Sterling silver made in the United States will always have a clear marking. It will either say "Sterling" or ".925" on the pieces. This shows that the tableware is made from real silver. Stainless steel silverware will have other markings, primarily showing the amount of other alloys. In general, stainless will show markings reading 18/0, 18/8 or 18/10 on the silverware. The 18 indicates the percentage of the material that is chromium and the second number indicates nickel content. Stainless silverware always has chromium in it, but not necessarily nickel. If it has nickel, the content is either 8 or 10 percent.
While both stainless steel and silver are considered long-lasting with proper care, silver will outlast stainless. In general, stainless steel silverware with proper care will last around 100 years. Rarely is an approximated lifespan given for real silver because it can last forever.
Real silver maintains a high resale value because the value of silver often determines the price. Stainless steel, on the other hand, does not have the intrinsic value of silver and, consequently, has no resale value.
Real silver, when properly cared for, will always look like silver. It may tarnish and require special cleaning, but it will, in the absence of tarnish, always have that distinctive look. Stainless varies in appearance. In the case of an 18/0 stainless, the appearance is dull and without any of the silvery shine associated with real silver. The 18/10 stainless resembles real silver more closely due to the nickel content that prevents the dull appearance.