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 1950's Navajo Old Pawn Turquoise Pendant & Sterling Silver Bead NecklaceVintage Modernist Artist Made Hand Wrought Sterling Silver Mabe Pearl NecklaceFred Harvey Era Vintage Zuni Blue Gem Turquoise Flush Inlay Sterling BraceletSigned Vintage Modernist Sterling Silver Cloisonne Enamel Pendant NecklaceRare Old Size 7.5 Vintage Zuni Snake Eye Blue Gem Turquoise Sterling RingBarbara Bixby 18kt Yellow Gold Sterling Flower Reversible Earrings Garnet Topaz1908 Vintage Antique Mens Waltham Sterling Silver Porcelain Dial–no ReserveVtg Native American Navajo Old Pawn Sterling Silver 925 Turquoise Cuff BraceletVintage Margot De Taxco Sterling Silver Enamel Snake Necklace Jointed Mexico Nr24” Designer Barbara Bixby 18kt Yellow Gold Sterling Flower Dance Chain NecklaceOld Pawn Zuni Sterling Petit Point Natural Turquoise Sqush Blossom Necklace JOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Green Spiderweb Turquoise And Sterling Cuff BraceletOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Green Spiderweb Turquoise And Sterling Cuff BraceletAuthentic Tiffany & Co Jewelry Sterling Silver Toggle Charm Link Bracelet HeartVtg Zuni Hand Stamped Sterling Silver Snake Eye Turquoise Row Cuff Bracelet |gRare Vintage Cartier "must De" Tank Paris 925 Roman Dial Manualwind Men's WatchVintage Old Pawn Navajo Sterling Jerry T Nelson Spiny Oyster Opal Inlay BraceletVtg Antique Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Poppy Flower BraceletVintage Taxco Sterling Silver Cuff Bangle Bracelet Mexico Jewelry 62 GramsVintage Margot De Taxco Sterling Silver Enamel Snake Bracelet Jointed Mexico NrHuge Lot Quality Jewellery Inc 250+g Sterling Silver 9ct Gold Vintage Antique Margot De Taxco Vtg Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Enamel NecklaceOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Sterling Bisbee Turquoise Squash Blossom NecklaceVtg 63g Bold Dragon Los Ballesteros Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Cuff BraceletVtg Native American Navajo Old Pawn Sterling Silver Turquoise Cuff BraceletChic Chunky Bold Retro Vintage 1940s Modernist Napier Sterling Silver BraceletVictorian Sterling Silver & Gold Collar Chain Necklace & Locket In Original CaseOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Sterling Silver Carinated Cuff Bracelet SignedAntique Victorian Sterling Silver Aesthetic Collar And Locket Necklace Rare Large Gustav Gaudernack Norway 925 Silver Vermeil Fine Enamel Brooch PinVtg Early Old Handmade Oval Link Hoop Hopi Sterling Silver Necklace Chain 24"Antique Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Plated Peacock Foil Glass Buckle Sterling Silver And Spectrolite Kaunis Koru Scandinavian Finland Bangle 1990Bulk Lot Quality Jewellery Inc 150+g Sterling Silver Vintage Antique 1950sVintage Signed Lr Sterling Silver Athena Locket C1900 Rhinestones 10.4 GramRare!! Georg Jensen Sterling Silver Modern Necklace Stunning & Heavy SilverHuge Heavy 140g Vintage Navajo Coral Malachite Stamped Sterling Bead NecklaceLos Castillo Iconic Vtg Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Amethyst NecklaceVtg 71g Bold Signed Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Clamper Cuff Bracelet Old/dead Pawn Vintage Navajo Sterling & Turquoise Bracelet C. 80's / 47 Gr!!!!!!Vintage Old Pawn Zuni Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Sterling Ring Size: 8 -16.1g NrVintage Sterling Silver Enamel Flower Garnet Bead Berry Dangle EarringsArt Deco Sterling & Camphor Glass Necklace/pendantVintage Tiffany Sterling Silver Basket Weave Design Slim Cigarette LighterStrong Vintage Navajo Stamped Sterling Silver & Turquoise Cuff Bracelet |gVintage Old Pawn Navajo Pilot Mountain Turquoise Sterling Cuff Bracelet -83.6gSterling Silver 925 Victorian Antique Vintage Set Brooch Earring Samurai 1246Signed Barbara Bixby 18kt Yellow Gold Sterling Chalcedony Enhancer Pendant 10grHuge Charming 36 Gram Rare Vintage Navajo Kachina Sterling Dangle EarringsIncomparable 20s German Art Deco Chrysoprase, Marcasite & Sterling Silver BroochOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Handmade Twisted Sterling Green Turquoise Cuff BraceletWide Vintage Art Deco Mexico Sterling Silver Green Turquoise Bangle BracleetLarge & Substantial Vintage 1960's Sterling Silver Modernist Style Hoop EarringsVintage Georg Jensen Sterling Silver BroochVtg 50s-70s 31 Sterling Silver Enamel State Maps World Travel Charm Bracelet Lot Rare Vintage Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet Nuvo No ReserveAntique Silver 925 7 Lucky Gods Carved Enamel Bracelet Stunning Asian! 1244Vintage 1960's Zuni Old Pawn Snake Eye Turquoise & Sterling Silver Hoop EarringsAntique Nouveau Design Sterling Silver Enamel And Cultured Pearl Necklace Vtg Articulated Necklace Taxco Sterling Silver Spiral Bead Sphere Mexico Mexican