Tricky Metals

What you see isn’t always what you get.

Below you will find a quick and easy primer on how metals are sometimes dressed up to look like other metals, what different terms and markings tell you about the metals, and how to avoid being treated to a trick when buying jewelry.

What metal is it?

If you want to know what metal is used in a particular piece of jewelry, try the following tests. Don’t panic or break out the lab equipment, the only tool you might need is a magnifying glass.

Start by looking carefully at the item to see if you can find any marks. Marks are typically stamped into a piece on the back, or near a clasp, or in some other out of the way spot. They are an engraved word, initials, or number and can be either stamped or engraved on to the piece. You might need to use your glasses, or even a magnifier, as the mark can be smaller than a pea (and even as small as a grain of rice.)

Is it silver colored?

(If not, skip this and move to the next section.)

All jewelry that is made out of sterling silver – metal that is at least 92.5% pure sterling – is legally required to carry a permanent mark identifying its content. The accepted marks for sterling are




(or more rarely


). Ideally, the maker will also mark it with their company or name as further security of its content. For example, my sterling pieces are hand engraved with

“Carina R”



So, if you find any of these marks, then you know that you are holding sterling silver and can stop here.

Another mark you may find on a silver colored piece is




meaning that the piece is made of essentially pure silver. Pure or “fine” silver is an element that is softer in its pure form than in its sterling alloy form and is therefore rarely used in jewelry. So, if you find this mark, know that you are holding a piece made out of precious metal silver but that you have to treat it with extra care.

If the gods are smiling down upon you, the item may have a mark that reads

“950,” “Plat,” “Pt,”



According to legal requirements, the piece is at least 95% pure platinum. In rare cases you will see

“850 Plat” or “850 Pt”

to show that the piece is 85% platinum.

If you haven’t found any of the marks above, you have a piece made out of “base” metal alloys (mixes of metals) like bronze, pewter, or brass. If it is

“silver plated”

and has a mark that says so (or more commonly


), don’t get all excited. The amount of actual silver on the piece is negligible. A metals trader told me that you can silver plate an entire Navy battleship with a teaspoon of silver – a very graphic way to think about it! Silver plate does not have any significant metal value so enjoy the piece for what it is and forget about selling it to a pawn shop.

There are many other metals that one can plate (cover an object with in a thin surface layer) onto base metals that will make the final piece look like sterling silver. You may find that you have allergic reactions to some silver colored jewelry and not other items – all depending on what the surface metal is touching your skin.

Is it gold colored?

Oooh, lets get excited now! Start by looking for any marks stamped or engraved into the piece. All jewelry made of gold is legally required to have a mark that specifies its karat content of gold. Pure gold pieces will be marked either




If it is 22K, meaning it is 22 parts pure gold and 2 parts some other metal alloyed in to the mix, it will be marked






If it is marked






then you have a piece that is made of 18K gold (18 parts pure gold plus 6 parts other metal.) The most common jewelry gold is 14K, which is marked