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Sterling.  A fineness of silver, 925 parts per 1000 (alloyed with 75 parts copper for hardness).  Sterling was legally set as a standard based on British silver coinage, silver coins of Great Britain were struck in this fineness from 1763 to 1919 (Maundy coins were continued to be struck in sterling after this date). But the sterling standard ended in 1920 when British coinage was dropped to 500 silver for all circulating silver coins; this continued until 1947 when copper-nickel (British cupro-nickel) replaced all silver coins, effectively ending all relationship between British coinage and the term sterling.

Silver of .925 fine is now called "standard" in Great Britain but continues to be called "sterling" or sterling silver in America. Standards are not uniform throughout the world – sterling, for example, is .935 fine in modern Israel.

Experts disagree upon the origin of the term sterling. It could have come from Easterlings, east German coiners brought to Britain during the reign of Henry II (1154-89); or from some Norman silver pennies called steorling (coins with a star).

Sterling alloy was prepared by adding 18 parts copper to 222 parts silver (37 fortieths of fine silver, or .925 fine). It has a specific gravity of 10.35 and a melting point of 893° centigrade.

Sterling objects were hallmarked with a lion passant as early as 1544 and this

mark continues to imply sterling fineness even into the 20th century. The lion passant is officially the mark for London and Birmingham silversmiths; other areas used different sterling marks:  Sheffield and Chester – a lion passant guardant; Edinburg – a thistle; Glasgow – a thistle and lion rampant. Sterling as .925 silver was adopted in America in 1868.

In the 20th century British and American silver objects are required by law to be marked with their exact fineness (except those items struck by national mints in both countries). The fineness mark may be words or figures, the law is liberal in this respect, thus sterling objects may be found with identifications as: sterling, ster, .925, 925 or 925/1000. (SS for sterling silver is infrequently used in catalogs but never on actual pieces – the term could be confused for sales sample – occasionally used by manufacturers.) See composition (2), fineness.

6895(014)03.2            Illus: Drawing

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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