The crisp beauty of shiny white metal is due to one special process that many people learn about for the first time when starting to choose an engagement ring. Rhodium plating is a common industry practice that is used to give white gold the bright white color traditionally associated with white gold engagement rings. So what is rhodium plating, why is it used, and what does it mean for your jewelry? We’ll cover all that and more in our breakdown of rhodium plating.
What is Rhodium Plating?
What is Rhodium?
A naturally white metal, platinum was made available for commercial use around 1900. With the advent of the oxy-acetylene torch, it was finally possible to melt platinum down so it could be used in crafting jewelry. During the 1910s to 1930s, platinum had its heyday in the use of Art Deco style jewelry and was highly prized for its durability, elegance, and cool luster. With World War II, platinum was used heavily in the war effort, allowing for white gold to carve out a significant niche.
Similar to platinum, white gold also has a more recent emergence in jewelry. In the 1800s, white gold increased in popularity to rival that of the ever popular yellow gold. It became widely popular in the 1920s when it became a favorite platinum substitute that could achieve a similar look for a less expensive cost. Today, white gold is still one of the most popular metals for engagement rings and jewelry of all kinds.
The truth about white gold is that there is actually no such thing as “white” gold. Gold itself is a yellow-metallic element that is quite soft. It’s mixed with other metals to produce an alloy making it stronger and more durable. White metals are combined with yellow gold to create a white gold alloy, although in this form it still retains a slightly grayish-yellow cast.
While some people prefer this unique, warm hue for its organic feel, most prefer the bright white that is associated with white gold – this is where rhodium plating comes in. Rhodium plating is the process of adding a layer of rhodium to the surface of another metal. This increases the shine, strength, bright white color, and resistance to scratches and corrosion.
Yellow gold engagement ring
Men's white gold wedding band
How is Rhodium Plating Done?
Jewelers add rhodium plating to the surface of a piece of jewelry through an electroplating process. This process requires a rhodium plating kit with four vessels or containers – two hold distilled water for rinsing, and the other two hold the chemicals needed for the actual plating.
To apply the rhodium plating, the jewelry piece is first cleaned to avoid any debris adhering to the surface. If anything is present, the plating won’t hold. After the piece is rinsed with water, it is dipped into the plating liquid (a mixture of sulfuric acid and rhodium sulfate) for 30-60 seconds, depending on the item’s fineness.
While suspended in the plating liquid, a positive electrical current is instigated to adhere the rhodium to the metal of the jewelry piece. Then, the piece is rinsed once again in water. For the whole process, the jewelry hangs on conductive hooks made of silver or copper.
If you have a diamond, sapphire, or ruby, your gemstone is hard enough to withstand rhodium plating and won’t need to be removed from the setting for the process. Other softer gemstones like topaz, opal, pearl, peridot and heavily included rubies and emeralds could be damaged during the process. These gemstones aren’t able to cope with the acids and heat of the electroplating solutions, and their surfaces can be damaged, becoming spotty and studded.
Jewelry pieces that include these softer gemstones can still be rhodium plated, the gemstone will just need to be removed from the setting before starting the process. Any smaller diamonds used on the band or in the setting would be fine and undamaged by the plating process.
Jewelry that is rhodium plated is also very safe to wear. It’s actually hypoallergenic, which means that your skin won’t have any allergic reaction when wearing rhodium plated jewelry. However, as the rhodium wears off, white gold that contains the common alloy metal of nickel can come into contact with your skin and cause a reaction.
Rhodium can also be used to achieve interesting design aesthetics. For instance, there is no black precious metal, but by adding dark metals to rhodium, a black rhodium plating can be applied to silver, gold, or platinum. The black rhodium can give a ring a dramatic old world charm, as you can see with our Baretta and Jessica vintage-style engagement rings.
How Long Does Rhodium Plating Last?
Rhodium plating is not permanent. It will wear off with continued wear and exposure to sweat, lotions and cosmetics, and other common materials. Typically, a white gold engagement ring would need to be re-plated every 1-3 years, but this will vary depending on the wear and tear to the piece and the thickness of the plating.
The thickness of rhodium plating for a ring is usually 0.75 to 1.0 microns. This is extremely thin but considered an ideal thickness for rings and other jewelry pieces that are exposed to rough wear. If the plating is too thick, it can crack from the brittleness of rhodium. However, if it is too thin, the jewelry can become discolored much more quickly.
Most jewelers offer a rhodium re-plating service for jewelry. It’s a common practice that typically costs between $50-150 based on the thickness and size of the jewelry piece being re-plated. At Ken & Dana Design, we offer re-plating services for a nominal fee to restore your ring’s bright white color.
How Can You Make Rhodium Plating Last Longer?
Rhodium plating wears down faster when it is exposed to harsher conditions. These types of conditions may be from normal day-to-day activities, but where rhodium plating is concerned, they can be detrimental. Common household cleansers like dish soap, cleaners, and shampoo and conditioner will leave a chemical film on the rhodium that will wear it down faster. The same can be said for cosmetics, perfumes, and lotions.
Wearing your jewelry while gardening, in pools or spas, or while working out can be damaging not only from chemical exposure, but also due to increased friction and rubbing, and exposure to more of your own body chemistry which can be salty or acidic. Cleaning your ring with soap and water after wearing it for any of these activities, or exposing it to harsher chemicals, will help alleviate some of the faster damage that can be done. Also, it’s a good practice to simply not wear your ring during these activities and keep it stored in a jewelry box separate from other pieces.
It will also help your rhodium plating to last longer if you avoid metal rubbing against metal. This is especially important for engagement rings if you’re considering stacking other rings with it, like your wedding ring or an anniversary ring. Metal rubbing on metal will wear away rhodium much faster than usual.
Rhodium plating provides a beautiful finish and shine that won’t tarnish and will sparkle alongside your gemstone. If a bright white metal is your preference, rhodium plating gets the job done, and gives you a stronger and more durable ring as well!