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    

Vtg Antique Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Poppy Flower BraceletAntique Vintage Large Victorian Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Photo Locket Pendant1930/40s Guilloche Enamel Sterling Silver Flower Pendant Necklace Charles HornerVintage~navajo~hand Wrought~sterling Silver~stamped~graduated Bead~necklace~141gVtg Antique Chinese Sterling Silver Carnelian Agate Enamel BraceletRare Ornate Vintage Art Nouveau Napier Sterling Silver Necklace & EarringsVintage Old Pawn Navajo Long Turquoise & Sterling Ring Size 8 Primitive1903 Antique Solid Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob 50g Hallmarked3 3/4" Vtg Repousse 71g Huge Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Clamper Cuff BraceletVintage Sign 124g Taxco Mexico Black Onyx Sterling Silver Snake Necklace MexicanLarge Antique Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Enamel Daffodil Flower BroochVtg Zuni Turquoise Multi Stone Micro Inlay Wide Sterling Cuff Bracelet BooquaVintage Signed Sterling Silver Amethyst Chunky Wide Modernist Cuff BraceletMid Century Modernist David Andersen Scandinavian Sterling Silver Enamel PendantVintage Navajo Hand Stamped Sterling Silver Turquoise 9 Concho Belt Set | G IiEarly Mens Navajo Cuff Bracelet Ingot Coin Sterling Silver W/natural Turquoise Old Pawn Vintage Navajo Sterling Turquoise Coral Ornate Squash Blossom NecklaceVintage Mexican Silver Sterling 980 Taxco Art Deco Wide Cuff Bracelet Pair Old Pawn Vintage Navajo Cuff Bracelet With Natural Blue Arizona Turquoise 925Victorian Georgian Sterling Silver Gold Paste Earrings Ear Wires Drops Pink Tom Hawk Vintage Navajo Men's Cuff Bracelet Sterling Silver Modern Native IndianVtg Signed Leaves Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Bypass Clamper Cuff BraceletAntique 1925 Hallmark Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Weighs 13.7gPretty Vintage Pat Cheney Teal Enamel Floral Sterling Silver Necklace Vtg Art Deco Sterling Silver Chrysoprase Marcasite Dangle Drop German EarringsVintage Handmade Navajo Sterling Silver & Turquoise 25" Squash Blossom NecklaceJohn Hardy Signed Mens Lapis Lazuli Bracelet Sterling Silver Heavy 8 Inch LongOld Pawn Vintage Zuni Sterling Owl Shell Turquoise Inlay Squash Blossom NecklaceArt Deco Sterling Silver Emerald Green Crystal Rhinestone Buckle BraceletMargot De Taxco Rare Vintage Mexico Sterling Silver Enamel Snake Head Cuff LinksVintage Old Pawn Navajo Sterling Jerry T Nelson Spiny Oyster Opal Inlay BraceletVtg Huge Massive 182g Bold Chunky Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver NecklaceOlder Vintage Navajo Turquoise Sterling Dangle Screw Back EarringsVintage Navajo Royston? Turquoise Coral Sterling Squash Blossom Choker NecklaceOld Pawn Vintage Navajo M. D. Besselente Petit Point Turquoise Sterling Bracelet1970s Vintage Solid Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet + 25 Quality Charms,122 Gms,Vintage 1940's Mexican Sterling Silver Turquoise Wide 57g Mexico BraceletVintage 940 Sterling Silver - Taxco Hector Aguilar Brass Flower - Brooch Bh5681Vintage Sterling Silver Enamel Snake By Margot De Taxco 5554 Mexico NecklaceLong Vintage Navajo Sterling Silver Squash Blossom Cast Cross Pendant Necklace GTurquoise Native American 15 Row Bracelet Cuff Sterling Silver Navajo Vintage  Vintage Unisex Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Stirrup Horseshoe Bracelet55g Vtg Bold Repousse Taxco Mexico Mexican Sterling Silver Clamper Cuff BraceletOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Cuff Bracelet With Natural Coral Sterling Signed Vintage Dead Pawn Navajo Stamped Sterling Cuff Wide BraceletAngela By John Hardy 14kt Yellow Gold Sterling Hinged Clamper Bracelet 24.2grAuthentic Vintage Ladies Must De Cartier Sterling Silver 925 & 18k P Tank WatchStunning Huge High End 150pc Vtg Signed Sterling Gf Rhinestone Jewelry Lot Da463Vtg Sterling Silver 18k Gold Bixby White Topaz Gemstone Cross Pendant NecklaceVintage Navajo Sterling Silver & Turquoise Bolo Tie Bennett C-31 ”Harvey Era Old Pawn Navajo Kings Manassa Turquoise Snake Eyes Sterling CuffVintage Sterling Silver Georg Jensen Denmark 100 B Tulip BraceletVtg Old Dead Pawn Navajo Squash Blossom Mop 215g Sterling Silver Bead Necklace Vtg Navajo Steve Yellowhorse Sterling Eagle Overlay Turquoise Cuff Bracelet GAntique Victorian Sterling Silver Amity Infinity Eternity Large 1.75" LocketHeavy Old Pawn Zuni 925 Sterling Silver Turquoise Squash Blossom Necklace 54.8gLarge Vintage Navajo Handmade Sterling Silver Kingman Turquoise Cuff Bracelet JVintage Art Deco Mexican Sterling Silver Amethyst BraceletOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Sterling Turquoise Cuff Women's BraceletVintage Modernist Signed Hfr Taxco Sterling Old Mexican Silver Cuff Bracelet