Common Questions Addressed In This Article:
How do I test for silver? Including an overview of the acid scratch test, magnets, ice test, sound test, bleach staining, and metal analyzers.
Before you go through the effort of a formal silver test, take a moment to look over your belt buckle to look for hallmarks that might tell you what it's made from. If you still think it could be silver, you have a few options for how to test it.
Use diagnostic tools like magnets, assessing the patina color, or the sound test. These tests are fast and easy, but can be inconclusive and challenging for a beginner.
Buy an acid test kit to use at home. If you're testing jewelry on a regular basis, this is probably the way to go. Scratch the piece on a slate, apply acid, and look for the bright red color indicator. These kits are inexpensive at $15 or less and are available from Amazon or eBay.
Take your jewelry to a pro for testing. This may be your best choice for a one-time inquiry. Businesses like pawn shops and jewelers will have metal analyzers that can precisely scan and measure metal purity in jewelry. If you plan to test silver on a regular basis, going to a jewelry shop will be inconvenient for you and the jeweler so consider buying an acid test kit.
What are Sterling Silver and Coin Silver?
Sterling silver is a blend of metals that will contain 92.5% of true silver. The remaining 7.5% is usually copper but can include silicon, germanium, boron, zinc, or other elements.
Alone, silver is a soft metal that will easily scratch and wear away over time. The addition of copper and other metals makes sterling silver a much better material for casting jewelry like belt buckles that will be subject to the wear and tear of daily use. It helps to preserve the detail of any artwork and designs in the casting.
You might hear the term coin silver, which also refers to a silver blend that has a slightly lower silver content of about 90%. It is a metal alloy that historically was used by the US government to mint silver coins, hence the term coin silver.
What is German Silver/Nickel Silver/Alpaca Silver?
These terms all refer to the same metal alloy made from copper, nickel and zinc. metals like German silver, nickel silver, and alpaca silver contain no actual elemental silver. The metal has a bright silver-tone luster that makes it very attractive for crafting jewelry and it has physical properties that make it relatively easy to melt, cast, forge, and engrave. It is also inexpensive to produce because it does not contain elemental silver, making it a common material for belt buckles.
There are a huge number of terms used in the world of jewelry that can be confusing to a novice, so here are a few additional definitions:
Gold or Silver "Wash" - the same thing as plating. An electro-plating process is used to create a thin layer of a precious or semi-precious metal over another metal. Markings may abbreviate as "GP" for gold plate
TAXCO - A city in Mexico that is known for producing the Alpaca silver-style jewelry for the tourist and visitor markets. This includes belt buckles, bracelets, pendants, and hair barrettes.
Hecho En Mexico - translates to Made In Mexico
How do I test for silver?
Look for Stamps and Hallmarks
One of the easiest and fastest ways to find out if your belt buckle or other jewelry is silver, is to give the back side a close inspection for markings and stamps that might indicate what type of metal was used. Many belt buckles will have stamps to indicate the maker and type of metal, but some handmade pieces might also have writing that was engraved by hand and is difficult to read. I recommend having a small magnifying glass or jeweler's lens when you look because the marks can be very small, worn away, or obscured.
The photographs below show some examples of stamps from belt buckles. The stamps may also include an artist's hallmark or year of manufacture. For sterling silver belt buckles, a markings that say "925" ".925" or "92.5" are often used as a substitute for the word sterling, and represents the 92.5% purity/silver content of the metal.
Left Column: examples of stamps for sterling silver
Right Column: examples of stamps for german silver, nickel silver, and alpaca silver
If you find hallmarks and determine that your buckle does not have silver, you're done and there's no need to perform any more tests. But many belt buckles have no markings at all so you'll need to use an acid test or some other method. I also like to confirm the authenticity of any belt buckles or jewelry that are marked sterling. It doesn't happen very often, but you may find a fake that is marked "sterling" or "925" but is only silver plated, or made with another material altogether.
Acid Scratch Test
A practical way to know if your belt buckle is silver is to test it with a acid scratch testing kit.
These kits might be intimidating if you've never used one, but they're simple and nearly foolproof. A standard kit comes with a slate for scratching and a small bottle of acid for silver. Some kits will come with several types of acid used for testing different metals like gold or platinum. To test for silver, you will also need a small piece of disposable paper towel or white cloth.
1. Rub the belt buckle on the slate to scratch off some of the metal.
Apply pressure and make a smudge on the slate that is about the size of a pencil eraser. Choose a place on the buckle where you won't cause any damage, like the back or an edge. Don't use the prong or part of the loop where the belt attaches to the buckle. Even on a sterling silver buckle these pieces can be made from stronger metals like steel.
2. Dab acid over the smudge and allow it to sit for a few seconds. You only need to use enough to cover the metal streak. I like to wait about 30 seconds for the reaction to occur, and you may be able to see the red color appear on the slate.
3. Use a small piece of paper towel and firmly wipe away the smudge and acid from the slate. If the metal is sterling silver the acid will cause a chemical reaction that creates a red streak. If there is no color, the metal does not contain elemental silver.
Sometimes it isn't practical to use an acid kit to test for silver. Maybe you're at a garage sale or a flea market and need to figure out what you're looking at. Here are a few other methods that can help to identify metals in belt buckles.
Silver alloys tend to tarnish and oxidize differently from other metals, so color can be a helpful indicator if your belt buckle is not marked. The photo to the left shows examples of sterling and nickel silver belt buckles.
Sterling and coin silver jewelry develops a very dark oxidation (aka patina) that eventually becomes black. The pattern will often be cloudy and mottled over the entire surface. Remember that hardware on the back of the buckle—like the hinges, loop, and prong—are usually made from a stronger material like steel so they may rust over time.
German/nickel/Alpaca silvers will usually develop a tarnish that more closely resembles the rust that you would see on iron or steel. The photograph on the left (bottom) shows several spots where the nickel silver belt buckle has rust colored spots.
Color can be a helpful indicator when identifying different metals, but it can be difficult for an inexperienced eye to distinguish between silver and other materials. Old belt buckles that have been cleaned with chemicals or polishes will also have unusual or deceptive colors, so be careful and use more than one identification method.
Over time, silver will naturally oxidize and develop a dark layer of tarnish that is called a patina. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and most collectors will prefer that old jewelry have its original patina. Cleaning a silver belt buckle or other jewelry can actually hurt the value of the piece. For more information, read my post on cleaning belt buckles.
Elemental silver is very weakly magnetic and a magnet will not stick to it, but silver plated belt buckles will sometimes have a magnetic steel core. So, a small handheld magnet can be a helpful diagnostic tool for belt buckles and other jewelry. If you're regularly going to estate sales and flea markets, it might be worthwhile to take a small neodymium magnet with you. Just be careful about putting one on a keyring or in your pocket because they can cause damage to nearby electronics like your phone!
Don't forget, hardware on the back of a sterling silver buckle might be magnetic because it is made from steel. I've also found that some stone cabochons are magnetic or that artists with use small steel plates behind stones for construction/design purposes. They may not be visible upon inspection, but a magnet will reveal them.
A magnet is not a substitute for a true silver test, though, because brass, german silver, nickel silver, and alpaca silver are also nonmagnetic.
Silver can also be identified by a distinctive ringing sound that it makes when struck. I tend to avoid this method with belt buckles to avoid damaging them, but it can be an effective test. It's used more frequently with coins where they can be dropped on a hard surface or tapped against each other to listen for a sound that is reminiscent of a ringing bell.
The ice test is common when testing bars of silver or large coins. Silver has a high thermal conductivity which means it transfers heat quickly, so if you place an ice cube on a silver bar it will start to melt almost immediately. This method is not practical for intricate pieces of jewelry that are small, thin and irregular in shape, or lightweight so I tend not to use it.
Another common test is to use bleach to tarnish the silver. It accelerates the natural oxidation process and will quickly tell you have silver. I don't recommend this method for jewelry either because it will permanently discolor the piece wherever the bleach is applied.
Get Professional Help
If you've tried to figure out if your buckle is silver but you're still not sure, you may want to get help from a pro. You can try taking your piece to a jeweler and ask them to perform a test for you. Many jewelers will have a metal analyzer that measures the electromagnetic properties of the jewelry to tell precisely what it is made from. These machines are expensive ($1,000 or more) and not practical for most people to purchase for at-home use, but they are common at businesses that process a lot of jewelry. The test is quick and easy, and many business owners will be happy to help.
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About the Author:
Brock Lane has an MS in Applied economics and operates multiple shops on Etsy, eBay, and Shopify. He maintains an inventory of over 10,000 rare and unique belt buckles, leather belts, and other goods. He leverages his sales history and professional background to write about trends in online retail marketplaces. Brock is an eBay affiliate and earns commission from linked products & shops.
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