Sterling Silver is often associated with Baltic amber, because it is often used to mount the gemstone when producing items of jewellery such as amber necklaces, rings, earrings or bracelets. So why are Sterling silver and Baltic amber so often used together to produce jewellery? Well, it could be because Sterling silver originates from the same part of Europe as Baltic amber; the coastal areas of Poland and the adjacent Baltic States.


Amber ring with Sterling silverNot only was Sterling silver first produced in the Baltic region, but the word 'Sterling' itself also appears to originate from the same area. Sterling silver is a legal term, legally it is defined as an alloy consisting of 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% of other metals, usually copper: the copper being added because pure silver is too soft to be able to be used in the manufacture of jewellery or items of silverware. Sometimes other metals are added instead of copper, so as to reduce the casting porosity, reduce or eliminate the effects of firescale, or to increase the resistance to tarnishing.


Sterling silver can be kept polished by simply regularly buffing with a cotton cloth, however if it has been stored away for a prolonged period of time and become tarnished, here's an old butler's tip. Line the bottom of a pan or the sink with tin foil and fill with hot water, add a couple of spoonfuls of salt and baking powder and then place your items of Sterling silver into the water, making sure that they are in contact with each other and the tin foil...then just watch as the tarnish is attracted to the foil – the process taking less than five minutes.


The origin of the term 'Sterling silver' is difficult to attest. Although 'Sterling silver' is a common English phrase and the word 'Sterling' is linked to our unit of currency, the Pound Sterling, or just even 'Sterling' in many financial situations, and the word has a positive association with the British character, there is no such place in Great Britain called 'Sterling' or any derivative of it. Indeed, the geographical origin of the word is northern Germany and Poland, along the Baltic Sea coast; not too far away from what is now the Polish city of Gdansk, the centre of the Baltic amber trade, and amber jewellery production.


There are two competing theories as to the etymological origin of the word, firstly that 'Sterling' is merely a corruption of the word 'Easterling', signifying that the metal and any jewellery or coinage made with it came from the Hanseatic cities of eastern Europe, or secondly, that coins minted in these territories had the imprint of a star, 'steorling' being the late Old English word for a 'coin with a star.'


I prefer the first etymology, apparently it actually it dates from the Middle Ages itself, as early as the fourteenth century; and it was this origin of the term that I was taught at school. Living in Doncaster, and so being quite close to Sheffield with its traditional cutlery industry and assaying office where items could be hallmarked as being made of Sterling sliver it was natural that we would be taught such things.