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Sterling silver is composed of 92.5% silver alloyed with copper to strengthen it. Silver has one of the highest reflectivities of any metal, giving it unmatched brilliance, making it perfect for jewelry designs. Silver also has extremely high electrical conductivity and thermal conductivity. Despite all these wonderful properties silver is relatively abundant and easy to extract from ore, so it is, at the same time, relatively affordable making it ideal for jewelry that will appeal to a wide audience.
At various time in history silver was even more valued than gold and had a mystical allure to it, often being associated with the sea, moon and lunar goddesses. Hallmarking of silver places a stamped mark on the silver to identify its origin and purity and is often an important part of determining the value of a collectible piece.
There are other alloys of silver with a higher content of silver than sterling. Mexican and Brittania silver each have about 95% silver. Coin silver on the other hand typically has only 90% silver.
The cleaning of sterling silver can be a burdensome task, which is why much of the silver jewelry manufactured today has various types of anti-tarnish finishes ranging from a flash overlay of pure silver, waxes, proprietary coatings and the currently very popluar rhodium plating. Rhodium in fact is a much more expensive raw material, but does not have quite the high brilliance of silver, however its superior anti-tarnish property outweigh its lower reflectivity value.