Material Matters: Sterling Silver vs Stainless Steel


Few weeks ago, we asked for some questions you have with regards to stainless steel and sterling silver. These are the 2 main materials we use in our collection and we hope to cover as much as we can in this series of Material Matters. Thank you for contributing questions as this helps us all to understand the materials better too.

Let's begin!

 

What is Sterling Silver?

When buying silver, you are often presented with 2 types of silver - Sterling silver and pure silver. However, sterling silver and pure silver are two distinct materials due to its composition, the care techniques, lifespans and prices.

Pure silver (or fine silver) is 99.9% pure elemental silver, the 0.01% is just a very small fraction of other elements. Pure silver is very soft, difficult to shape into designs for everyday wear. 

With the above mentioned, we generally recommend using sterling silver for jewellery. Sterling silver is a form of metal alloy, comprising of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper (usually, if not, zinc) alloy. This is why you see sterling silver being referred to as “925 silver”. Most 925 silver jewellery will be stamped with '925' to indicate its material. The 7.5% alloy component helps to strengthen the silver, making it better for production and wearing.

Oxidation. Brown patches start to form on the surface of sterling silver jewellery. 

 

While the copper alloy is an advantage, it is also the very component causing the metal to turn brown or black over time. However, it's easy to clean with a polishing cloth or polishing liquid, and beneath the tarnish your sterling silver will still be in great condition: it won't rust or perish with normal use. This is oxidation, it is not rusting as what most people get confused with. You should even be able to pass your silver jewellery on to future generations with proper care.


What is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is an iron and chromium alloy. While stainless must contain at least 10.5% chromium, the exact components and ratios will vary based on the grade requested and the intended use of the steel. Even though it’s named as “stainless steel”, it is not completely resistant to corrosion because of it's alloy components.

Other metal components are added to a stainless steel alloy to increase its corrosion resistance, its strength, weldability and formability during its manufacturing process. 

How It's Made: (industrial) Stainless Steel 👀

 

As stainless steel is 100% recyclable, many stainless orders contain as much as 60% recycled steel. This helps to not only control costs but reduce environmental impact by using what is already existing.

Common grades of stainless steel used in jewellery are 304 (18 to 20% chromium + 8 to 10.5% nickel) and 316, 316L and 316F, made up of 16% chromium, 10% nickel and contains extra 2-3% molybdenum for better resistance to corrosives and rust. Corrosives refer to processed fluids and cleaners, high humidity or high salinity environments such as seawater or pool water which contain chlorine. This can remove its protective layer and cause stainless steel to corrode.

We use 316 grade for our jewellery as it is hypoallergenic for most people.

Disclaimer: Do note that skin sensitivity is a trial-and-error process. Our body is constantly adapting so sometimes we may develop new allergies and sensitivities. We are also constantly looking out for new materials and plating techniques to improve the durability of our products.

 

What about Surgical Steel then?

Surgical steel is another variety of stainless steel that is mainly used in biomedical applications such as implants. Some stainless steel varieties (with high corrosion resistance) are already being used for temporary biomedical applications. Types of surgical steel include 316 stainless steel and the 440, 420 stainless steel grade.

Just think of surgical steel as a most corrosion-resistant form of stainless steel.

 

Conclusion: Which one is better?

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference. Both metals are good in its own way now that you have read most about it. Silver is prized for its durability and considered as a precious metal nowadays (consider it as an investment maybe?) Stainless steel is also preferred by some due to its strength and it is much easier to take care of versus sterling silver.

In terms of suitability for skin sensitivities, we have a pool of mixed reviews. Team Sterling Silver may have people who are only sticking to sterling silver because it works and so does Team Stainless Steel. Some people have tested out that only gold plated sterling silver works for them, and that’s okay too. It may take some time to try out different materials on your skin, just like skincare! 💆🏼

Stainless steel ring on the left, sterling silver ring on the right.

 

In summary, here are the pros and cons:

Sterling Silver Stainless Steel

Design Limitation

Able to mold and carve it more easily, can be used for stone settings. (but if you want to use precious stones such as sapphires, we recommend hardier metals such as gold or platinum)

Design Limitation

Due to its hardiness, it is much more difficult to achieve fine details in stainless steel jewellery.

 

Durability

Prone to oxidation due to sulphur present in the air, humidity in our tropical climate. 

However, you can buff the oxidised layer away with silver polishing cloth or liquid. Both contains chemicals that targets the oxidation, only leaving the silver behind.

 

Durability

Easiest to care for because you don't have to polish it or anything. 

May turn dull over time because its protective layer may fade away. 

 

                                                              

Value

Considered as a precious metal.

Increasing in value. Costlier.

Value

Not a precious metal.

Cheaper than sterling silver.

Tone / Colour

Bright, silverish tone.

Tone / Colour

Grey, duller, silverish tone.

 

Additional Questions:

If sterling silver gets polished on top of the engraving, will it affect the engravings?

No it will not, unless you get into the grooves of the engraving then the polishing cloth may pick up the oxidation. Just wipe on the surface of the jewellery.

 

Will gold plated stainless steel last longer than gold vermeil?

Both are gold plated metals so it depends on how often you wear it and proper storage. Both types will lose its lustre and fade over time. Proper care can last your gold plated jewellery for 2 years!

We also have to consider the properties of the base material — stainless steel is probably more corrosion resistant than sterling silver. But note that it’s duller tone will make the gold plating appear dull in comparison to gold plated sterling silver.

When brown spots appear on gold plated sterling silver, that is the base metal oxidising and coming in contact with the gold layer. We can only allow the gold plated layer to flake off before we can get down to polishing the base sterling silver.

 

References:

https://simonewalsh.com/blogs/handmade-jewellery/all-about-sterling-silver

https://www.unifiedalloys.com/blog/what-is-stainless-steel/#:~:text=Stainless%20steel%20is%20an%20iron,Nickel

https://blog.rings-things.com/2013/06/surgical-steel-and-hypoallergenic-metals#:~:text=316L%20is%20a%20low%20carbon,for%20people%20with%20nickel%20allergies.

https://www.meadmetals.com/blog/surgical-steel-vs-stainless-steel

https://oureverydaylife.com/what-is-stainless-steel-jewelry-12183416.html

 





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