Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925.
Fine silver (99.9% pure) is generally too soft for producing functional objects; therefore, the silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength, while at the same time preserving the ductility and beauty of the precious metal. Other metals can replace the copper, usually with the intent to improve various properties of the basic sterling alloy such as reducing casting porosity, eliminating firescale, and increasing resistance to tarnish. These replacement metals include germanium, zinc and platinum, as well as a variety of other additives, including silicon and boron. A number of alloys, such as Argentium sterling silver have appeared in recent years, formulated to lessen firescale or to inhibit tarnish, and this has sparked heavy competition among the various manufacturers, who are rushing to make claims of having the best formulation. However, no one alloy has emerged to replace copper as the industry standard, and alloy development is a very active area.
The earliest attestation of the term is in Old French form esterlin, in a charter of the abbey of Les Préaux, dating to either 1085 or 1104. The English chronicler Orderic Vitalis (1075 – c. 1142) uses the Latin forms libræ sterilensium and libræ sterilensis monetæ. The word in origin refers to the newly introduced Norman silver penny.
The most plausible etymology is derivation from a late Old English steorling (with (or like) a “little star”), as some early Norman pennies were imprinted with a small star.
There are a number of obsolete hypotheses. One suggests a connection with starling, and another a supposed connection with easterling, a term for natives of the Baltic or the Hanse towns of eastern Germany. This etymology is itself medieval, suggested by Walter de Pinchebek (ca. 1300) with the explanation that the coin was originally made by moneyers from that region
There is general agreement that the sterling alloy originated in continental Europe, and was being used for commerce as early as the 12th century in the area that is now northern Germany.
From about 1840 to somewhere around 1940 in the United States and Europe, sterling silver flatware became de rigueur when setting a proper table. In fact, there was a marked increase in the number of silver companies that emerged during that period.
The height of the silver craze was during the 50-year period from 1870 to 1920. Flatware lines during this period sometimes included up to 100 different types of pieces. In conjunction with this, the dinner went from three courses to sometimes ten or more. There was a soup course, a salad course, a fruit course, a cheese course, an antipasto course, a fish course, the main course and a pastry or dessert course.
Individual eating implements often included forks (dinner fork, place fork, salad fork, pastry fork, shrimp or cocktail fork), spoons (teaspoon, coffee spoon, demitasse spoon, bouillon spoon, gumbo soup spoon, iced tea spoon) and knives (dinner knife, place knife, butter spreader, fruit knife, cheese knife). This was especially true during the Victorian period, when etiquette dictated nothing should be touched with one’s fingers.
Serving pieces were often elaborately decorated and pierced and embellished with ivory, and could include any or all of the following: carving knife and fork, salad knife and fork, cold meat fork, punch ladle, soup ladle, gravy ladle, casserole serving spoon, berry spoon, lasagna server, macaroni server, asparagus server, cucumber server, tomato server, olive spoon, cheese scoop, fish knife and fork, pastry server, petit four server, cake knife, bon bon spoon, tiny salt spoon, sugar sifter or caster and crumb remover with brush.
Flatware sets were often accompanied by tea services, hot water pots, chocolate pots, trays and salvers, goblets, demitasse cups and saucers, liqueur cups, bouillon cups, egg cups, sterling plates, napkin rings, water and wine pitchers and coasters, candelabra and even elaborate centerpieces.
In fact, the craze with sterling even extended to business (sterling page clips, mechanical pencils, letter openers, calling card boxes, cigarette cases), to the boudoir (sterling dresser trays, mirrors, hair and suit brushes, pill bottles, manicure sets, shoehorns, perfume bottles, powder bottles, hair clips) and even to children (cups, flatware, rattles, christening sets).
A number of factors converged to make sterling fall out of favor around the time of World War II. The cost of labor rose (sterling pieces were all still mostly hand made, with only the basics being done by machine). Only the wealthy could afford the large number of servants required for fancy dining with ten courses. And changes in aesthetics resulted in people desiring simpler dinnerware that was easier to clean.
Over the years, some countries developed systems of hallmarking silver. The purpose of hallmark application is manifold:
To indicate the purity of the silver alloy used in the manufacture or hand-crafting of the piece.
To identify the silversmith or company that made the piece.
To note the date and/or location of the manufacture or tradesman.
In addition to the uses of sterling silver mentioned above, there are some little known uses of sterling:
Evidence of silver and/or silver-alloy surgical and medical instruments has been found in civilizations as early as Ur, Hellenistic-era Egypt and Rome, and their use continued until largely replaced in Western countries in the mid to late 20th century by cheaper, disposable plastic items. Its natural malleability is an obvious physical advantage, but it also exhibits medically-specific utility, including the fact that it is naturally aseptic, and, in respect of modern medical practices, it is resistant to antiseptics, heat sterilisation and body fluids.
Due to sterling silver having a special sound character, some brasswind instrument manufacturers use 92.5% sterling silver as the material for making their instruments, including the flute and saxophone. For example, some leading saxophone manufactuers such as Selmer and Yanagisawa have crafted some of their saxophones from sterling silver, which they believe will make the instruments more resonant and colorful in timbre.