How to Identify Pure Silver

How to Identify Pure Silver

The best way to prove pure silver is to make silver sulfide in one of two easy ways.

Anyone who collects silver tableware, cutlery or jewelry should know how to identify pure silver when they come across the shiny metal at yard sales or in junk shops. In many cases terrific bargains can be had at an uninformed merchant’s expense!

There are two easy ways to determine if a shiny metal is in fact silver. Both methods require a chemical reaction to occur on the surface of the substance and then a visual inspection for the presence of silver sulfide (a black stain on the metal).

FRENCH’S BRAND YELLOW MUSTARD TEST

This first method requires that the tester apply a very small amount of French’s brand yellow mustard to the surface of the shiny metal. Ideally, the mustard drop should then be heated, either in the sun or with a cigarette lighter. Let me explain; this brand of mustard contains a very high amount of sulfur and when heated the volatile sulfur molecule will ALWAYS combine with pure silver to make the dark black stain known as silver sulfide (which is easily cleaned away with vinegar by the way).

THE SULFUR MATCH TEST

This second method is anything but discrete–it may attract more attention than desired, especially when attempted inside. Yet this method is even more effective. First take a match and press it against the metal surface to be tested. Keeping your fingers as far away as possible, light the first match with a second match… The sulfur is extremely hot as it combusts and it will certainly combine with pure silver when ignited in this fashion. It will not, however, mark nickel, steel, or chrome or any other shiny metal the way it marks silver (a black stain). Again this dark metal is silver sulfide and you can’t wipe it off with your finger–it must be cleaned off the metal with another agent. It’s important to note that both of these tests will not harm the metal and can be easily cleaned away.

A word of caution. Beware of labels that describe types of silver, for example, nickel silver contains no actual silver. It’s just a name for a specific nickel copper alloy. Names like “Mexican Silver”, “German Silver,” “Indian Silver,” “Montana Silver,” and even, believe it or not, the word “silver” all by itself do not actually guarantee any silver content. “German Silver” is another name for the alloy of copper, nickel and zinc (it was a derogatory term in the 1800s), and today this blend is called Nickel Silver. Despite the name, Nickel Silver contains no silver.

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wayne mason, posted this comment on Jun 30th, 2007

mine is not a comment but another question. does this mustard test tell me if the metal i am testing is plate or pure or pure only?

Lodlaiden, posted this comment on Aug 6th, 2008

If you’re only touching the outside, then you won’t be able to tell the diff.

SBZ, posted this comment on Sep 15th, 2008

What happens if it isn’t silver? Will it still turn black from the flame alone or sulphur residue? Also I’m trying to use pure sulphur powder which I find turns black on any metal when heated too hot or burned.

SBZ, posted this comment on Sep 15th, 2008

I just tried this test on aluminum foil and it turned black. I tried direct flame and just heating it with a lighter and both methods turned black. Is there something obvious I’m missing?

All Chemist, posted this comment on Feb 12th, 2009

Both tests will determine the presence of silver (the element SN) by creating silver sulfide (SNO3)- which is characterized by hard bumpy black lumps on the surface of the silver. CAUTION both tests could actually damage the silver and should be used with care. And no it will not tell you if the item is pure silver – only if silver is present.

steve, posted this comment on Jun 5th, 2009

I did the match test on several items that are in fact silver. but I was able to rub the black ash right off. So the match test is a dud. Haven’t tried the mustard test yet.

Joe Schmidt, posted this comment on Jul 30th, 2009

How do you tell if a supposedly silver coin is counterfeit? Weight doesn’t help because sometimes they weigh the same as the real ones. You can’t use the above method because you don’t want to hurt the coin if it’s not silver (which it probably isn’t). Thanks

Dean Prigg, posted this comment on Mar 31st, 2010

Sn is tin, silver is ag.

galina, posted this comment on Dec 31st, 2010

ok i tryied match test i can’t wipe off stain with vinegar now my coin is ruined?

marcie, posted this comment on Feb 14th, 2011

Galina, try regular silver polish or a cleaning cloth for sterling, maybe that will do the trick?

After reading the above comments, I\’m too scared I\’m gonna mess up the bracelet I was planning on testing. =(

jason hans, posted this comment on Nov 22nd, 2011

The is a pure stinky ingrown nail removale satution that contains a lot of sulfur. It smells so heat it outside then just one drop will make the mark…. brasso will turn silver black… and if you can hold it to your skin and let the swetts of your life get on it. It then will leave a black green mark on u.

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