A Sterling Holiday Season

Sparkling This Season and Beyond

In the spirit of holiday decorating, we focus on the timeless, ornamental choice that is sterling silver. When making spirits even brighter as you polish the silver treasures throughout your home or gift a keepsake, silver objet d’art to someone on your Christmas list, you might develop a more informed appreciation for silver by taking a closer look. The markings on your cherished piece may tell a story about its history and value.

The word “STERLING” in capital letters generally indicates that a silver object was made in the United States. Any article marked STERLING in America must contain a minimum of 925 parts silver for every 1000 parts of the material. This “sterling standard” ratio was adopted in the United States during the mid-1860s. Vintage American marks on 925 sterling silver made in America from the 1860s through the 1970s—especially items made before 1940—are almost always alongside the company name, patent date or number, pattern shape or model number, or other marks and symbols.

Not all pieces made with the sterling standard ratio in the United States bear the label of STERLING, however. American-made objects often bear the maker’s mark in full within a border, whereas a maker’s mark in the UK is usually the silversmith’s initials. The silversmith may also be represented by a symbol such as a knight indicating Mary C. Knight. Jeremiah Dummer (1645–1718) is credited with being the first American-born silversmith. Interestingly, another major maker was the War of Independence folk hero Paul Revere (1734–1818). 

Distinct designs, typically in keeping with significant art movements and period styles, point to when an object was made and often to the individual silversmith. Tiffany & Co., founded by Charles Louis Tiffany (1812–1902) as a fancy-goods store in New York City in 1837, became America’s leading silver, jewelry and glass manufacturer. Charles’ son, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), took control and became the company’s first artistic director. Under his leadership, the Tiffany company produced objects in the Art Nouveau fashion. Characteristic of the times, during the 1950s, Tiffany objects in silver took on a simpler form.

A valuable commodity—silver has required a standard of purity for centuries. While the English use of the sterling standard predates the 18th century, American manufacturers did not adopt it universally until the end of the 19th century. Other countries used different standards—as low as 800 and as high as 950. While multiple countries have distinctive marks for silver, markings are often inconsistent and require a specialist to determine the true identity of each object.

Today, 925/1000 is a globally accepted silver standard, and “925” appears on most of the world’s new silver, including reproductions. Although a mark of ‘sterling’ alone doesn’t guarantee a piece is old, it is generally true that silver marked “925” only or “sterling” and “925” has been made since the 1970s. 

Washing and Polishing Silver

Tarnished silver and silver-plated items can be effectively cleaned and polished by hand using a soft cloth and a silver cleaner (and perhaps an entertaining podcast to pass the time). However, all such cleaners have a mild abrasive action and remove a minute layer of silver from the surface with each cleaning. 


1. Gently wash, rinse and dry the silver. For light tarnish, use a cloth infused with your silver cleaner of choice. More severe tarnishing requires a liquid or paste.
2. Apply cleaners with care: Put on white cotton gloves, apply liquids or pastes sparingly and rub with a soft cloth. Rotate the cloth as it becomes soiled. For recessed or engraved
areas, use a soft-bristled brush. After tarnish removal, wash, rinse and dry with a soft towel.
3. Final polishing: Buff the surface with another clean, soft cloth or chamois leather. A fine-bristled artist’s brush is ideal for buffing recessed areas.

Removing Coffee and Tea Stains from Silver:

1. Mix 5 ml (1 tsp.) of borax with 600 ml of hot water.
2. Fill the silver container with this solution and let it sit for two hours.

3. Swirl the mixture around the container with a soft-bristled artist’s brush.
4. Pour out the solution and wash the item with warm, soapy water.
5. Rinse with clean, warm water. Dry with a soft towel.

Local insider tips:

Babcock Gifts, one of the River City's largest, curated selections of silver objects and flatware, maintains an elegant collection of both sterling and silver-plated goblets, bread baskets, serving bowls, trays and more. For cleaning and polishing, Brooks Terry, owner of Babcock Gifts, recommends Hagerty silver cleaner, which they use and keep in stock for customers. 

Regarding long-term care, Brooks says silver-plated objects are, in some ways, more desirable because a silver-plated item can be re-plated. Yes, sterling silver is more durable and resistant to tarnishing than silver-plate, but sterling requires regular cleaning and maintenance. Brooks explains that, if too far-gone, the alloyed sterling silver material can be impossible to fully restore, whereas a new coating of silver plating is a simpler fix for well-loved pieces. For more challenging silver revival, his shop has a relationship with a local resource for detailed cleaning and re-plating. 

What story does your favorite, family heirloom or that special item on the store shelf tell? It could be an engaging conversation starter around this year's Thanksgiving dinner table.

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