Jewelry Blog

Stainless Steel vs. Sterling Silver

Stainless Steel Ring

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. Regarding jewelry, stainless steel and sterling silver are among the most popular choices. But how do they compare? 

In this article, Benjamin Khordipour will teach you all the basic differences between stainless steel and sterling silver. 

What Is Sterling Silver? 

Jeweler's metal work silver work

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 because, contrary to popular opinion, sterling silver isn’t 100% pure silver. It only contains 92.5% pure silver; the other 7.5% is another metal component. Copper is typically used because it increases its strength and hardness. Since sterling silver can tarnish quickly, other elements, such as zinc, boron, platinum, germanium, and silicon, can sometimes be added to the alloy. 

Sterling silver has a long, rich history, dating back to the 12th century. In addition to 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. 

Pros of Sterling Silver Jewelry

  • Sterling silver is soft and malleable. Silver can make all kinds of jewelry thanks to its composition, especially intricate pieces with many 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 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. 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 of Sterling Silver Jewelry

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

What Is Stainless Steel? 

Stainless Steel Ring on girl in forest

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 of Stainless Steel

  • Stainless steel is very durable. It 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 of Stainless Steel

  • 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. 

Stainless Steel Jewelry vs. Sterling Silver Jewelry

Fine Sterling Silver Comb Set on Table combs and mirrors

If you need to choose between stainless steel vs. 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 better. However, if you want a unique piece with its natural finish and an elegant look, sterling silver is the right choice. 

Stainless Steel JewelrySterling Silver Jewelry
CompositionAlloy of iron, carbon, and chromiumAlloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals (usually copper)
DurabilityHighly durable, resistant to scratches and tarnishSofter, prone to scratches and tarnish
MaintenanceLow maintenance, easy to cleanRequires regular cleaning to prevent tarnish
AppearanceShiny, metallic finish, modern lookBright white appearance (will develop a patina over time)
HypoallergenicUsually hypoallergenic (if nickel-free)Will cause allergic reactions (rare)
WeightHeavier due to its densityLighter compared to stainless steel
CostGenerally more affordableMining silver can have a significant environmental impact
UsesPopular in men’s jewelry, everyday wear, watchesMore expensive due to the high silver content
FlexibilityLess malleable, harder to mold into intricate designsMore malleable, suitable for detailed and intricate designs
OxidationDoes not oxidize or corrode easilyProne to oxidation, can develop a dark tarnish
Magnetic PropertiesIt can be magnetic (depending on alloy composition)Non-magnetic
Environmental ImpactOften made from recycled materials, environmentally friendlyMining silver can have significant environmental impact

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.

See below for the additional differences in jewelry.

Does Stainless Steel Tarnish? 

Stainless steel does not tarnish. It’s also resistant to rust and corrosion. This is because of the 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 with halo of diamonds

Sterling silver is a more popular choice for jewelry. 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 has 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. Genuine pieces of sterling silver have the number 925 stamped somewhere. This number indicates the amount of silver the jewelry contains, and sterling silver contains 92.5% silver. Stainless steel, on the other hand, will usually not be stamped. 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 daily. 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 diamonds. 

Shop for Silver Jewelry

Here are a few examples of silver jewelry from our collection. Some of the items are gold and silver together and some are just handcrafted out of silver.

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 in stores is made from stainless steel, typically 18/8 stainless steel. Stainless steel is used to make cutlery because 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, thand eir affordability mamadehem more popular than silver dinnerware. While sterling silver cutlery is entirely made from silver, stainless steel cutlery usually has glass, wooden, or plastic handles 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 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 consider is that person’s lifestyle. If they are active and 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, many factors can determine the price. If we’re talking about jewelry, its size, condition, shape, finish, style, and when it was made 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. 


About Benjamin Khordipour

Benjamin Khordipour is one of the jewelry researchers and gemologists at Estate Diamond Jewelry. He received his official gemological degrees from both the GIA and GUBELIN. He also regularly contributes to Business Insider, Forbes, Rapaport, CNBC, and Brides Magazine. Benjamin was born in New York and joined Estate Diamond Jewelry in 2014. He is passionate about vintage jewelry and diamonds. This blog was built on his strong belief that jewelers have a responsibility to properly educate their customers. In 2019, Benjamin co-authored the book The Engagement Ring Guide for Men. His favorite vintage jewelry era is the Art Deco Era and his favorite type of stone is the Kashmir Sapphire. He also collects rare antique pins.