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What is the difference between Coin Silver and Sterling Silver?

We often hear the terms Coin Silver and Sterling Silver. My mother will refer to her silver flatware as “Sterling” and her julep cups as “Coin Silver”. The story I was told as a child was that coin silver, a term used a lot in American Silver, and especially with Kentucky Silversmiths, was silver that was originally made from coins that the owner brought to the silversmith to have made into something “useful”, like a fork, or a julep cup.


Sterling silver is easy...The currency in England has is the Pound Sterling, so in order to establish a consistent value of the currency, a pound of silver had to be the same quality everywhere. The word sterling comes from around 775 AD when silver pennies were known as “sterlings” … 240 of them made a pound. In 1158, King Henry II introduced a new coin (the Tealby penny) with a 92.5% silver purity as the standard. This Sterling Standard has stayed with us to the present day, so when we see English silver hallmarked correctly, we can assume it is Sterling, 92.5% silver. It is also true that American silver clearly marked “Sterling” is assumed to be 92.5%


Coin silver on the other hand, is an alloy of 90% Silver and 10% copper. It was the alloy used in most of the United States silver coins. America had a bit of a problem until the third quarter of the 19th century, we had no reliable domestic source of silver for silversmiths to work from. When American silversmiths needed raw materials, they often had to buy and melt existing silver objects (including coins) to make objects for their current clients. This is one of the reasons that early American silver is much rarer than silver made in England during the same time period, much of it was repurposed into newer objects. The main consequence of this scarcity was that pretty much all American silver made before the 1870s is coin silver. It was not until a consistent supply of domestic silver (specifically silver from the Comstock Lode) entered the marketplace that American Silversmiths could produce Sterling Silver objects. As soon as sterling silver as widely available in America, the major manufacturers were able to produce silver objects “of the same quality” as their English counterparts. This, in turn, led to a resurgence of American silver and establishment of the network of local jewelers and merchants selling silver from the major manufacturers across the country.


I guess the story I was told as a child was at least partially correct!