same piece. Check for signs of use. Pieces offered for sale as old should show signs of normal wear. Look for residue and debris you would expect for the type of piece it is. A lingering scent from a perfume bottle; shreds of tobacco or a sulphur smell in match safes, stains and other related signs.
Don't be fooled by false patina. It takes just a few seconds of a chemical bath to put a black, oxidized finish on new pieces. If the piece is dark and unpolished, check inside areas. Forgers sometimes get lazy and leave hard to reach places bright and shiny.
Silver is still one area where maker's marks can usually be trusted to establish age. A well known maker's mark goes a long way to help authenticate a piece.