When looking into silversmithing, a lot of people find themselves staring at the materials available in wonder. There’s a lot there, and some things aren’t obvious at first glance! Knowing the difference between Argentium and sterling is important, they’re very different!
Ready to learn a bit? Let’s dive right in and I’ll give you an overview of Argentium silver versus the sterling.
What is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver is the most commonly worked silver alloy around, making its way into a wide variety of jewelry and decorative objects. Sterling silver is an alloy, although you’ll sometimes see a label like “pure sterling silver” put on a piece.
Sterling is an interchangeable term with “925 silver” for the most part, which comes from the stamp placed on the metal.
The composition of the vast majority of sterling silver is simple: 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper.
The 7.5% can technically be any other metal, it’s the 92.5% that’s important. That said, the only other bits you usually find in that 7.5% are impurities like solder components that sometimes end up in home refined batches of silver.
Sterling silver is quite a bit harder than pure silver, making it better for jewelry in most cases. In particular, things like rings and bracelets that get banged into stuff on a day-to-day basis benefit. You can work around the increased hardness by annealing the metal when it becomes too stiff from work-hardening during the working process.
The melting point of sterling silver is actually lower than that of fine silver despite the inclusion of copper (with a higher melting point of 1984°F or 1085°C). Sterling silver melts at 1640°F (893°C), while fine silver melts at 1761°F (961°C).
Overall, sterling silver is a 92.5% silver alloy that’s suitable for jewelry and decorative use, especially in silver pieces that may encounter other objects regularly.
What About Argentium?
Argentium is a relatively new alloy of silver, having only recently gained popularity. Here’s something to blow your mind: Argentium is actually a type of sterling silver.
Argentium comes in a couple of varieties, depending on the purity of the silver involved. The most commonly available variation is 93.5% silver, 5.3% copper, and 1.2% germanium. The latter is what creates the enormous working difference between Argentium and standard sterling silver.
You’ll occasionally see Argentium referred to as “935 silver” which… isn’t actually wrong but fails to disclose the germanium content.
Argentium has been hailed as the most important development in silverwork in the last couple of centuries. Its proponents claim that it does everything sterling does, but better.
The idea behind the alloy was to create a sterling silver that was resistant to firestain, which occurs as copper oxidizes in sterling silver. It appears the germanium selectively oxidizes before the copper, which is what prevents fire scale from forming.
The biggest difference between Argentium silver and sterling silver is in working the metal. There’s been a large marketing campaign for its use in jewelry, but the naked eye won’t be able to tell the difference in most cases.
Are There Other Silver Types?
There are a few other types of silver, mostly varying purities with copper used as a filler in the alloy. The main one of importance is fine silver, which is 99.99%+ silver in its composition.
You may also find some other terms, which are usually old hallmarking terms that are rarely used. The following are still around in some way or another:
- Britannia Silver- A UK-hallmark similar to sterling which requires the silver to be 95%+ in purity.
- Coin Silver- Usually 90% silver with other inclusions. The alloy was common in older US coins.
- “Jewelry” Silver- An outdated term for an 80% alloy. It’s effectively only of interest to refiners at this point since most silver jewelry is made with 925 instead.
- Tibetan “Silver”- Historically used for low-silver alloys in the region of Tibet. Modern use indicates a copper/tin or copper/nickel alloy that contains no silver. Antiques of this material will have widely varying compositions.
That covers most of what you’ll see. If you’re into silversmithing, I recommend sticking with sterling or higher. Coin silver and lower are often only available as scrap these days.
Differences in Working Sterling Versus Argentium
The reason that Argentium alloy is such an innovative alloy has to do with the working qualities of the material, rather than in its look. Compared side-by-side with a piece of sterling the only difference is that Argentium looks a touch whiter when both are freshly polished.
Sterling silver is a well-understood material, but there are some problems with constructing items out of it. The most obvious problem is that it easily forms firescale when it’s being worked, you’ll have to pickle or sand each piece after heating to higher than annealing temperature.
Firescale is separate from firestain. It’s the black oxidation that forms on the surface of silver when it’s heated to a certain temperature. While unsightly, it’s a cosmetic blemish and usually doesn’t require a lot of effort to remove.
Firestain on the other hand is a deeper form of oxidation that occurs when sterling silver has been overheated. It’s usually “deep” in the metal and requires an abrasive method to remove. Best of all? A lot of newbies won’t even know it’s there until the piece is being polished at the end of the day.
Argentium is resistant to both of these. In my experience, you’ll sometimes get a bit of discoloration on the bit touching your soldering block, but it comes off with a felt polishing wheel or a bit of pickle.
Essentially, the tarnish-resistant nature of Argentium means you can skip some of the traditional steps. Firestain is, in my experience, usually a newbie error but fire scale is part-and-parcel of working with sterling silver.
There are two other big things that set Argentium apart from sterling.
The first is quenching. Whether you’re annealing or cooling pieces after soldering, sterling silver is a tough material in this regard. As long as it’s not glowing orange you can usually dunk it and not expect anything bad to happen.
If you do the same with Argentium it can shatter. I don’t mean some light cracking either, I mean falling into shards of metal in your quench jar. Likewise, if you handle Argentium at any temperature above “dull red” it’s going to fall apart.
So, a bit more care is required. In truth, most people tend to handle their silver when it’s too hot or quenches too early anyways. Anytime you quench silver it should be black in temperature, which is just a fancy way of saying it shouldn’t be glowing. If you do the same with Argentium it will be fine.
The other big difference is that Argentium is much easier to fuse. As long as the metal is clean and flux is applied, you can join pieces of the alloy together simply by heating them to the appropriate temperature.
You absolutely can fuse sterling, but it’s an arduous task. The metal has to be 100% clean, flux needs to be applied, and you have a very short window to react before things begin to melt. The process is much easier with Argentium, and some artists create pieces of Argentium jewelry without a single soldered joint.
As a practical matter, fusing Argentium is still a touchy process and more complex pieces are usually soldered at some point.
Essentially, Argentium is resistant to oxidation but the germanium content makes it very brittle at high temperatures.
Differences in Wearing Sterling Silver Versus Argentium
When it comes to the end-user, the person wearing the jewelry, there are only a few differences. The main appeal for a consumer is simple: Argentium is more tarnish-resistant than sterling silver so it maintains its color for longer with less maintenance.
Sterling silver will change color just from the air and the deeper bits will blacken after some time. Antique sterling silver shows this well, and many artists antique their pieces before selling them in modern times.
Argentium will remain bold and white for longer, similar to fine silver but without fine silver’s soft surface that leads to easy scratches and dents.
If you like the antique silver look, then Argentium isn’t the material to look for. On the other hand, if you prefer the bright, mirror-like polish that’s associated with high purity silver then it’s a great material!
The only other difference for the end-user is cost: Argentium is always more expensive than an equivalent piece made with standard sterling silver.
Which is Best for a Beginner?
Sterling silver is the ideal material for a beginner. If you’re just getting started with working silver, then you’ll be best off sticking with sterling.
The lack of concern about firescale and firestain would seem to make Argentium an ideal beginner material, especially when you consider that you can skip soldering for basic joints.
And it’ll be really great until you do something wrong with the metal at high temperatures. It’s common, for instance, to use cross-locking tweezers to hold a couple of bits of sterling together to create a flush joint for soldering… Argentium will shatter under the same pressure when heated.
Sterling silver is also a good bit cheaper, and for a beginner, the savings will add up quickly.
In my personal opinion… most new smiths won’t realize a lot of benefit from working with Argentium.
Taking advantage of the ability to fuse the metal requires good heat control habits and the downsides of improper quenching and handling can lead to hours of work ruined because you got careless for just a moment.
That’s true throughout silverwork, but you haven’t “lived” until you’ve had eight hours of work fall apart in your tweezers because you misjudged the heat of a workpiece.
For a newbie, the time saved by not having to pickle the metal isn’t much of an advantage compared to the difficulties posed by Argentium. That said, either is a fine choice of metal and the differences are quite minor unless you’re specifically taking advantage of things like the ability to fuse easily.
The majority of new silversmiths will have a much easier time working with sterling, but Argentium is a good thing to be aware of as your skill set expands.