Antique and vintage jewelry is a popular collectible, but many shoppers pass up great jewelry because the do not have the knowledge to know what is good. There are some markings you should look for when hunting for vintage jewelry that will indicate what is a find and what you should let go. Take a magnifying glass with you when shopping, as the identifying marks on antique vintage sterling silver can be quite tiny.
Select some silver-colored jewelry or watch for some on your next trip to a flea market, garage sale or collectibles mall. Use a magnifying glass or loupe to determine characteristics and marks on the jewelry.
Look for marks, usually on the inside or clasp. If the jewelry is marked 800, it is considered "coin silver," and is 80 percent silver with 20 percent alloy. Jewelry must be .925 to be sterling silver in the United States. Most of the newer jewelry is marked .925 if it is sterling silver. The number .950 is a little better quality of sterling silver, and is found in older jewelry. The number .835 is common for older European silver.
Check for other marks that are numbers. If the piece is marked with a T number, that is recent (since 1970) silver from Mexico. It is usually marked .925 and Mexico somewhere on the piece.
See if there is a country of origin in the mark. Much of the newer jewelry has a paper tag that may have been removed, but the older jewelry is stamped as to country of origin. Know the countries that produced older silver jewelry.
Thailand is once again making sterling jewelry for export, but the good, old jewelry is marked "Siam" and, probably, "sterling."
Scandinavian countries produced great sterling silver jewelry, and among the best-known makers were David Andersen, Georg Jensen and Norway Sterling. These piece are marked with a manufacturer's logo and the word "sterling."
Some sterling silver jewelry is marked "Plata," and this is usually old Mexican silver.
Learn the marks that are not sterling silver, too. This includes "Alpaca," a kind of nickel silver from Mexico. "Hecho en Mexico," is often marked on jewelry, and it does not indicate the metal content.
Nickel silver, like Alpaca, is not sliver. Nickel silver is usually a German alloy of zinc, copper and nickel. It is used in some jewelry, belt buckles and silverware.
Costume jewelry is often marked with a brand name. These pieces are not usually made of precious metals, and should be correctly identified as "silvertone."
Much of the southwest jewelry and Native American jewelry is not marked, and is wonderful sterling jewelry from another era. Know that much of this jewelry is sterling.
If you find what you believe might be sterling silver that is unmarked, you can test it with a liquid acid test kit. However, this is usually unnecessary once you learn the feel of sterling silver, and know how to look at it. Use a loupe and look closely at the corners and points to see if you can see wear. If you can see a layer of metal on top of another, you are not looking at sterling silver. You may have silverplate or another product. Sterling silver feels smooth if it is a good quality.
You can learn how to identify sterling silver or other grades of silver with a little practice and study, and if necessary, you can purchase an acid test kit.
If you use an acid test kit, be sure you do not spill the caustic substance. Typical of an acid, it will eat whatever it touches -- even the finish on a wood floor.