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Testing for Silver - Part 1
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As a warning from my experiences dealing with precious metals, assume the (silver, gold) you are buying is fake.

It's stamped sterling or has another known silver hallmark but you aren't convinced. Something about it seems off: the price, condition, weight, smell, look, feel, or another peculiarity raises your eyebrows. How can you know for certain you have real silver? There are destructive and non-destructive ways to check.

Competency has the biggest effect in any testing method. Tools are only as good as the mechanic - a paint brush in Dali's hand may be a keyboard duster in another's.

More than one supposed expert has been duped by silver marks. However, the number who then went on to "test it" as silver is bothersome. Didn't the 'EPNS' stamp say it all?



Some of the ratings could be argued a little each way.


Key Definitions and Explanations

Destructivity - 1-10 scale: 1 is non-destructive, 10 is annihilation
Difficulty - 1-10 scale: 1 is easy, 10 is prohibitive
Accessibility - 1-10 scale: 1 is accessible, 10 requires government clearance
Equipment Cost - Equipment or supplies necessary; in dollars
Service Cost - Cost to have a facility do it for you; in dollars
Effectiveness - 1-10 scale: 1 is unreliable, 10 is foolproof
Value - 1-10 scale: 1 is essentially useless, 10 is worth it
Explanation - Description of the test

NOTE: The above ratings assume that the given testing method is done properly!


Index of Testing Methods - Non-Destructive



Description

Destructivity - 1
Difficulty - 1
Accessibility - 1
Equipment Cost - n/a
Service Cost - n/a
Effectiveness - 5
Value - 10
Explanation
When all the information is provided by a third party, the transaction is at their mercy. If they say it is sterling silver or real silver, take it lightly unless there is proof.


PROS: Consider the source...are they pros?

CONS: Consider the source...are they cons? Does not detect the presence of silver.


Visual Inspection

Destructivity - 1
Difficulty - 1
Accessibility - 4
Equipment Cost - n/a
Service Cost - whatever your local appraiser charges
Effectiveness - 7
Value - 10
Explanation
Is it marked with a recognizable hallmark? Do any on-line resources help? A thorough inspection is the best defense since you can perform one without having the item in your presence (mostly, with good pictures).

There is a smell to silver that should transfer to your hands after a few minutes. Eventually you will recognize color differences between pure silver, silverplated, non-silver, and sterling silver. Real silver patina will rub off with light finger pressure. Some of the fake silvers have patinas which are impervious to all but the harshest abrasives or chemicals.

Because it's so malleable, manufacturers can use thin gauge silver. Ergo, a heavy piece that is thick for no other reason than being thick is suspect. Silver is denser than all the imitations so its heftiness relative to size is important.

PROS: Inexpensive, most accessible

CONS: High degree of knowledge about the specific item and lots of experience required; does not detect the presence of silver


Magnet

Destructivity - 1
Difficulty - 1
Accessibility - 2
Equipment Cost - $5
Service Cost - n/a
Effectiveness - 3
Value - 9
Explanation
Actually, there are two tests. Use a powerful rare earth magnet. If it sticks, your item is most likely a fake. The exception to this rule would be if a weighted item has a steel or nickel rod inside it as reinforcement. However, the strength of the attraction to the magnet should reveal the relative depth and size of such an internal structure. Silver will react to a magnet but it won't stick.

The way it interacts with the magnet is also of interest. This is referred to as the Lenz Effect. Several metals exhibit this property: silver, copper, aluminum, and brass to name a few. While technically non-magnetic, there is an observable effect when a strong magnet is nearby and there is motion in either the magnet or the item. Without getting into too much detail or science, it can't be easily measured but there are ways to determine if it's happening. So easy, in fact, that a first-grader can see it.

Videos of these types of testing will be uploaded soon.


PROS: Hope is alive if the magnet doesn't stick; magnet should never go bad and it's inexpensive

CONS: The highest majority of metals and alloys are non-magnetic; rarely detects the presence of silver; especially useless on thin items with the slide test


Heat or Cold

Destructivity - 1
Difficulty - 3
Accessibility - 2
Equipment Cost - $1
Service Cost - n/a
Effectiveness - 2
Value - 9
Explanation
A second non-destructive test is the ice cube or heat test, the latter working better. Silver is the most thermally conductive element. Simply, it will transmit heat or cold through it faster than any metal. Having some known fake silver of various sizes and thicknesses gives a basis for comparison. Real silver will quickly attain the surrounding temperature or whatever it contacts.


PROS: Fun, cheap

CONS: Does not detect the presence of silver


Density or Specific Gravity

Destructivity - 1
Difficulty - 6
Accessibility - 6
Equipment Cost - $100
Service Cost - unknown
Effectiveness - 6
Value - 8
Explanation
A more difficult test is the specific gravity test (as described here it is more of a density than true specific gravity measurement; for our purposes, that's acceptable). You need an accurate weight and volume. Volume is measured by submersing the piece in a known quantity of water and observing how much the water rises once the piece is fully dunked.

Take the weight in grams and divide it by the volume. A volume of 112.9cc and a weight of 1175 grams would be 10.41g/cc, a very high grade of silver. A well-controlled test will rule out some possibilities. The same process can be utilized for any metal.

For fake silver to have a specific gravity equal to real silver, it would require a metal heavier than silver as its mainstay. Rule out all other precious metal, mercury, actinium, iridium, and osmium for various reasons. That leaves lead which must be combined with other metals to lower its density. A creative counterfeiter could make a lead-core ingot with thick silver on the outside.

Videos of this type of testing will be uploaded soon.


PROS: Silver stands alone with its specific gravity and it is quite difficult to replicate

CONS: More advanced testing method than the casual buyer probably wants; small errors can have a drastic impact on results; does not detect the presence of silver


XRF, Spectrometer

Destructivity - 2
Difficulty - 2
Accessibility - 7
Equipment Cost - $30,000+
Service Cost - $20-$40
Effectiveness - 2
Value - 1 (yes, it is a one)
Explanation
XRF technology uses x-ray beams. This will give false readings on heavily plated items. Unless you have $40k to buy one, your only hope is to find a friendly scrap yard with one. Better yet, there is no bigger waste of money or a more useless piece of equipment than an XRF!

Mass spectrometers are costly and specialized pieces of laboratory equipment. Universities may have one but they are generally not for public use. They are well beyond the technical requirements of this article.


PROS: Quick, easy, accurate to hundredths or thousandths of a percent; minimal training; will detect the presence of all metals or elements on the surface, not just the "good" ones

CONS: For such an expensive piece of equipment using 21st century technology, it is easily fooled by thick plating...SO EASILY FOOLED! Liken it to a scalpel; it can save lives in the hands of a skilled surgeon yet wreak havoc in the hands of a serial killer. If you are too stupid to realize the item it silverplated junk, your machine might say differently. Item must have a flat surface large enough for the scanner to test as any leakage will void the results. It only tests area underneath the scanner so several readings in different locations are necessary.


Ultrasound

Destructivity - 1
Difficulty - 2
Accessibility - 4
Equipment Cost - $200+
Service Cost - unknown
Effectiveness - 9
Value - 8
Explanation
Ultrasound has been gaining some momentum as a testing tool. It will quickly and non-destructively determine whether the sample is fully homogenous or plated/filled. Entry-level machines can be had for under $200. It relies on the speed of a sound wave through a material of a known thickness. Every metal has a different value so if the display doesn't match what it should be, there is some chicanery afoot. See the video here (coming soon but an internet search will locate it) for an example of ultrasound testing.


PROS: This might be the singular best one-stop method; somewhat easy to use, not too expensive

CONS: Requires specialized equipment but at least it's not expensive; must have a flat surface large enough for the probe to sit flush (most coins and many other bullions products do not, most jewelry doesn't); only tests area underneath the probe so several readings in different locations are necessary; irregularly shaped items will produce strange readings (like a cast ingot that was poured on an uneven surface so that one side or end is thicker than the other)


Pitch/Sound

Destructivity - 2
Difficulty - 5
Accessibility - 3
Equipment Cost - n/a
Service Cost - unknown
Effectiveness - 3
Value - 9
Explanation
The "regular" sound test can be helpful in certain situations. The flick test - listen to the sound the item makes when you either drop it or flick it with your fingernail. Every shape will make a different sound, will resonate differently, so this works best with bars, ingots, coins, rounds, etc. Silver has a distinctive sound. Dead-soft silver, whether annealed or cast, has a different pitch than hardened silver from coining, rolling, or forging.


PROS: No cost

CONS: Only suitable for comparing identical items as thickness, shape, hardness, and most other factors will affect the sound



Next entry will be the destructive ways to test for silver.


Posted by M: September 2, 2014


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