Just what the heck is all this talk about Fine Silver and Sterling Silver? Just what is the difference, and why do you care? You may have read some recent bead magazines with articles about fusing fine silver wire into jumprings and more. You have probably heard of Sterling Silver - used in jewellery. You have quite probably, by now, heard of Metal Clay - either Precious Metal Clay (PMC) or Art Clay Silver (ACS) - both of which are brand names.
But just what is the difference between these silvers?
To put it simply, Fine Silver is Pure Silver. Sterling Silver is an alloy.
Fine silver can be tested to be 99.9% pure silver metal - that missing .1 percent is because it is just not technically possible to remove all the impurities.
Sterling Silver is an alloy - which is a mixture of metals. Sterling silver jewellery is often stamped (hallmarked) with 925. Sterling is 92.5% silver, and the rest is other metals - mostly copper. The addition of copper to silver makes it stronger, but has some drawbacks, such as tarnishing, and a phenomenon known as "firescale" when you heat sterling silver.
Sterling silver will also get brittle if is it bent and manipulated - this is called "work hardening" and fine silver does not do this. This work hardening process can be reversed by heating and cooling in a process called "annealing."
For these reasons, sterling silver is generally preferred for jewellery making for it's additional strength, but for applications where strength is not paramount, then fine silver might be preferred.
So, which to use and when?
Because fine silver doesn't work harden, wire crochet projects using thin, fine silver do not need the reheating of the annealing process - and because they use a lot of wire, strength is not usually an issue, so fine silver shines here.
Metal clays, PMC and ACS, are fine silver, and so fine silver wire works well when embedded in the clay for loops and bails, etc.
Fine silver can be used with glass in lampworking (bead making) to add interest to the bead by making interesting chemical reactions with the glass - making cream-coloured glass look stoney or black look blue. The reaction with the copper in sterling is not so attractive, and so fine silver is used.
Fine silver is used for metal fusing, as it has a lower melting point, and does not firescale. Firescale is a dull grey layer that forms on, and into, the surface of sterling silver and must be polished off. Generally, much of the process of soldering sterling silver, the fluxing and the pickling, is to control firescale, and so is eliminated when working with fine silver.
With the passage of time, sterling silver will tarnish, and so is best stored in an enclosed space with an anti-tarnish strip. Sterling silver is easily cleaned - wiping with a special silver cleaning cloth will take it off if it has not been left long - but the process gets tedious after a while. Fine silver will also tarnish, but rather than black, takes on a mild, goldish patina - and in my experience, the tarnish takes longer to happen.
With all these advantages - you'd think that Fine silver would reign supreme, but the superiour strength and durability of Sterling silver does make it the metal of choice in most applications. It is used when strength and durability is paramount, rings, bracelets, chains, and all manner of jewellery. Sterling silver has been in use a long time, and is very traditional now, so you are likely to see more sterling silver.
There are some exciting new alloys being developed and used now - such as a non-tarnish silver alloy that adds a touch of Germanium to the alloy. There is a great deal of tradition in the world of jewellery making - and on the part of the consumer - so it may take a while to see significant changes - but for those making or buying art jewellery (as opposed to mass-produced) - there are some exciting options!