Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925, according to Wikipedia. All of Ruby & Flint sterling silver jewelry is made of .925 silver, meaning that it is 92.5% pure silver.
One of the earliest attestations of the term is in Old French form esterlin, in a charter of the abbey of Les Préaux, dating to either 1085 or 1104. The English chronicler Orderic Vitalis (1075 – c. 1142) uses the Latin forms libræ sterilensium and libræ sterilensis monetæ. The word in origin refers to the newly introduced Norman silver penny.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most plausible etymology is a derivation from a late Old English steorling (with (or like) a "little star"), as some early Norman pennies were imprinted with a small star.
Another argument is that the Hanseatic League was the origin for both the origin of its definition and manufacture, and in its name is that the German name for the Baltic is "Ost See", or "East Sea", and from this the Baltic merchants were called "Osterlings", or "Easterlings". In 1260, Henry III granted them a charter of protection. Because the League's money was not frequently debased like that of England, English traders stipulated to be paid in pounds of the Easterlings, which was contracted to sterling.
The sterling alloy originated in continental Europe and was being used for commerce as early as the 12th century in the area that is now northern Germany.
The first legal definition of sterling silver appeared in England in 1275, when a statute of Edward I specified that 12 Troy ounces of silver for coinage should contain 11 ounces 2 1⁄4 pennyweights of silver and 17 3⁄4 pennyweights of alloy, with 20 pennyweights to the Troy ounce. This is (not precisely) equivalent to a millesimal fineness of 926.
In Colonial America, sterling silver was used for currency and general goods as well, between 1634 and 1776. Although silversmiths of this era were typically familiar with all precious metals, they primarily worked in sterling silver. The colonies lacked an assay office during this time (the first would be established in 1814), so American silversmiths adhered to the standard set by the London Goldsmiths Company: sterling silver consisted of 91.5 - 92.5% by weight silver and 8.5–7.5 wt% copper.
Colonial silversmiths used many of the techniques developed by those in Europe. Casting was frequently the first step in manufacturing silver pieces, as silver workers would melt down sterling silver into easily manageable ingots. Occasionally, they would create small components (e.g. teapot legs) by casting silver into iron or graphite molds, but it was rare for an entire piece to be fabricated via casting.
Next, silversmiths would forge the ingots into the shapes they desired, often hammering the thinned silver against specially shaped dies to "mass produce" simple shapes like the oval end of a spoon. This process occurred at room temperature, and thus is called “cold-working”. The repeated strikes of the hammer work hardened (sterling) silver, causing it to become brittle and difficult to manipulate. To combat work-hardening, silversmiths would anneal their pieces—heat it to a dull red and then quench it in water—to relieve the stresses in the material and return it to a more ductile state.
Hammering required more time than all other silver manufacturing processes, and therefore accounted for the majority of labor costs. Silversmiths would then seam parts together to create incredibly complex and artistic items, sealing the gaps with a solder of 80 wt% silver and 20 wt% bronze. Finally, they would file and polish their work to remove all seams.
From about 1840 to 1940 in the United States and Europe, sterling silver cutlery became de rigueur when setting a proper table. There was a marked increase in the number of silver companies that emerged during that period. The height of the silver craze was during the 50-year period from 1870 to 1920. Flatware lines during this period sometimes included up to 100 different types of pieces.
Following World War II, the cost of labor rose (sterling pieces were all still mostly handmade, with only the basics being done by machine). Only the wealthy could afford the large number of servants required for fancy dining with ten courses. With the onset of the first Industrial Revolution, silversmithing declined as an artistic occupation.
A silversmith is a craftsman who crafts objects from silver. Silversmithing is the art of turning silver sheet metal into hollow ware (dishes, bowls, etc.), flatware (silverware), and other articles of silver, church plate or sculpture. It also include the making of jewelry.
Silversmiths in medieval Europe and England formed guilds and transmitted their tools and techniques to new generations via the apprentice tradition. Beginning in the 17th century, artisans emigrated to America and experienced fewer restrictions. As a result, silver working was one of the trades that helped to inaugurate the shift to industrialization in America.
Silversmiths saw or cut specific shapes from sterling and fine silver sheet metal and bar stock, and then use hammers to form the metal over anvils and stakes. Silversmiths can also use casting techniques to create pieces. After forming and casting, the various pieces may be assembled by soldering and riveting. During most of their history, silversmiths used charcoal or coke fired forges, and lung-powered blow-pipes for soldering and annealing. Modern silversmiths commonly use gas burning torches as heat sources.
In the western Canadian silversmith tradition, guilds do not exist; however, mentoring through colleagues becomes a method of professional learning within a community of craftspersons. We carry this tradition by using many of these age-old techniques in creating Ruby & Flint silver jewelry.
This method consist of carving a model out of wax and then making a special silicone mold using the carved wax model. The mold is placed in an oven where the wax will melt and burn away, leaving an imprint of the wax model into the mold, hence the name “lost wax” or “cire perdue” in French.
Molten silver is then poured into the casting to create the original piece of jewelry. After cooling, the piece will be cleaned and polished to the desired result. We use the lost wax technique to create many original Ruby & Flint pieces, such as these.
Hammering and annealing
Here, we saw or cut specific shapes from sterling and fine silver sheet metal and bar stock, and then use hammers to form the metal over anvils and stakes. Silver is hammered cold (at room temperature). As the metal is hammered, bent, and worked, it “work-hardens”.
Annealing is the heat-treatment used to make the metal soft again so that we can keep working on it. It also insures that the metal keeps its original properties. Here is an example of a sterling silver bracelet, made using the “hammering and annealing” method. This bracelet started life as straight sterling silver rods and was bent, hammered and annealed into round shapes entirely by hand.
Carrying the tradition
I learned the traditional art of jewelry making from professional silversmiths at the Jewelry Institute of Montreal. Ruby & Flint jewelry is created using many of these traditional methods, passed down from generations. Now, it's my turn to teach the art of jewelry, through my Workshops, to passionate students who want to learn some of these methods, passing on the knowledge and perpetuating this fine tradition.