The term "sterling silver" probably originated in eastern Germany when five towns formed the Hanseatic League in the 1100s. These town minted their own coins of .925 percent silver. When Britain sold cattle and grain to the League, they were paid in "Easterling coins". These coins were found be reliable and durable and soon became the standard for subsequent British coins. King Henry II decided to adopt the standard .925 coins for Britain's own currency.
He imported both trained metal refiners and their equipment from Germany to England. Henry set up a royal mint to produce easterling silver coins now known as "Tealby Pennies". The term easterling silver was quickly shortened to sterling silver.
Pure silver is a very soft metal that is easily formed and deformed. Most silver used today is alloyed with small amounts of copper. The addition of copper makes the silver more robust and workable. The term sterling silver refers to a specific alloy of silver and copper. Manufacturers use a variety of recipes when producing various forms of silver.
Fine silver is .999 percent silver and the remaining .001 percent is a combination of copper, iron and other trace elements. It is extremely soft and not generally suitable for jewelry. Its main use today is in fine silver coins to be used as a trading commodity.
Britannia Silver was .958 percent silver and used for flatware and plate between 1697 and 1720. However, it was found to be to unsuitable due to its softness, as it tended to deform under its own weight.
Mexican Silver is .950 percent silver and .050 percent copper, but Mexico no longer mints .950 coins. Old Mexican coins are still found and used to make jewelry.
Sterling silver is .925 percent silver and .075 percent copper. It is more durable and workable than fine silver. In Britain, sterling silver is better known as 'Standard Silver'. This term refers to the fact that British coins from 1158 to the 1920s were .925 silver. Today British coins no longer contain .925 silver.
Coin silver is an American term for silver that is .900 percent silver and .100 percent copper or other metals. Most American silver coins used this alloy from the 1820s when silver coins were a standard form of currency. It was also used to mint the coins in the American territories of the Philippines and Panama.
Continental Silver can be found in Europe, this alloy is .830 percent silver and .170 percent copper or .800 percent silver and .200 percent copper. It is commonly used for flatware (tableware) and hollowware (vases and picture frames).
All of these alloys were accepted as standard formulas in 1972 by the nations that signed the Vienna Convention. This convention set international standards for articles made of precious metals They also agreed on standards for hallmarking these items for the public.