Thrifting 101: How to Tell Sterling Silver from Silver Plate

Tips for Locating Thrift Store Treasure


Treasure can exist in the most obvious places, and it takes only a keen eye and a little knowledge to unearth it instead of silver plating. During our thrift store forays, my daughters and I will keep watch for sterling silver pieces that have slipped by the sorters out back. These sterling silver pieces can be picked up for short money, often between .99 and $4.99, and it's important to be able to tell the difference between it and silver plated.

Back Room Sterling Silver Sorting Process
thrifting 101
Most thrift stores are looking for sterling silver and gold items to cull before placing them on the shelves, but a surprising amount of good sterling still passes their inspections to be placed with the inexpensive silver plated items. The reason is quite simple and very reliable - the person sorting the material isn't a trained metallurgist of antiques appraiser. They constantly have giant stacks of items to sort, and are not give more than a cursory glance at a candlestick or serving tray to see if anything is out of the ordinary. If it isn't, out to the floor it goes with a .99 price tag on the side. To find these
items is incredibly simple if you are armed with a just a little bit of information.

Sterling Silver Hallmarks
thrifting 101 This is the primary method to identify sterling silver, and the one relied upon by the 'cullers' in the thrift store back rooms. A piece of silver will often have a stamp somewhere on the exterior of the piece, either on the bottom or on the inside curve of a handle. There are plenty of symbols used, and it might be wise to learn of a few of these by sight to help with your search. However, it is enough for now to know that English sterling silver will have a lion's head hallmarked on each piece in addition to any other markings and American silver will often have the word STERLING, or simply STER pressed in as the hallmark. Look for the number .925 to identify sterling silver as well. This number indicates the percentage of silver to non-silver in a piece.

Other Visual Indicators of Plate Silver
If a piece has EP or a derivative of those letters pressed in, this indicates it is electroplated silver, and not sterling silver. Plated silver may also have a felt pad glue or otherwise attached to the bottom for protection. Though not 100% foolproof, this is most likely an indicator you have a silver plated item in your hand.

The Magnet and Eraser Test
Silver plating covers another metal to give an appearance of a sterling silver item. Luckily, silver is not magnetic, and that helps a great deal with this next test. Get in the habit of carrying a strong magnet in your pocket to check suspicious items. If the magnet sticks even a little, take a pass. An additional hands-on test relies on the fact that sterling silver tarnishes just as silver plating can, but sterling silver is much easier to clean. Rub an eraser on the suspected piece to see how easy it cleans,
and if the tarnish is removed easily, chances are you have true sterling silver.

Sterling Silver Acid Test
After everything else comes up inconclusive, it wouldn't hurt to invest the few dollars to purchase the piece to bring home for the final, definitive test. Do not do this in the store, as the item is not yours and damaging it could get you in serious trouble. Purchase a silver testing kit for less that $3, and gently rub your item against the provided scratch pad. Apply a small drop of acid to the pad, and watch for a reaction. If the silver coloring on the pad remains, and the acid turns a red tint, you have sterling silver. If the acid turns black and eats away at the rubbing, you do not.

Enjoy your time thrifting, and remember - it's more fun with a friend!