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What are Nickel Silver, German Silver and Alpaca?

Don't Be Fooled by These False Forms of Silver

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Child's Purse Marked

Child's Purse Marked "German Silver", Ca. 1890s - Sold with Another Smaller Mesh Coin Purse at Auction for $60 in 2011

- Morphy Auctions
So you find a piece of jewelry or an old metal object for a good price that looks a lot like silver. Being an astute picker, you look for clues to identify the piece and discover that it’s marked nickel silver, German silver or alpaca. But does that mean your item is really some form of silver? Unfortunately, no.

What is Nickel Silver and German Silver?

The terms “nickel silver” and “German silver” refer to the same substance, but items made of this metal aren’t really silver at all. Nickel or German “silver” is actually a white alloy containing copper, zinc and nickel.

This type of metal was developed in Germany in the late 1800s as a less expensive substitute for silver. While antiques and collectibles made of nickel or German silver might hold some value because of the form, as in the instance of an antique cigar case or a purse like the one shown here, items marked nickel or German silver do not hold scrap value and are far less valuable than objects made of sterling silver.

What is Alpaca?

Jewelry items with a gray metallic finish not quite as shiny as sterling silver are often found with the alpaca mark. This type of alloy, sometimes spelled alpacca, also indicates a metal containing copper, zinc, and nickel along with tin. These items can be decorated with abalone insets or other stones. While they can be nice looking, they don’t hold a lot of value being made of this inexpensive silver substitute.

These pieces are often of Mexican or South American origin. Other larger decorative objects can also be marked alpaca. It can sometimes be used as a base metal for silver plated wares, however. Alpaca is also referred to as “new silver” from time to time. Like nickel silver, alpaca has no actual silver content.

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