So you’ve been handed down Great-Aunt Gertie’s silver service or you found an intriguing silver bowl at an estate sale. Is it valuable? How do you know? If the piece is sterling, it could be worth a great deal. If you turn it over and find a mark that says EPNS or E.P.N.S.,you may be disappointed. EPNS silver will never be as valuable as sterling. Does that mean it doesn’t have any worth? No, it doesn’t. The design or manufacture could make your piece’s value go up, but based on silver content alone, it’s not worth much. Why? Because that beautiful shiny finish is only a thin layer or two of silver plated onto a form that probably consists of a blend of nickel, copper and zinc.
The Quick History of Silver Plating
Although silver is one of the earth’s most abundant metals, it is still expensive and even more problematic, it is weak. Even sterling silver is usually no more than 92.5% pure because it needs added strength from other, harder metals to make it usable. By using stronger metals underneath and coating the surface with a thin layer of sterling or pure silver, items became more affordable and durable. By 1840, George and Henry Elkington were granted the first patents for electroplating and started their business in Birmingham, England. The industry quickly grew to global proportions.
It was discovered that one of the best combinations of metals for the base was 50%-60% copper, 20%-25% nickel and 20%-25% zinc. After that alloy was covered in a layer of silver, it became known as EPNS, an acronym for electroplated nickel silver. It’s sometimes referred to as German silver or nickel silver, and was favored because its pale gold coloring was not as noticeable as other alloys when the layers of silver began wearing away from enthusiastic cleaning.