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Q. What exactly is “white gold”?

A. 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 soft and expensive. Engagement rings, wedding bands and jewelry are usually made from an alloy of gold and other metals. For example:
– 14 kt gold is 14/24ths gold and 10/24ths other metals,
– 12 kt gold is 12/24ths gold and 12/24ths other metals,
– 10 kt gold is 10/24ths gold and 14/24ths 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”.

Nickel is much cheaper than the precious metal palladium, so nickel is widely used in white gold jewelry in the U.S. However, so many people are allergic to nickel that it is forbidden in jewelry in Europe, and palladium would be used there instead.

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 unpredictable.
But rhodium is fabulous as a plating for jewelry because it is glitteringly, dazzlingly, white and the most reflective of all metals.
Rhodium plating makes diamonds look bigger and better. From a couple of feet away and under most lighting it’s difficult to tell where the stones end and the metal begins. Most white gold jewelry today is rhodium plated. But the rhodium is only a plating and therefore it will wear off eventually and need to be plated again.

Q. Have things changed between your grandmother’s white gold ring and yours?

A. Absolutely! Years ago, white gold rings were not rhodium plated, and today they typically are. So which is better and why?

If you feel that heirlooms should be a once in a lifetime purchase that lasts forever without any further attention, you may not be happy with a rhodium plated ring, because no matter how high the quality of the very thin plating, it will wear off over time and require replating.

But if you love today’s brilliant, dazzling, ultra-white look, recognize that you simply could never get that from an unplated ring. No matter how well white gold is made, it’s a metal, which is about half-yellow gold, and it will never even come close to the shine of rhodium plating. Yes, your grandmother’s ring stayed white for decades and never needed replating, but it never dazzled and shined like today’s rings. It was white enough for people’s taste in a different era, but it is not white enough for many people’s taste in this day and age.

Q. What else changed, and why does it suck?

A. If today’s rings were just like your grandmother’s ring except with a layer of rhodium plated onto them, everyone would probably be happy. But, unfortunately, most of today’s rings are not of the same alloy as your grandmother’s! Once the jewelry manufacturers recognized that the rings they were making would likely be plated anyway, they decided that the underlying metal didn’t really need to be the pleasing white shade of more antique rings.
When you’re able to see yellow in your white ring, what is happening to you is that the rhodium plating is wearing thin, and you are seeing the “yellowish” color of your gold starting to show through. You might get away with rhodium plating a yellow gold pin or broach, because these suffer very little wear, but rhodium plating a yellow gold ring that is worn regularly will probably be less satisfactory.

Q. How long will the rhodium plating last?

A. This is the big question, but the answer isn’t easy. First, it depends on the item is it a ring that suffers a great deal of wear? Or a pin or broach which receives almost no contact? Your body’s unique chemistry could also slightly effect the duration of the plating. But the life of the plating also relies on two other very important and controllable factors —

1). How good is the quality of the plating? Good quality plating done by a reputable jewelry store is always better than having your rings dipped in a chain store with cross contaminated rhodium.

2). What color is the underlying gold? If the white gold underlying the rhodium plating is a nice acceptable color, it will be less noticeable as the plating begins to wear thin in spots, so you can go a long time between replating. If the color of the underlying ring is slightly yellowish, more frequent replating will be necessary because the item will look less sparkly much sooner.
Yes, you can get your yellow gold jewelry rhodium plated if you wish but if the piece suffers extreme wear, the good appearance may last only a short time even if the rhodium plating quality is great, 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.