Ah, rhodium! A term that causes great confusion among visitors to the jewelry world. Using rhodium is such a common practice in the industry that jewelry professionals sometimes forget that people unfamiliar with the field will think we are speaking gibberish when referring to it. So what is rhodium?

Rhodium is a bright, silver-colored metal that is part of the platinum family. It is found primarily from South Africa and Russia

Rhodium in its metal form.

and is largely used in the automotive industry in the production of catalytic converters. In the jewelry industry, though, it is used not as a metal with which to build jewelry—it is very rare and hard to work with—but it is used as a plating, or coating, for jewelry.

Rhodium is applied to jewelry through a process called electroplating. Pure rhodium is chemically dissolved into an acid bath to create a rhodium electroplating solution. Using a rectifier, the adhesion of rhodium to metal occurs when a positive charge is run through the rhodium plating bath while a negative charge is applied to the jewelry item. Still charged with electrical current, the piece is then placed in the bath, and rhodium will adhere to the surface of the jewelry in an extremely thin layer.

Now, why would anyone bother with this seemingly complicated process? Well, rhodium has many admirable properties. It does not corrode, is hypoallergenic, prevents tarnishing, is durable, and, most desirably, has a very reflective “white” color. Not only will a white gold or silver piece look even more gorgeous, but the underlying metal benefits greatly from a protective rhodium coating.

Sterling silver’s natural patina can be absolutely beautiful, but sometimes it’s undesirable – that’s where rhodium comes in!

Rhodium is mainly used on white gold and silver pieces, though it is sometimes used on platinum. The opinion on the value of this practice differs from jeweler to jeweler. Since platinum is already quite white in color, rhodium plating makes only a minute difference. However, some jewelers feel that it enhances the color and slows the wearing process, so they choose to rhodium their platinum pieces.

Rhodium is particularly useful for silver, which tarnishes under normal circumstances, since the coating will prevent tarnishing for as long as it remains on the silver’s surface. Though it can be removed through abrasion over time, rhodiumed silver pieces tarnish at a much slower rate than non-rhodiumed silver. A silver necklace, for instance, could go years without tarnishing when rhodiumed, whereas the same necklace without rhodium might begin to tarnish within a few weeks of its last polish. The rhodium on a silver ring, however, which usually comes in contact with much harsher surfaces on a regular basis, will wear off sooner than that on a necklace, but do not fret! Rhodium can always be reapplied!

Tip: “My jeweler says they cannot rhodium silver. Why not?!” Rhodium is very finicky stuff. If the wrong preparatory process is used before dipping the silver in rhodium—if the jewelry wasn’t cleaned, they used the wrong cleaning solutions, they don’t have the proper pre-rhodium acid baths to prepare the surface for rhodium adhesion and more—the outcome won’t be very desirable. The surface of the piece will become spotty or black. Some jewelers have simply not learned or discovered the correct process, and therefore claim it can’t be done. But it absolutely can be done. You just need to find a jeweler who knows how!

In the case of white gold, rhodium is used primarily to improve the color of the metal. Gold only exists in nature in the yellow color we know and love, so other colors, like white gold, are created by adding alloys to 24-karat yellow gold. So despite being much more white than yellow, the color of white gold has a slightly yellowish tint to it. By plating white gold with rhodium, the surface appears much brighter and whiter than the alloyed metal. In fact, almost all white gold sold in stores is rhodium plated before it’s even displayed to potential customers.

Tip: Rhodium will adhere to any finish—brushed, polished, sandblasted, you name it—and will take on the characteristics of the surface of your jewelry. For example, if the surface of your ring is scratched and worn, rhodium will not make the surface appear different in any way except color. The ring would now be a whiter scratched and worn ring. So, if your jewelry is in need of a new coat of rhodium, make sure to have the surface refinished to have your piece looking brand new!

While coating white gold and silver are the primary uses for rhodium in the jewelry industry, it also comes in handy in other ways as well. Rhodium’s other nifty trick is turning the surface of a yellow or rose gold piece into white. Using the same electroplating technique we talked about earlier, rhodium can be applied to a yellow gold piece of jewelry, leaving its bright-white finish behind. This technique is used mainly when a client is tired of their yellow gold jewelry and wants to change its look. The downfall to this use of rhodium is that the yellow gold is still there underneath the thin layer or rhodium. As a result, spots of the underlying yellow gold will start to appear as the coating is worn off with time and wear.

Tip: Can’t wear silver or gold earrings because of an allergic reaction? Ask your jeweler to rhodium plate the posts or earwires! Is your ring making you itch? Have the entire piece—or even just the inside of it—rhodium plated. Since rhodium is hypoallergenic, applying it to your silver or gold piece will stop the reaction in most cases.

So, do not fear when your jeweler mentions that strange word “rhodium.” It likely will only make your piece last longer and look prettier!


Jess the Jeweler