Stainless Steel vs. Sterling Silver – What’s the Difference?  (Advice)

Stainless steel and sterling silver are so similar in appearance that it’s very hard to tell them apart. Even though both stainless steel and sterling silver are alloy metals, they differ in composition, durability, versatility, weight, maintenance, and affordability. When it comes to jewelry, stainless steel, and sterling silver are two of the most popular choices. But how do they compare? 

Continue reading to learn about the basic differences between stainless steel and sterling silver. 

What Is Sterling Silver? 

Sterling silver is a precious metal, like gold and platinum. It’s also an alloy metal, which means it’s a combination of different metals. Contrary to popular opinion, sterling silver isn’t 100% pure silver. It only contains 92.5% pure silver, while the other 7.5% is another metal component. Copper is typically used because it increases its strength and hardness. Since sterling silver can tarnish easily, sometimes other elements are added to the alloy, such as zinc, boron, platinum, germanium, and silicon. 

Sterling silver has a long, rich history, its use dating back to the 12th century. Besides jewelry, sterling silver has been used in currencies, cutlery, dinnerware, trays, mirrors, cigarette cases, and more. It’s even used to make surgical and medical equipment and musical instruments. 

Here are some of the most important advantages and disadvantages of sterling silver: 

Pros 

  • Sterling silver is soft and malleable. Thanks to its composition, silver can be used to make all kinds of jewelry, especially intricate pieces with lots of small details. It can also be reshaped and resized easily, guaranteeing a perfect fit. Since it’s so malleable, you can use it to make a unique piece, whether it’s a ring, a necklace, or a brooch, as it’s easy to engrave. This also makes it easier to repair. 
  • It’s versatile. Sterling silver comes in a variety of colors and finishes. When shopping for silver jewelry, you can choose between polished and matte silver. You also have the option to get a silver piece with gold plating. Not to mention that silver goes beautifully with almost all colored gemstones. 
  • It appreciates in value. Silver will always be considered an investment because it’s a high-end precious metal. Just like gold, silver has a track record of increasing in value over the years. 

Cons 

  • It’s not hypoallergenic. Some people are allergic to sterling silver, and wearing it can result in skin irritations. 
  • Sterling silver is a delicate metal, more prone to damage and tarnishing. It can be easily scratched, and it tends to bend out of shape after a long period of time. 
  • It can be very expensive, and not everyone can afford it. 
  • Sterling silver loses its shine if you don’t take care of it properly. 

What Is Stainless Steel? 

Stainless steel is a metal alloy, and it consists of chromium, aluminum, carbon, nitrogen, silicon, copper, and other elements. Note that these components aren’t equally presented in all stainless steel products. It is naturally resistant to rust and corrosion and doesn’t stain, fade, or become discolored. 

Since it can’t rust, stainless steel used to be referred to as “rustless steel.” There are different types of stainless steel used for a variety of applications, including austenitic, ferritic, martensitic, and more. It’s much more versatile than sterling silver. Not only is stainless steel used to make jewelry, but it is also commonly used in surgical instruments, car parts, cutlery, cookware, appliances, pipes, construction materials, and more. Stainless steel comes in a number of finishes, including brushed, satin, mirror, and matte. It can also be plated with precious metals. 

Here are some of the most important pros and cons of stainless steel: 

Pros 

  • Very durable. Stainless steel doesn’t corrode, rust, or become discolored. What’s more, it won’t dent or get scratched. This makes it ideal for everyday use. People who wear stainless steel jewelry can bathe and swim without taking it off because no amount of moisture or humidity can damage it. 
  • Hypoallergenic. Stainless steel is hypoallergenic, making it the ideal choice for people with allergies or sensitive skin. 
  • Stainless steel is low maintenance. Once it’s polished, it offers a better shine and smoother finish. It will maintain the same appearance no matter how much time has passed. 
  • Stainless steel is typically not expensive. 

Cons 

  • Stainless steel is very rigid. If it gets damaged, it’s very hard to repair or resize it by hand. You would need to take it to a professional. 
  • It doesn’t appreciate in value, so it’s not an investment. 

Which Is Better: Sterling Silver or Stainless Steel? 

Fine Sterling Silver Comb Set on Table

If you need to choose between stainless steel and sterling silver, your decision should depend on how the alloy metal is used. If you want something that will never tarnish and remain durable forever, stainless steel is a better option. However, if you want a unique piece with its own natural finish and an elegant look, sterling silver is the right choice. 

We’ve mentioned before that stainless steel is more durable than sterling silver. However, it’s worth noting that sterling silver is more durable than other types of silver. For example, fine silver, which is 99.9% silver, could never be used for jewelry. It’s simply too soft, and it would tarnish too easily. 

Even though sterling silver is softer and more delicate than stainless steel, it’s also easier to repair, resize, or modify. On the other hand, stainless steel is much more rigid because it’s soldered, so it’s challenging to repair and resize it. 

Stainless steel is a better option if you have sensitive skin prone to allergies and irritations. Sterling silver can be hypoallergenic, but it’s more likely to cause a rash or an allergic reaction. 

Stainless steel is cheaper than sterling silver, but the latter will appreciate in value, and it makes a good investment opportunity. That’s because silver will always be considered more valuable than steel. 

Does Stainless Steel Tarnish? 

Stainless steel does not tarnish. It’s also resistant to rust and corrosion. This is because of a high presence of chromium, which prevents rust and even has heat-resistant properties. Other components, like nickel, titanium, and molybdenum, are added to make it more durable. Stainless steel can even “self-heal” when it comes into contact with oxygen. 

Not every stainless steel application uses the same components in the exact same quantities. In other words, stainless steel jewelry has a different composition than stainless steel surgical equipment. These components also make stainless steel products more functional and easier to maintain. 

Differences in Jewelry 

Silver Garnet Ring

We can all agree that sterling silver is a more popular choice for jewelry because it has a nicer ring to it than stainless steel. In fact, due to its reputation, sterling silver jewelry is considered more elegant and luxurious than stainless steel jewelry. 

Even though stainless steel and sterling silver might look the same to the naked eye, you can notice a subtle difference when you get close enough. Stainless steel has a gray-blue hue, while sterling silver gives off a yellow-white undertone. 

Stainless steel and sterling silver also don’t resemble each other when they are polished. While stainless steel is more shiny and reflective, sterling silver doesn’t shine as brightly. That’s why people who want to show off their jewelry, who like the so-called “bling” effect, should opt for stainless steel. On the other hand, sterling silver has a soft luster that’s not as perceptible. 

Another difference between stainless steel and sterling silver is the hallmarks. All genuine pieces of sterling silver have the number 925 stamped somewhere. This number indicates the amount of silver the piece of jewelry contains, and sterling silver contains 92.5% silver. Stainless steel, on the other hand, may or may not come with a stamp. Some types of stainless steel get a three-digit number, like 304, assigned by the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). 

The fact that stainless steel doesn’t tarnish makes it ideal for jewelry you can wear every day. Sterling silver is a better option for statement pieces and jewelry for special occasions. Both come in various colors and finishes. Stainless steel can be plated with precious metals, and sterling silver can be combined with gemstones of all colors, shapes, and sizes. The silver color goes especially well with emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and of course, diamonds. 

Differences in Dinnerware 

Stainless Steel Dinner set on Table

Sterling silver has been used in cutlery since medieval times, for all kinds of forks, spoons, and knives. Silver dinnerware became especially popular in the Victorian era. Antique sterling silver dinnerware was often decorated with ivory and intricate details. Another reason why forks, spoons, and knives are made from silver is that it has anti-bacterial properties. 

Sterling silver dinnerware can be very expensive, especially if it’s antique. This kind of dinnerware is usually sold and bought for decoration purposes, and it’s rarely used. 

The regular type of cutlery you’ll find in stores is made from stainless steel, typically 18/8 stainless steel. The reason stainless steel is used to make cutlery is that it’s waterproof, durable, affordable, and easily cleaned. Stainless steel cutlery usually has a mirror finish, producing a greater reflection and luster. 

Stainless steel wasn’t used to make forks, spoons, and knives until the 1970s, their affordability making them more popular than silver dinnerware. While sterling silver cutlery is entirely made from silver, stainless steel cutlery usually has glass, wooden, or plastic handles, which come in various colors and styles. 

Gifting Preferences 

Stainless Steel vs Sterling Silver worn on model

Whether you choose stainless steel or sterling silver depends on the gift itself. If the gift in question is jewelry, whether it’s a ring, necklace, earrings, or a bracelet, there are a couple of things you need to consider. For instance, you shouldn’t assume that the person wants silver just because it’s expensive, high-end jewelry. 

The first thing to take into consideration is that person’s lifestyle. If they are active and they like to wear jewelry every day, stainless steel is a better option. It’s also the right choice if they like to go swimming. Sterling silver jewelry makes a great present when you want to mark a certain occasion, whether it’s a birthday, an anniversary, or any other special date. If you know that they have allergies and sensitive skin, opt for stainless steel. 

You also need to think about maintenance. Stainless steel doesn’t oxidize and tarnish, so it’s easy to clean and requires very little maintenance. It’s also waterproof, so you can clean it with soap and warm water. Sterling silver requires more care, and it needs to be cleaned more often. Silver tends to become darker if it isn’t worn too much, which is why you need to give it a good clean a few times a year. Don’t forget that silver jewelry is more sensitive than stainless steel, so you need to be careful when cleaning it. 

If you want to engrave something on the jewelry, go with sterling silver, as it’s more malleable. Of course, if you know what kind of jewelry they prefer, it’s always better to choose something you know they will love. 

Price Differences 

Aside from the other differences, you also need to consider your budget. As we already mentioned, sterling silver is more expensive than stainless steel. Of course, there are many factors that can determine the price. If we’re talking about jewelry, its size, condition, shape, finish, style, when it was made, and other factors can all impact the price. 

The price for a pound of stainless steel starts from $3, while the same amount of sterling silver can cost up to $300. If you’re on a budget, perhaps it’s better to get a stainless steel piece. That being said, high-quality stainless steel is guaranteed to cost more than a few dollars. 

As opposed to stainless steel, sterling silver is seen as an investment. On the other hand, stainless steel doesn’t have a tendency to appreciate in value. 

It’s also important to mention that there is a higher chance of getting scammed when buying sterling silver jewelry, so only shop at reputable jewelry stores. 

Talk to a Jewelry Expert 

Afshin and Adira with Necklace in Showroom

At first glance, stainless steel and sterling silver look exactly the same. However, there are many differences between these two types of metal. Stainless steel offers durability, corrosion resistance, low maintenance, and a better shine. On the other hand, sterling silver gives you elegance, versatility, a soft luster, and uniqueness. At the end of the day, the choice is up to you. 

If you still can’t decide between stainless steel and sterling silver, perhaps you should talk to a jewelry expert. Here at Diamond Estate Jewelry, our educated jewelers can give you advice on what kind of metal and jewelry you should choose.

We also offer a beautiful selection of silver engagement rings. Contact us if you want to know more. 

Benjamin Khordipour

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