Buying and evaluating antiques is a very popular hobby in modern cultures. Understanding and identifying what you have found can be the most difficult part of this process. Sterling silver in particular has many elements available to identify its quality and authenticity. These marks came about at different times in various countries and regions throughout history. For example, England introduced the sterling silver standard in the late 1800s based on the metric system and designated what the numerical markings would come to represent. This was the first widely used method for marking and evaluating precious metals and has continued into modern times, where all valuable jewellery is now marked with some sort of number and/or word that can identify and rate its overall value.
Look for marks on the sterling silver items. Check your silver based on the numbers you find. If marked .925, it is likely newer sterling silver. The .950 mark identifies older and slightly better-quality sterling silver, while .835 is a common European silver. The mark 800 indicates 80 per cent silver and 20 per cent alloy.
Check to see if there are marks that indicate the origin of the silver. Many regions have specific marks that can be difficult to see or read. The "T" marking is a sign of a piece from 1970 or newer from Mexico. Most other countries are identified by the entire name of the country stamped on the piece. A "SIAM" mark will mean sterling silver from Thailand, while "PLATA" is an older Mexican silver.
Heat and apply a small amount of French's-brand mustard to help identify silver due to the portion of sulphur found in it. A black mark will be left if the piece is indeed pure silver. Also, by learning the marks, and figuring out the feel of certain metals, one can easily identify real silver versus something like nickel. You will find that real silver is heavier than nickel, and it has a much smoother surface. Using tools such as a magnifying glass or a loupe will help you to see the difference in the various metals and will help to detect silver plating versus real silver.
Study what marks are on non-silver pieces as well. "ALPACA" is a mark that will help you see immediately that a piece is nickel and not silver. If brand names are stamped on jewelery, this is also an indication of non-precious metals or "costume" jewellery made just for looks. Typically these pieces are marked "SILVERSTONE" and are fairly easy to identify based on the general look and feel of the piece.
Determine the weight to estimate the value of your piece, once you know what you have as far as the type of silver. Sometimes, however, rare pieces are encountered which require the skills of a trained professional. Contact either the owner of an antique store or a registered jeweller, who will should be able to figure out what kind of piece you have in your collection.