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”)

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]

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]

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]

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]

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]

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]

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]

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]

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    

Antique Art Deco Tavannes Cartier Sterling Silver Pocket Purse Watch La CaptiveVintage Old Pawn Navajo Sterling Large Slab Green Turquoise Solid Cuff BraceletCharles Horner Sterling Silver And Enamel Art Nouveau Pendant Heavy Old Victorian Sterling Silver Bracelet Cuff Slave Bangle Aesthetic AntiqueArt Deco Sterling 925 Silver Butterfly Winged Dragonfly Brooch Pin T7Vintage Trifari Sterling Silver Emerald Ruby Sapphire Rhinestone Crown Brooch1887 English Victorian Sterling Silver Bracelet Heavy Old Forget-me-not BangleRare Vintage Fannie Platero Navajo Sterling Silver & Lander Blue Turquoise Ring Vtg Signed Trifari Sterling Alfred Philippe Crown W/moonstones Brooch & EarringsAntique 1940s Art Deco Marcasite Wide Sterling Silver Bracelet Estate Gatsby VtgWow! Massive 172 Gram Federico Jimenez Coral Sterling Squash Blossom NecklaceOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Turquoise Flush Old Inlay Sterling Men's Ring Size 11Vintage Navajo Pearls Graduating Sterling Silver Turquoise Bench Bead NecklaceVintage Sterling Silver 925 Hallmarked Marcasite Art Deco Cat BroochOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Morenci Turquoise Sterling Squash Blossom Necklace1969 Heavy English Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Bracelet Old Vintage Chain BangleVtg Old Pawn Leonard Martza Turquoise Zuni Rainbow Man Sterling Silver Bolo TieCollectable Rare Loren Begay Vintage Navajo Turquoise Sterling Pendant NecklaceLrg Vtg Navajo Sterling Silver Royston Turquoise Leaf Applique Cuff Bracelet JVintage Sterling Silver Longines Trench Tiffany White Dial 20's.Vintage Old Pawn Navajo Red Mountain Turquoise Sterling Bench Bead NecklaceVintage 1920's - 30's Art Deco Sterling Silver Chrysoprase BraceletVintage For Repair 67g J.c Jc Sterling Silver Taxco Hinged Cuff Bracelet BangleEngraved Victorian Birmingham 1842 Sterling Silver Vinaigrette Maker EsVtg Dead Pawn Navajo Alvin & Lula Begay Raised Inlay Turquoise Sterling BraceletOld Pawn Navajo Sandcast Sterling Silver Turquoise Concho Belt & Buckle WesternVintage Navajo Handamde Sterling Silver Morenchi Turquoise Cuff Bracelet J AoAntique 1930s Sterling Silver Enamel Blue Bird Happiness BroochVintage Art Deco Sterling Silver And Paste Set BraceletStunning Vintage Sterling Silver Cuff Bangle Bracelet With Rubies White SapphireAntique Art Deco Guilloche Enamel & Seed Pearl Earrings, 14k & Sterling $1nrVintage Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet 30 Antique Charms 50.6 GramsVintage Sterling Silver Turquoise Bear Paw Navajo Indian Squash Blossom NecklaceRetro 1970s 925s Solid Silver Norwegian Abstract Necklace Pendant - Norway J3Wow! Massive 30 Gram Size 9 Federico Jimenez Coral Sterling RingAntique Hamilton 925 18s 17 Jewels Beautiful Hunter's Case Pocket Watch. 1905Vintage Southwestern Old Pawn Sterling Silver Navajo Stamped Bench Bead NecklaceEdwardian Sterling Silver Working Compass Fob Enamelled 3 Pence Coin 1887 H,markVintage Sterling Silver Charm BraceletOld Pawn Navajo Sterling Silver Bench Bead Spiderweb Turquoise Choker NecklaceA Circa 1930s Art Deco Era 9ct Gold & Sterling Silver White Stoned Eternity RingOld Estate Vintage Sterling Silver & Turquoise Native American Pawn BraceletVintage Yurman Sterling 14k Gold Bamboo Pearl Ring Band Signature Estate Real 2.2cts Diamond Pave Two Tone Gold Sterling Silver Tennis Bracelet Rare Vintage Redwater Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Bracelet Huge Heavy 91 GrAntique Austro - Hungarian Sterling Silver Emeralds, Pearls & Garnet NecklaceSuperb Vintage Sterling Silver Scottish Celtic Design Bangle BraceletVintage D Monteros Taxco 950 Necklace Black Onyx Sterling Silver Mexico MexicanTrifari Gold-plated Sterling Choker Necklace W Ruby Red Stones - 1945 Book PieceVintage Navajo Hand Stamped Sterling Silver 2" Wide Cuff Bracelet | G TxC.1896 Antique & Ornate Sterling Silver Waltham Hunting Case Pocket WatchVintage Navajo Sterling Silver Black Onyx Slave Bracelet Ring Set - Rare! Nr!Carlo Oluf Svend SDavid Yurman .22ctw Diamond Double Wheat Chain Sterling Silver Necklace DesignerVintage~navajo~joe Begay~sterling Silver~sleeping Beauty Turquoise~concho BeltVintage Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Snake Serpent Bracelet Estate OrnateVintage Ray Tracey Knifewing Navajo Sterling Silver Multi-stone Inlay Necklace Vintage Sterling Silver Guilloche Enamel Circle Brooch Pin Aksel Holmsen NorwayVtg 84g Huge Bold Rare Signed Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver NecklaceOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Fred Harvey Era Petrified Wood Sterling Cuff Bracelet