Sterling Silver vs Stainless Steel: Which is Better?

Last Updated on April 3, 2023 by Juli "Jewels" Church

Wondering the difference between sterling silver and stainless steel?

Perfect, you're in the right place!

In this Learning Guide, I'll answer the top questions asked about both of these shiny metals like:

sterling silver vs stainless steel
  • Which is Better for Everyday Wear?
  • How Does Stainless Steel Hold Up?
  • Why Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?

Sterling Silver vs Stainless Steel: Origin

Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is one of the precious metals used to create fine jewelry. A lot of people get confused about sterling silver or pure silver, but there's a difference. 

Sterling silver contains 92.5% of pure silver. It's still real silver.

The other remaining percentage is alloy. Alloy is a mixture of metals used with a precious metal to increase its durability. It's also why we have 14K gold and 18K gold jewelry instead of 24K pure gold

These precious metals are too soft to use as jewelry on their own.

They'll last for a while if you're careful, but the alloy is what makes it good enough for daily wear. 

You can find different qualities of sterling silver as well. Among fine jewelers, genuine sterling silver is considered good for those with a metal allergy to nickel. Most people with metal allergies are allergic to nickel or copper.

Nickel silver isn't used too often because of this reason. However, sterling silver isn't considered hypoallergenic.

Nickel allergies are the most common metal allergies, but there are other alloys that cause allergies. Copper alloy is one of them. It's the main silver alloy in sterling silver. That's why some people can only wear solid gold jewelry, not even sterling silver.

Stainless Steel

A lot of us know stainless steel as the metal of all our kitchen appliances and utensils. From sinks to pots and pans, stainless steel is pretty common.

It might surprise you to know that it was discovered less than 110 years ago. 

The credit to our stainless steel jewelry goes to a guy by the name of Harry Brearley in 1913. He discovered steels that didn't rust. A lot of people tried to do this before but he's often noted as the first person to do it well. 

However, there's a lot of argument as to who is the actual inventor. But it was around this time when stainless steel exploded in the market. 

Stainless steel is a metal alloy of iron that contains 12.8% chromium content. Chromium is the element that keeps stainless steel from rusting. 

Sterling Silver vs Stainless Steel: Appearance

Sterling Silver

Most people are drawn to the shiny appearance a sterling silver piece of jewelry. The bright white metal is often preferred to yellow gold rings. A lot of people get confused between sterling silver and white gold.

These people often say they like silver better than gold, but white gold gives a similar silvery appearance because of rhodium, which has to be replated over time.

Sterling silver is required by law to be stamped on all fine jewelry. You will see sterling stamped as 925 pure silver content.

One of the downsides about a sterling silver ring is that it requires upkeep to retain its shiny silver look. Over time and wear, it will lose its shine and begin to oxidize, or tarnish. 

When sterling silver tarnishes, it looks dull, dirty, and dark gray. Some jewelers use this as an effect in a lot of pure silver jewelry to give it the "antiquing" look. 

Fortunately, tarnish is a temporary thing and can be easily fixed with a silver polishing cloth. They're really affordable too, usually costing less than $15. 

All sterling silver will tarnish if you don't keep up with it, but there are some things the jewelry wearer can decrease the likelihood. You don't want to store a sterling silver necklace with other sterling silver jewelry. They cause each other to oxidize faster. 

Similarly, you don't want to leave sterling silver wet. Honestly, you shouldn't wear any jewelry in the shower or while swimming. Don't store sterling silver jewelry in the bathroom where steam and condensation are. 

You can get sterling silver wet, but you just need to dry it thoroughly so it doesn't tarnish. 

Stainless Steel

When you search up stainless steel jewelry, you'll find yourself presented with a range of options. Stainless steel is usually divided between two categories: stainless steel and surgical stainless steel

Don't worry, surgical steel isn't as scary as its sounds. It means the quality of this stainless steel is hypoallergenic, sterilized, and good enough to perform surgery on patients. All doctor tools are made out of surgical stainless steel

Stainless steel jewelry might be stamped as SS, but it's not required like sterling silver. Surgical steel can also be stamped or abbreviated as 316L. 

One of the down sides of stainless steel jewelry is that you can't always be sure it's grade. Cheap stainless jewelry on Etsy and Amazon are likely to be low quality. You'll find reviews of people saying they got rashes from stainless steel rings that were said to be hypoallergenic surgical stainless steel

On those sites, there's no accountability. No one's making sure it's quality. They're just being mass produced for cheap. It can be difficult to sort out the quality pieces from the lesser ones. 

One of the most popular styles of stainless steel wedding rings are inlay rings. That's where the steel shows on the edges and inside of the ring. In the middle, a strip of another material goes all the way around. 

MOZAKA 9PCS 8MM Stainless Steel Celtic Dragon Rings for Men Women

The most popular styles like this are carbon fiber, wood inlay, and meteorite inlay. Some may choose edgier designs like chains or spinner rings. 

Like sterling silver, stainless steel doesn't retain its shiny appearance. Unlike sterling silver, stainless steel can't get it back once it's gone either. The tarnish can be managed and polished out.

Sterling Silver vs Stainless Steel: Price & Value

Sterling Silver is considered a precious metal and stainless steel isn't.

Precious metals usually cost more than alternative metals. However, there's a number of differences that could tip the scale either way. 

The biggest factor between the cost of these two metals will be where you're buying it from. If you're looking on Etsy or Amazon, you'll find a whole different mix of prices. Sterling silver engagement rings may be as low as $20. Stainless steel rings can be as low as $10. 

Sterling silver jewelry without any stones may go as high as $300. Stainless steel without any stones may go as high as $150 on average. 

But if you go to a fine jewelry store, sterling silver earrings with natural diamonds are going to cost more than a stainless steel ring with a carbon fiber inlay. 

Vermeil jewelry would cost more than most stainless steel. With vermeil, sterling silver is the base metal with yellow gold plating

You should always remember the price tag isn't everything when it comes to buying jewelry. The overall value of the piece is just as important. It's easy to replace a less expensive piece of jewelry than one you're spending a lot of money on. 

Here's the deal:

I don't recommend choosing either of these metals for an engagement ring. Sterling silver engagement rings are cost affordable, but a lot of people don't want to keep up with the maintenance. 

Gold is much less manageable, albeit more expensive. It holds up to water and doesn't oxidize. White gold wedding rings and engagement rings will allow you to keep the silver look without the upkeep. 

Stainless steel is shiny, but it's difficult to work on. You can't size the metal. If you're someone whose fingers shrink in different seasons, that could be problematic. Imagine not being able to wear your ring for a whole season. 

Some people's ring sizes change over the years anyway. If you're sentimental about your original ring, you might not want to replace it. It's also possible the style goes out of fashion because it's not in demand. 

But here's the good news:

With sterling silver and other precious metals, it can be sized. You don't want to size every time, but there are other solutions jewelers can try. 

Stainless steel wedding bands with gemstones and diamonds can look really great, but they're impractical. If you ever knock a stone loose, they can't be replaced. You'll need a new ring. 

That's why a lot of places like Kay Jewelers and Jared offer 1 replacement warranty for stainless steel and other alternative metal wedding bands.  Other precious metals get a lifetime warranty, but not stainless steel. It's not a malleable metal.  

It doesn't have a high scratch resistance, so it doesn't last very long. In the inlay rings, a lot of people report the inlay being scratched or the sealing coming up. Stainless steel jewelry isn't made to last years and years. 


Here's the bottom line

At the end of the day, I'm going to recommend sterling silver jewelry over stainless steel jewelry. 

Here's why: 

  • Sterling silver can be sized by a jeweler
  • Sterling silver doesn't scratch as easily as stainless steel
  • More options with sterling silver jewelry
  • You can get stones replaced in sterling silver
  • Stainless steel doesn't have many options with stones
  • Sterling silver doesn't have different grades like stainless steel
  • Many jewelers offer lifetime warranties with sterling silver rings
  • Sterling silver and stainless steel jewelry are both great if you're looking for fashionable costume jewelry or cost affordable jewelry.

When it comes to diamond engagement rings and diamond wedding bands, you should always go with any color gold or platinum. But if you're wanting higher quality jewelry without breaking the bank for a gift or special occasion, sterling silver is the right way to go over stainless steel.   

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