Understanding White Gold, and Rhodium Plating of Rings & Jewelry
by Ted Mooney
Q. What exactly is "white gold"?
A. You'll find no ingots of white gold at Fort Knox. Pure 24 kt gold is always yellow. There is no such thing as an isotope of gold that is white.
But jewelry is rarely made from pure 24 kt gold because it's rather soft (and expensive). Engagement rings, wedding bands and jewelry are usually made from an alloy of gold plus other metals. For example:
- 14 kt gold is 14/24ths gold and 10/24ths other metals,
At the risk of oversimplification, if the "other metals" in the alloy are copper or silver, the gold remains yellow; whereas if the "other metals" are palladium and/or nickel, they have a "bleaching effect" and the mixture becomes whitish, i.e., "white gold".
Q. What is "rhodium" and what does it have to do with white gold jewelry?
A. Rhodium is a very precious metal that can cost ten times as much as gold or more! Rhodium is generally not considered a feasible material to make jewelry from, because it is stressed and brittle, very difficult to "work" properly for jewelry making, and it's price is terribly volatile.
(About Rhodium price volatility: rhodium is never mined for its own self because it's too rare for that to be feasible; rather, it's a minor by-product from platinum mining & refining. So, when platinum is in high demand and a lot is being mined, a lot of rhodium is available, and its price can decline to about the same price as gold; but when platinum mining is down, rhodium is virtually unavailable and becomes fabulously costly (over $12,000 ounce at one point in 2011 when gold was well under $1,000 an ounce).
But rhodium is fabulous as a plating for jewelry because it is glitteringly, dazzlingly, white and mirror-like. It's like chrome, but much whiter, and the most reflective of all metals.
Rhodium plating makes diamonds look bigger and better because it's so bright that it glints like the diamonds. From a couple of feet away and under most lighting conditions it's hard to see where the stones end and the metal begins. Nothing sets off diamonds like rhodium plating does. So most white gold jewelry today is rhodium plated. But the rhodium is only a plating and therefore it will wear off eventually and require replating.
Q. Have things changed between your grandmother's white gold ring and yours?
A. Yes, things have changed a lot! Years ago, white gold rings were not rhodium plated, and today they usually are. So which is better and why?
Q. What else changed, and why does it suck?
A. You may be reading this because you are unhappy that your ring is getting "yellowish" and you want to know what is happening and why.
(If you are interested in the details, see the article "White Gold Alloys: Colour Measurement and Grading" at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/111740769/White-Gold-Alloys-Colour-Measurement-and-Grading-Dippal, which explains this whiteness factor).
What is happening to you is that the rhodium plating is wearing thin, and you are seeing the "yellowish" color of your "not white enough to go unplated" gold starting to show through. In fact, jewelry stores in the center aisle of shopping malls at Christmas sometimes save on inventory costs and delivery time by rhodium plating yellow gold jewelry -- and the contrast as they start to wear is terrible! You might get away with rhodium plating a yellow gold pin or broach, because these are seldom touched and suffer very little wear, but rhodium plating a yellow gold ring that is worn regularly will probably prove very unsatisfactory.
Q. How long will the rhodium plating last?
A. This is the big question, but the answer isn't easy. First, it depends on whether the item is a ring (rings suffer a great deal of wear), or a pin or broach which receives almost no contact. And it depends on whether you wear the ring constantly. To a minor extent it may depend on that old bugaboo "body chemistry". But the life of the plating also depends on two other very important and controllable factors --
Yes, you can get your yellow gold jewelry rhodium plated if you wish, but if the piece experiences significant wear, the good appearance may last only a fairly short time even if the rhodium plating quality is good, and almost no time if the plating is poor.
Conclusion: If possible, try to make sure that the white gold jewelry you are buying is a good shade of white before plating so that there will be little contrast as the rhodium plating gets thin. And if your jewelry store can't rhodium plate the jewelry well enough for an acceptable life, try to find another jeweler or a specialty plating shop who can.
Good luck with your ring, and if you found this page informative, please tell others about it. If you would like to hear some other opinions on white gold and rhodium plating, and hear other people's tales of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, this site has dozens of public forum threads on this topic, including this sampling: