Shakespeare wrote that “All that glisters is not gold”, because sometimes it is silver!
The silver that I encounter in my valuations in South Africa’s homes generally fall into one of three categories:
E P N S
Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper.Why adulterate the silver? Fine or 99.9% pure silver, is generally too soft for producing functional objects; therefore, the silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength while preserving the ductility and appearance of the precious metal. Other metals can replace the copper, usually with the intention of improving various properties of the basic sterling alloy such as reducing casting porosity, eliminating fire-scale, 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. Alloys such as argentum silver have appeared in recent decades.
Russian Silver is based on the zolotnik, a word derived from the Slavonic word for gold. The zolotnik was originally a gold coin circulating in Kievan Rus in the late 11th century, equivalent to 1/72nd of a Russian pound or 4,266 grams. There is no such thing as Russian Sterling! The most frequently found Russian Silver in South Africa, especially that used in the Judaica brought here by Lithuanian and Polish immigrants during the first quarter of the 20th Century is the “84”, equivalent to 87.5% purity. This degree of purity is by far the most common, and became the standard for every-day silver purity.
E P N S or electro-plated nickel silver can, to the naked eye look very much like Sterling Silver, especially in its wrought form.It was invented by Italian chemist Luigi V. Brugnatelli in 1805. Brugnatelli used his colleague Alessandro Volta’s invention of five years earlier, the voltaic pile, to facilitate the first electro-deposition. Unfortunately, Brugnatelli’s inventions were repressed by the French Academy of Sciences and did not become used in general industry for the following thirty years. Silver plate or electroplate is formed when a thin layer of pure or sterling silver is deposited electrolytically on the surface of a base metal. Soon after, John Wright of Birmingham, England, discovered that potassium cyanide was a suitable electrolyte for gold and silver electroplating. Wright’s associates, George Elkington and Henry Elkington were awarded the first patents for electroplating in 1840. These two then founded the electroplating industry in Birmingham from where it spread around the world. Many base metals could be used to fashion the objects and two or more different materials were often used for the various components. Thus the properties of each metal were fully exploited to their best advantage. Various alloys were used as base metal for electro-deposition of silver. The result is a hard and durable material and its colour (a very pale yellow/white) didn’t compromise the aspect of the object when the plating wore off under the action of over-zealous cleaners.
In the UK and in USA silverware using this alloy were marked EPNS (or E.P.N.S), adopting the initials of Electro Plated Nickel Silver. EPNS was often preferred for cutlery and other objects which were subject to heavy use.