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Metal Detective: Can you identify silver from look-alikes?

Six tests will help you identify silver-colored jewelry. We’ll also look at silver copycats, gold-colored silver, and industry terms.


Pick up your magnifying glass — and the other tools detailed below — as we explore ways to identify silver. Imagine that you’ve just inherited a large box of silver-colored jewelry. You’d like to know if any of it is real silver, and if some of it might be white gold, platinum, or palladium. This can be determined with a combination of the following six tests. (Note: a Sherlock Holmes’ cap is optional.)

1 Magnet Test

This one is simple: touch the magnet to the metal portion of the jewelry. If it picks up the jewelry, then the jewelry is not silver, gold, palladium or platinum. It is probably steel or iron. Some platinum alloyed with cobalt is attracted to magnets, but the magnetism is not strong enough to pick up a platinum piece. 


Magnets can be purchased at toy or hard­ware stores in various strengths. Neodymium magnets are very strong, but often too strong to be safe to use around children. Many refrigerator magnets are too weak to give reliable results for this test, but some will work. Special neodymium magnets suitable for gem testing can be purchased online for just a few dollars. The standardized size and strength for gem testing is a ½ x 2 in. (1.3 x 5 mm) cylinder, N-52 grade (product code D88-N52). Note: keep magnets away from electronic items.

Sterling silver 925 fineness marks on a rope chain by Renee Newman.
2 Fineness Stamp Test

Look for a fineness mark on the piece. Fineness is the amount of silver, gold, platinum, or palladium in relation to 1000 parts. For instance, the fineness of sterling silver is 925, whereas that of platinum is usually either 950 or 900. Palladium jewelry fineness may be 950, 850 or 500.  If 18K white gold does not have a karat mark, then it should have a 750-fineness mark.  


Chain, bracelet and necklace fineness marks are typically placed on the clasp. Some marks are readable with the naked eye, but it’s easier to decipher them with a 5- or 10-power hand magnifier. The karat or fineness stamp is only an indication of the silver, gold or platinum content, not proof. On the other hand, the lack of a mark doesn’t necessarily mean the piece is made of a base metal.

Hallmark photo by Louise Walker
3 Trademark test

Look for a manufacturer’s mark along with the fineness or karat stamp. This is added assurance that the metal content is as stamped, and it is mandatory if the precious metal content is stamped on the piece. If there is no fineness stamp, a trademark is not required. Keep in mind that existing trademarks and hallmarks can be counterfeited, and fake ones can be created. So even if the jewelry has a trademark, it should still be tested, especially if you’re not familiar with the trademark and the type of jewelry that a particular manufacturer produces.

Closed-backed setting by Renee Newman.
4 Closed back test

If the jewelry contains gemstones, look at the back of the setting. Is the bottom of the stone blocked from view or enclosed in metal? Do the stones look like they have been glued in rather than set? Fake stones are commonly set or glued in fake-silver or -gold mountings. Genuine gems set in precious metals usually have open-back settings. 

Open-backed setting by Renee Newman.
5 X-ray Fluorescence Test

This test requires an X-ray fluorescence instrument and is used to analyze the metal content by assay offices, refiners, pawnbrokers, and other dealers who buy and sell precious metals. It indicates all the metals in an object and their percentages. The device, which is referred to as an XRF analyzer is available as a portable handheld device and as a large desktop or small portable enclosed system at prices starting around $18,000. If you know a pawnbroker with an XRF analyzer, he or she might let you use it in exchange for some jewelry repair or gem identification services.

6 Potassium dichromate solution test

Sterling silver can be detected by placing a drop of potassium dichromate and nitric acid solution on the test metal surface. Jewelry supply stores sell it in small plastic bottles under the name of “Silver Testing Solution” for about $5–$10 a bottle. The liquid turns red and leaves a red stain on a white paper towel with it comes in contact with sterling silver. After it dries, it may look gray. 


The solution can etch silver so the drop should be placed in an inconspicuous spot or on a metal streak scratched onto a touchstone.  When testing metals with acids, wear rubber gloves and safety glasses and make sure the area is well ventilated.

Q. When is silver not silver?

A. Vermeil

Not all silver jewelry has a silver color. If silver is plated or mechanically bonded with gold, it will have a gold color and be called vermeil. According to the 2018 Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Jewelry and Precious Metals Industries, “an industry product may be described or marked as ‘vermeil’ if it consists of a base of sterling silver coated or plated on all significant surfaces with gold, or gold alloy of not less than 10 karat fineness, that is of reasonable durability and a minimum thickness throughout equivalent to two andonehalf(2 1/2)microns(or approximately 100/1,000,000ths of an inch) of finegold.


Vermeil was popular in the Victorian era, and it was used not only on jewelry but also for silverware, platters and boxes. Modern vermeil made with sterling silver has a 925-fineness stamp. If you’d like to make affordable precious metal jewelry with the look of gold, vermeil is a good option.



Terms and Definitions

Fineness the proportion of pure precious metal in an alloy, generally expressed in parts per thousand.


Palladium is a silver-white metallic element (atomic number 46), resembling platinum. Today, palladium is often used in automobile catalytic converters, as well as in jewelry and in dental fillings and crowns.


White gold is a silver-colored alloy; the combination of gold and at least one white metal —nickel, silver, platinum, or another metal. 


Vermeil is silver that has been gilded — covered in gold.


For more gem and metal insight, you can purchase Renée Newman's books at or

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