Like the moon it’s been associated with for millennia, silver reflects the light that plays on its surface, treating the eye to shades of grays that range from smoldering and smokey to brilliant and brassy. Too soft to be used in fine jewelry such as rings and bracelets on its own, silver is typically alloyed with copper or other metals to give it the strength to shine.

The standard for sterling silver is 92.5 percent pure silver plus 7.5 percent alloy. In the United States, any piece of jewelry that is only 90 percent silver may be sold as silver, without any qualifier. The purity of silver is often described as its fineness, so sterling silver has a fineness of 925. In the U.S., some pieces of silver jewelry will be stamped with the number 900 to designate that it meets the minimum silver-content requirement. Sometimes these pieces are plated, or flashed, with almost pure silver to make their surfaces as reflective and bright as possible.

During the Victorian Era, English jewelers used silver to make everything from simple bands to ones with the words "Mizpah" rendered in relief on them. They were worn by couples and lovers separated by circumstances or travel. Other example of silver jewelry popular in 19th-century England included pins shaped like birds, which were often covered with seed pearls and turquoise.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1904, a Copenhagen silversmith named Georg Jensen produced jewelry pieces featuring flowers, bunches of grapes, birds, and other animals. Jensen’s silver was hammered to create a pebbled surface, then oxidized to give his designs depth and distinctive tints. Semi-precious, often locally quarried stones such as agate, amber, opals, and malachite were also used in his work, but sparingly.

For collectors, an important aspect of Jensen’s earliest jewelry is the fineness of the silver, which varied from 826 to 830 to 925 (sterling). It wasn’t until 1933 that sterling silver was used exclusively at Jensen, which gives fans of his early work a clear way to date a vintage piece.

In North America, the tradition of making jewelry out of shells and beads dates to prehistoric times, but it wasn't until the mid-19th century that Native American artisans began producing silver-and-turquoise rings, bracelets, and pins, mostly for religious purposes rather than adornment. When times got tough, people would take their most expendable personal pieces and pawn them. Thus, "old pawn" describes pre-1900 examples of Native American jewelry made of silver. Although there is a lot of jewelry on the market labeled "old pawn," only pieces from the 1800s deserve it.

By the turn of the century, Native American jewelers were producing goods for the tourist trade. One of the controversial aspects of Native American jewelry from this period is t...

South of the border, in Mexico, silversmithing had been practiced for centuries. In fact, Mexican silversmiths taught the Navajo of the Southwestern United States their trade. But it took an American named William Spratling to see the opportunity to build on this legacy. After spending summers in Mexico in the 1920s near the silver-mining center of Taxco, in 1931 he established a retail outlet for Mexican jewelry there.

The Taxco jewelry he designed and that local artisans produced included silver necklaces, pins, bracelets, rings, and other objects. Spratling’s designs borrowed liberally from pre-Columbian motifs found on Mexico’s pyramids and lifted from 14th-century symbols that fill the Codex Zouche-Nuttal. It was open-source material, if you will, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that as his shop succeeded, numerous imitators sprang up nearby.

Some of these competitors were actively encouraged. In fact, the Taxco School, as it is known today, was formed largely from former Spratling employees such as the Castillo brothers, Héctor Aguilar, Antonio Pineda, and Valentin Viadurreta, who brought a Mexican eye to Art Deco. Naturally, these artisans and their shops became incubators for still more generations of jewelers.

For those who could not make the trip to Taxco, U.S. stores imported these popular goods. At one point everyone from fashionable Gump’s in San Francisco to Montgomery Ward in Chicago carried silver jewelry (some decorated with obsidian or amethysts) by Taxco designers.

Modernist jewelers of the day took a completely different approach to their silver jewelry. Instead of looking into the past for inspiration, they had only to glance about and see the work of contemporary painters, sculptors, and other modern artists. Their jewelry was a part of this modern-art movement, and their ambitious goal was to create one-of-a-kind works of art that people could wear.

One of the early champions and practitioners of the form was Sam Kramer, who, like many of his contemporaries, lived, worked, and sold his silver creations in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Another unofficial leader of the modernist-jewelry movement was Kramer’s neighbor Art Smith. His jewelry ranged from simple silver neck rings to biomorphic pieces that drew from African motifs. While Smith made small pieces such as cufflinks and earrings, many of his best works were large enough to wrap the body, as if the human form was the mere backdrop for his creations.

Boomerangs, straight lines intersecting curves, and atomic-age shapes typified Ed Wiener’s Mid-century Modern work. Sometimes a pair of silver earrings resembling deformed hourglasses were adorned with a single pearl; other times, a cat’s-eye agate would be placed in the center of a silver piece. Another Greenwich Village modernist jeweler was Paul Lobel, who designed lovely silver pins and bracelets, as well as silver hollowware.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

Chicago Silver

Chicago Silver

Paul Somerson's incredible reference on handwrought metalwork from the American Arts and Crafts movement of the ear… [read review or visit site]

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

An extensive reference guide to silver marks, hallmarks, trademarks and maker's marks found on antique and vintage … [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

This is a great reference site on silver, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can view silver items acc… [read review or visit site]

The Gilbert Collection

The Gilbert Collection

The late Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of European silver, gold, enamel, and other items is now housed at the Vic… [read review or visit site]

Jewel History

Jewel History

Since March of 2007, readers of Lori Ettlinger Gross’s JewelHistory blog have been treated to her weekly (sometim… [read review or visit site]

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

“Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” was the title of a 2008 exhibition at Columbia University’s Mi… [read review or visit site]

TheStieffCompany.com

TheStieffCompany.com

Scott Perkins is an enthusiastic evangelist for The Stieff Company, a significant Baltimore silversmith and maker o… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Navajo Squash Blossom Necklace Turquoise Sterling Silver 142 Grams J315Victorian Antique Vintage Solid 925 Sterling Silver Wide Cuff Bangle BraceletVintage Navajo Exotic Turquoise Sterling Melon Bead Squash Blossom NecklaceOld Pawn Vintage Zuni Sterling Petit Point Turquoise Squash Blossom Necklace1953 Vintage Antique Chester Hallmarked Solid Sterling Silver And Gold Bangle JsLot Antique 18k 14k 10k Gold Birks Sterling Silver Box Ruby Emerald Band RingsVtg David Andersen Sterling Norway Vermeil & Blue Guilloche Enamel Link BraceletVtg Old Dead Pawn Navajo Large Turquoise Row Cluster Wide Sterling Cuff BraceletVintage Native American Indian Sterling Silver Turquoise Squash Blossom NecklaceLarge Lot Victorian Sterling Silver Gold Filled Enamel Stone Pendant LocketsOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Handmade Sterling & Turquoise Bench Bead Choker NecklaceAntique Vintage Navajo "old Pawn" Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet W/20 CharmsUnusual Attractive Vintage Tiffany & Co Silver 925 Ring NrOld Pawn Turquoise Sterling Silver Cuff Bracelet Native Jewelry Vintage DeadVintage Georg Jensen Denmark Sterling Silver Cufflinks 08 Tie Bar B52,orig. BoxRare Sterling Silver Ww1 Vintage 1915 Military Officers Rolex Trench WatchVtg Danish Modern Sterling Silver Signed David Andersen Enameled Bracelet Vad NrLot Of 2 Vintage Cuff Bracelets .. Turquoise & Sterling Silver ... Zuni & NavajoVintage Old Pawn Navajo Green Bisbee Spiderweb Turquoise Sterling Necklace BegayMargot De Taxco Vtg Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Necklace Design #5105Art Deco Sterling Guilloche Enamel Pendant Hf Barrows Co W Orig Woven Cord NrDavid Yurman 18k & Sterling Silver 32" Box Chain Necklace 4 Quatrefoil 4 Pearl Vtg Uni David Andersen Norway Modernist Sterling Pendant Torque NecklaceVtg David Andersen Norway Sterling & Blue Guilloche Enamel Link NecklaceVtg Navajo Begay Sterling Silver Bead Necklace & Huge Turquoise Pendant |gHuge Lot Antique Vintage Sterling Silver Gold Filled Stone Jewelled RingsHector Aguilar Coro Vtg Taxco Mexican Sterling Silver Repousse Pendant NecklaceEarly Old Pawn Stamped Sterling Silver Navajo Ingot Turquoise Cuff Bracelet$4199 Edwardian 925 Sterling 1.19ctw Rose Cut Diamond Engagement Ring 3.5gLagos Caviar Sterling Silver And 18 Karat Yellow Gold Citrine BraceletTiger Claw Pendant Sterling Silver Setting Raj Era Hunting Trophy ToothVintage Sterling Silver Repousse Puffed Heart Charm Bracelet$10,999 Victorian 14k/925 58.35ct Rose Cut Diamonds & Aaa Sapphire Bangle 80.1gVtg Navajo Old Pawn Turquoise Coral Wide Sterling Cuff Bracelet D Daniel BenallyVtg Navajo Old Dead Pawn Hand Stamped Coil Rope Wide Sterling Cuff Bracelet TaheVtg 54g 1920's Blue Green Art Deco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Necklace925 Sterling Silver Tiffany & Co. Peretti Sapphire Ring Size 6.5 (2.8g) - 185189Old Navajo Heavy Openwork Sterling Silver Turquoise Cuff BraceletVintage 1930s Georg Jensen Pin Brooch Sterling Silver Birds Wheat #250 DenmarkVintage Mexican Sterling Silver Turquoise Necklace Victoria Taxco Mexico | Rs AxVtg Navajo Sterling Silver Squash Blossom Bead Necklace King's Manassa TurquoiseOld Pawn Vintage Zuni Butterfly Turquoise Coral Inlay Sterling Cuff Bracelet Theodor Fahrner Vintage Modernist Sterling Silver & Amethyst Bracelet, 1960'sR. Rivera Vtg Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Repousse NecklaceOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Ceremonial Sterling Turquoise Cuff Bracelet Larry BegayVintage Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet Loaded With 30 Charms Circa. 1900-1960Large Vintage Old Pawn Navajo Cobblestone Turquoise Sterling Men's Ring Sz 12Hi Quality Vintage Hopi Sterling Silver & 14k Gold Man In Maze Ring Sz 11Vintage Solid Sterling Silver Georg Jensen Funky Ring Design No 91 FabulousOld Matilda Poulat "matl" Mexican Ring/ Sterling Silver-amethyst/ Spratling EraVtg Old Pawn Navajo Squash Blossom Bear Sterling Silver Turquoise Coral Bolo TieAntique Skyscraper Art Deco Chrysoprase~sterling & Marcasite Necklace~hallmarkedR. Rivera Vtg Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Repousse BraceletOld Pawn Navajo Round Footed Sterling Turquoise Trinket Jewelry Box 54 GramsLot Of Antique Victorian Vintage Jewelry -jadeite, Sterling, Gold Filled Hat PinVtg 50s Sterling Silver Georg Jensen Henning Koppel Amoeba Boomerang CufflinksVtg Old Dead Pawn Tsosie Tufa Cast Sterling Silver Turquoise Navajo Bolo Tie Huge Old Pawn Navajo Vintage Slab Spiderweb Turquoise Sterling Cuff Bracelet Vintage C 1930's Art Deco Sterling Silver Scottish Moss Agate Necklace BroochVintage Sterling Silver Chanel Runway Massive Charm Hoop Earrings