Why is my white gold tarnishing?

jodiegearingMetal Knowledge, Rhodium platingLeave a Comment

You’ve got a new beautiful white gold ring you have worn for a few months, but then you notice the metal around the back of the ring and the setting have changed colour. Patches of your ring are a totally different shade of white, and next to the bright silvery areas that remain, these patches almost look yellow. Is your ring tarnishing like these silver spoons?

Gold does not tarnish.

What most people will believe is tarnish on their white gold jewellery is actually the natural colour of the white gold coming through. Most white gold jewellery is rhodium-plated to make it look a bright, cold white like platinum, but this plating is only microns thick so will wear over time, revealing the natural warmer tones of the white gold. This usually happens in patches, for example, on a ring, the back of the ring and any settings will wear first as they come under the most wear and tear through everyday life.

Why doesn’t gold tarnish?

One of the reasons gold is used in jewellery is because it is one of the least reactive elements, meaning it does not react to oxygen, moisture or sulphur. Other metals such as copper and silver are much more reactive and will tarnish and discolour over time. For most people, the oils in our skin stop silver from tarnishing when worn, but leave a silver ring in a bathroom for a while unworn and it will soon turn black from being exposed to moisture.

Pure 24ct gold is too soft to use in jewellery so it is blended with other alloys to firstly make it more durable, but also to change the colour. White gold is created by mixing pure gold which is yellow with white coloured alloys such as silver and platinum to lighten the yellow hue and almost bleach the yellow colour. Some people believe that as white or rose gold (which has a high copper content) have more reactive metals in their make up, they can therefore get areas of tarnish. I wear natural, un-plated white gold every day and I have what my Dad affectionately calls ‘rusty hands’ as I make my tools rust quickly because of my individual chemical balance, so if my white gold doesn’t tarnish, I don’t believe anyone’s will! Even if tarnishing did occur, I don’t believe it would be noticeable to the naked eye as the metals are blended in with the gold and therefore diluted.

If you’re interested in finding out more about white gold, you can learn more here.

Why is white gold rhodium plated?

White gold does not need to be plated, and I am a big advocate for avoiding plating white gold and embracing it’s natural, warm colour. Many years ago, white gold was plated because it had alloys in it that some people have allergic reactions to (namely nickel). White gold was therefore plated with rhodium (another almost inert chemical element) to give a protective coating between the jewellery and the wearer’s skin to avoid causing a reaction. Nickel is no longer used in jewellery alloys so this reason is null and void. I feel that white gold continues to be plated as standard on the high street because white gold was seen as a cheaper alternative to platinum but people still wanted it to look like platinum.

Then came palladium – in 2010, palladium was given an official hallmark and began to make an appearance as a cheaper alternative to platinum but with the same look. Palladium is pretty much the same colour as platinum and almost as durable but is less dense and costs less. Therefore, the need to plate white gold to make it look like platinum has gone – we have a cheaper alternative to platinum that does not require rhodium plating.

You can read in more detail about the plating process and my argument for why I believe white gold should not be plated here.

What are my options once the rhodium plating starts to rub off?

Over time, if left, all of the plating will wear away from a piece of white gold to reveal the natural colour. Your options are:

  • Go au natural and embrace the natural colour – white stones like diamonds stand out more in natural white gold because the colours contrast, whereas diamonds set in platinum or rhodium plated white gold give an all over sparkle as they are similar in hue. If you like this look, let the white gold shine in its natural glory. The warmer tone might even suit your skin tone better! The beautiful ring below is 18ct white gold set with a white diamond – notice how the diamond is a different tone of white so it stands out nicely from the metal of the setting.

  • Have your ring re-plated every now and then. Each person’s experience will vary with how long it takes for the rhodium plating to wear away and need re-doing but each time you want it brought back to bright white, you will need to hand your ring back to your jeweller and they will re-polish it and plate it. It’s worth bearing in mind that polishing actually removes material from your jewellery so you will thin out your pieces more quickly if they are regularly repolished. The plating process is a nasty one that uses horrible chemicals so it will have an environmental impact too.
  • Have your jewellery remade in palladium or platinum if you prefer the bright white colour – you can usually reuse your stones and the design could be exactly replicated.

There is so much confusion surrounding white gold but I hope this post helps shed some light on the mystery of tarnishing. If you’ve got any experience with white gold either being rhodium plated or in its natural colour, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.