Abstract Silver nanoparticles have been modified with self-assembled monolayers of hydroxyl-terminated long chain thiols and encapsulated with a silica shell. The resulting core–shell nanoparticles were used as optical labels for cell analysis using flow cytometry and microscopy. The excitation of plasmon resonances in nanoparticles results in strong depolarized scattering of visible light, permitting detection at the single nanoparticle level. The nanoparticles were modified with neutravidin via epoxide–azide coupling chemistry, to which biotinylated antibodies targeting cell surface receptors were bound. The nanoparticle labels exhibited long-term stability in solutions with high salt concentrations without aggregation or silver etching. Labeled cells exhibited two orders of magnitude enhancement of the scattering intensity compared with unlabeled cells.