Rhodium-Plating 101 (What, why, how, when, how much and everything you wanted to know about rhodium plating)
What is Rhodium?
Although “rhodium plating” is a term and practice commonly used in the making and selling of fine jewelry, often the average customer is confused about what ‘rhodium’ is and what it does!
Let’s clear that up, shall we?
Rhodium is Atomic Number 45, a precious white metal in the platinum family of metals— which includes platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium. It’s rare, and it’s a very expensive metal.
How expensive is rhodium?
For example, as we write this blog post an ounce of pure gold costs US$1201, an ounce of palladium $1057 (somewhat unusually more than platinum, which currently costs $822 an ounce). You can get an ounce of silver for less than $15 and an ounce of copper < US$1.00…and yet an ounce of rhodium is going for $2268 on the wholesale precious metal markets (source: Kitco). That price is over 150x the wholesale metal market cost of silver. And it hasn't been too many years since rhodium was costing over $US10,000.00 for a single ounce!
Such a high reflects a rarity since rhodium is only mined in a few countries like South Africa and Russia, resulting in a reality that in a given year usually 100x more gold in tons and 10-20x more platinum in tons is mined than rhodium.
What is Rhodium used for?
Rhodium is used in jewelry, as we’ll discuss in detail below…but it’s also a fundamental part of many automotive manufacturing processes and used to make catalytic converters. It can withstand really high temperatures and so has a lot of industrial uses (even nuclear reactors!). Rhodium is included in ultra-reflective fine mirrors, and is used in the making of turbine engines for planes (among other things).
Why use Rhodium for jewelry?
Rhodium’s biggest claim to fame in the jewelry world is that the metal is very resistant to tarnishing.
Our most jewelry-educated customers will know that both gold alloys and silver are prone to tarnishing:
- All sterling silver will become discolored over time (see our article “Will normal wear ‘tarnish’/discolor your sterling silver white sapphire jewelry over time?” for details).
- Alloys of gold will too, even though gold itself does not tarnish (see our article "Will normal wear ‘tarnish’/discolor Gold jewelry more or less than Sterling Silver jewelry?" for details).
Yet that’s not all rhodium-plating does for fine jewelry.
In the list of benefits below, you can see the appeal of rhodium plating fine white-metal jewelry:
- does not tarnish
- does not discolor
- is highly reflective with a silver hue and bright color
- gives a smooth, shiny finish to jewelry
- enhances the luster of white metals
- is more scratch resistant than silver or gold
- increases the durability of white metals (harder than silver or gold)
- shine offers an amazing contrast with the sparkle of diamonds or cubic zirconia
- does not corrode
- does not rust (resistant to oxidation)
- offers some hypoallergenic protection to the wearer against contact dermatitis (e.g. gold or silver allergy).
The reason rhodium is so often paired with white gold is simple: White gold does not exist in fact. White gold is nothing more than gold mixed (“alloyed”) with another metal that has a white cast— usually silver, palladium or nickel). This results in a slightly yellow tint to the final product, that is augmented by rhodium plating by most fine jewelry makers since the buyer of white gold is looking for a brighter sheen and more shine.
Rhodium is less often paired with sterling silver, but we are one jeweler that does it because our fine sterling silver white sapphire jewelry is worth the extra expense and effort for our shop. By doing so, we provide our customers sterling silver jewelry that offers some hypoallergenic protections (e.g. silver allergy) plus extra mirror-like metal shine, protection from tarnishing and additional durability.
How is Rhodium plating done?
Rhodium plating is simple. The rhodium metal is placed over top of the underlying white metal-- sterling silver, 10 karat white gold, 14 karat white gold, 18 karat white gold-- in a thin metal layer using a process jewelers call electro-plating. The process is known to consumers as “rhodium-plating” or a “rhodium dip”, aka “rhodium dipping”.
The most important step to plating is starting with a clean piece of jewelry. To do this, our jewelry team will begin by polishing the piece to a brilliant finish. Then we’ll clean it thoroughly with an ultrasonic cleaner, rinse the piece in distilled water and then steam clean. It’s important before rhodium plating that the piece be almost surgically clean of any debris (which could inhibit a good fix of metal to metal).
The actual plating process uses a series of powdered chemical baths that are done inside of glass beakers (like science class). A pinch of this. Two teaspoons of that. Some distilled water, heat, and an electric current provides the power to cause the chemical and physical reaction needed to plate rhodium to silver or gold.
Does my WhiteSapphire.com jewelry come with Rhodium plating?
There are naturally brilliant-white metals such as platinum and palladium that do not require rhodium plating. Please note that rhodium-plating for extra protection and shine comes standard on all fine sterling silver and white gold jewelry created by WhiteSapphire.com.
As nickel allergies become more prevalent, rhodium has increased even more in popularity due to the fact that it is naturally nickel-free and customers that want gold may have an allergy to gold or the metals that make up its alloy. This is another reason we use rhodium plating as standard. This is especially important because many people don’t even realize they have an allergy to some of the metal materials used in making gold alloys.
However, if you prefer the softer, warm tones of white gold that has not been rhodium-plated, please contact us before purchase so that we can make that modification when you place your order.
What's the downside of Rhodium plating?
As you’ve seen and read, rhodium plating has some great benefits if you opt for sterling silver or white gold fine jewelry. However, there are some downsides to choosing rhodium plating, too.
- The rhodium plating of white metal jewelry wears off over time
- Without re-plating with rhodium, there is no way to bring back the original brilliance, shine and protective durability of fine sterling silver and white gold jewelry such as that from WhiteSapphire.com.
- It can be costly to rhodium-plate jewelry again and again over a lifetime of wear (especially with rings, which—being worn on the hand— take the most wear and tear of any jewelry).
The average cost for a ring can cost around US$60-100, but prices vary based on the quality of the rhodium, the jeweler’s skills and the size of the jewelry. Our company does not treat “repair” work such as rhodium re-plating as a profit center. That’s why our cost to re-plate your sterling silver or white gold jewelry is on the lower end of this spectrum.
Still, the cost can add up over a lifetime of wear.
For these reasons and others, some customers opt for a naturally, brilliant-white precious metal for their daily-wear jewelry (e.g. platinum and palladium do not require rhodium plating).
How often should I have my sterling silver or white gold jewelry Rhodium plated?
Having white gold and sterling silver jewelry rhodium-plated every once in awhile will help keep the metal’s original color and shine, plus help minimize allergic contact dermatitis (e.g. gold or silver allegories).
Over time, as sterling silver jewelry is worn and the rhodium plating wears away, your sterling silver jewelry may start to show light discoloring that can’t easily be cleaned or scrubbed away (read our article, "Will normal wear ‘tarnish’/discolor your sterling silver white sapphire jewelry over time?" for more details and information). That’s normal, and it could mean the rhodium plating needs to get redone to bring back your silver jewelry’s original brilliance and shine.
Over time, as white gold jewelry is worn and the rhodium plating wears away, your white gold jewelry may start to show hints of the natural yellowish hue of the gold underneath. That’s normal (however, it’s not going to change so much as to make your white gold jewelry appear to have been made of yellow gold). It is at this time that owners usually get their white gold jewelry re-plated with rhodium to bring back its original brilliance and shine.
The time for rhodium plating to wear off or rub off can vary from person to person but here are some basic expectations:
- Rings or bracelets will need to be re-plated every 2-3 years or so (sometimes longer, sometimes shorter and often depends on activities of the wearer and his/her body chemistry).
- Earrings worn normally will probably never need re-rhodium. To this writer’s knowledge, our company has never been asked to do it for a customer.
- Pendants may or may not need re-rhodium in a lifetime of normal wear.
How do I get my white gold or sterling silver replated with Rhodium?
The average cost for a ring can cost around US$60-100, but prices vary based on the quality of the rhodium, the jeweler’s skills and the size of the jewelry.
Our company does not treat “repair” work such as rhodium re-plating as a profit center. That’s why our cost to re-plate your sterling silver or white gold jewelry is on the lower end of this spectrum (US$74.99 as of writing).
Purchase this service here: Rhodium Plating + Inspection + Jewelry Treatment Spa Bath Package.
IMPORTANT NOTE: WhiteSapphire.com cannot guarantee the work of another jeweler. Please be advised that if any other jeweler works on your jewelry (including resizing, engraving, stone setting, rhodium, etc) your jewelry warranty will be voided. In such cases, repairs can be made but charges will apply.
A handful of reputable jewelers offer a lifetime warranty that covers discounted or even free periodic rhodium-plating services as, which can reduce your ongoing cost of re-rhodium plating.
That’s more our style than the jewelers that ‘hide’ that they are rhodium plating their white gold jewelry and the first time a customer finds out about it…is a couple years after purchase when they get a bill for re-plating. However, unlike diamond jewelers with thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in profit margin they make on your ring purchase, with our low prices we aren’t equipped to offer any-time, all-the-time rhodium plating for free. But we still try to assist our customers as we can.
For example, every year or two as a customer appreciation gift, we offer an annual “Free Jewelry Spa Bath Week” where we give customers a free service (just pay shipping) including: full inspection to make sure your jewelry is in good structural shape, thorough cleaning of your jewelry (including removing any light tarnishing), tightening of any prongs on your jewelry, final polish of all precious metal, and re-rhodium plating of sterling silver and white gold jewelry. The best way to be notified of that is just to join our email newsletter!
Is White Gold or Sterling Silver right for me?
Before buying sterling silver, platinum, palladium or white gold jewelry from any jeweler, we recommend that customers ask if it has rhodium plating. This will help him/her come up with an accurate estimate of the cost of ownership over the lifetime of wearing that precious white metal jewelry (taking the necessity of re-plating into consideration).
For customers of some jewelry companies, it might be a shock to learn that the coveted color and shine of that treasured white gold piece of jewelry is actually the mirrored sheen created by a thin layer of rhodium over top. However, we believe it is better to understand that fact now instead of learning it for the first time at the jeweler seeking help for a past purchase that doesn’t look quite right anymore— where that knowledge will undoubtedly be accompanied by a bill for rhodium re-plating.
Sure, there are naturally brilliant-white metals such as platinum and palladium that do not require rhodium plating. But maybe you/your gift recipient simply loves gold. Or maybe sterling silver is all that will work from a money standpoint. We provide education such as this article to help folks make a smart decision.
Whichever white metal you choose for your WhiteSapphire.com jewelry—sterling silver, white gold, palladium or platinum—we stand ready to serve you now and into the future. We encourage you to weigh the pros and cons of a rhodium-plating before you make that important white metal jewelry purchase.
- whitesapphire Admin