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I have been accused multiple times (and perhaps deservedly so) of pricing my jewelry too low. Every artist arrives at his/her market price differently. For me, I checked Etsy sellers who were selling similar items, as well as local vendors to check the market rate of certain pieces. But I must also always take into consideration the price of my supplies. Although my time and skill are worth X amount of dollars, at the end of the day, what the client will pay is directly related to the quality of the piece. This is true for me, as the purchaser of handmade items, as well as the creator of handmade items. When an item I’ve purchased is sturdy (although it may still be delicate), well-made (although it might have a few “imperfections,” acceptable with any handmade piece), and lasts the test of time (whether I wear it every day or once a year), I feel like any amount of money I’ve paid was a bargain. However, if (as is the case with a toy sailboat I recently purchased from Etsy) the item is falling apart before I even get it out of the box or it looks like a rush job, I feel like any money I paid was a rip-off. So, in my creation of beautiful jewelry and rosaries, one thought is ever-present: make it beautiful and make it last.

But in today’s lean economic times, it’s not always easy to honor both of those commandments. When a choice must be made between silver plated and sterling, the client most often chooses plated, simply because of the cost. And the price of sterling continues to rise so I don’t see any relief or accumulated collections of sterling pieces in our future any time soon.

So, to be an informed consumer and client, the question that must be raised is: What’s the difference?

And the short answer is: wear and tear over the life of the piece. One will look better with more wear and one will look ragged, chipped, scratched, and peeled without any way to fix it. Also, any scratches or gouges on sterling silver can be buffed out, whereas scratches on silver plated pieces are irreparable.

The skinny on silver plating:

Silver plating, which is simply a very, very thin coat of silver that’s electroplated over a base metal (usually nickel, brass, white metal, or copper…although less so with the rising cost of copper) is applied to almost all of your department store jewelry. From Target to Kohl’s to Macy’s, if it doesn’t have .925 stamped somewhere on it, it’s plated. Likewise, it’s covering all of the craft store jewelry pendants, charms, clasps, and chain, as well as most of the inexpensive supplies coming from vendors in Asia. These same vendors set up a bead show table full of electroplated silver (and painted “gemstone” beads) and sell it just cheaply enough to be quite attractive. The only exception to this are supplies that are stamped with .925, meaning it is 92.5% pure silver and the piece can be easily melted down to recover the pure silver. Price is also another excellent indicator, although it shouldn’t be relied upon solely as some unscrupulous sellers will offer up a plated item at sterling silver prices. And, quite often, it’s difficult to tell the difference under the gem show lights.

How do I know?

The “.925” stamp located on all sterling silver (even the sterling they sell in the case at Hobby Lobby) is an excellent indicator of authentic sterling silver. Occasionally, you will see the stamp “EPNS.” This stands for electroplated nickel silver…again, this is not sterling. I have actually seen the words “sterling plated” on some chains at Michael’s, but also look for the words “layered in sterling silver.” Both of these are just plated pieces that will wear and tear like plated pieces.

The best of both worlds:

I do my best to give my clients options when they are ordering custom jewelry. I know that we all want pieces that we can pass down through generations and the cold, hard fact is that anything plated is not going to withstand the test of time. But we can always incorporate both sterling silver and silver plating to keep costs affordable. One option is to purchase a sterling silver pendant and silver plated chain. The chain can always be upgraded at a later time. If the chain is more important (for example, my mom has one chain and MANY different pendants that she rotates through), then we select a sterling silver chain, which will endure daily wear. An excellent example of optimizing materials and keeping costs down is this horseshoe necklace I created for myself to wear on Derby Day this year. The actual horseshoe is handmade and sterling silver by an artist in Wyoming. But the chain is a silver plated link chain from Michael’s. I wore this necklace 24-hours a day for about 2 months. The charm still looks as new as the day it arrived on my doorstep, but the chain is tarnished and worn and will never polish to the same shine it once had. But I can always go buy a new chain (which I do frequently, anyway, to give it a new look every few months). The horseshoe was the one-time buy.

It may be difficult to tell in this picture, but the horseshoe and the surrounding chain, which falls to the front and therefore is not always against my skin is still quite shiny, but the chain that lays around the side of the neck has turned a dark gunmetal gray from the weeks of wear. And this is the difference between sterling and silver plated.

I know that when money is tight, it’s hard to justify the money spent on sterling silver. However, if it’s a piece that you want to only buy once, sometimes it’s the only way to go.

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