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Metal Misconceptions: What Is My Ring Made Out of?

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It is easy to get confused and intimidated by all the terminology that gets thrown around when you're standing at the fine jewelry counter. Maybe you're shopping for your engagement ring or wedding band, or maybe you're just working on your dream list. Whatever the reason may be you need to know what metal is best for you, not just what sounds best. Here is a brief explanation of some of those questions you may have been afraid to ask.

What is the difference between yellow gold and white gold? Are they two different metals? Isn't all gold just gold?

Pure gold is a golden yellow color. Pure gold, often referred to as 24 karat gold, is too soft to be made into jewelry as it wouldn't hold up to the abuse of daily wear. It would get bent and dented before you know it. Therefore pure gold must be alloyed, or mixed, with other metals to make it more durable.  

The most popular alloy of gold in the US is 14k. This means that it is 14/24ths pure gold, or 14 parts pure gold per 24 total parts, or 58.3 percent pure gold. For yellow gold the other 10 parts are traditionally five parts copper and five parts silver. This makes a durable yet beautiful metal for crafting fine jewelry.  

Better quality fine jewelry is often made from 18k gold. This is 18 parts pure, three parts copper and three parts silver, or 75 percent pure gold. The higher concentration of pure gold gives 18k yellow gold a richer golden color than 14k, plus a higher price tag.  Conversely, less expensive jewelry is often made from 10k gold which lowers the gold content and thus the cost. And you guessed it, its 10 parts pure gold, seven parts copper and seven parts silver, or only 41 percent pure gold.  

So then what is white gold? The percentage of pure gold in 10k, 14k and 18k white gold  is  the same as those for yellow gold. What's different is the other parts that are added to it. White gold is typically a mixture of pure gold and nickel. Nickel makes it harder than yellow gold, and it helps give it its white color.  

But pure gold is yellow and nickel is grey, and when you mix yellow and grey you don't get the bright silvery color we expect from white gold or platinum. You get something that looks yellowish grey. Nobody wants their white gold to look yellow or grey, so how does it get the bright and shiny look we are all accustomed to?  

White gold is almost always rhodium plated. I doubt you have ever seen a piece of white gold in a jewelry store display case that hasn't been rhodium plated.  The very last step in making a piece of white gold jewelry is to electroplate it with a metal called rhodium. Rhodium is a bright silver color metal from the platinum family of metals. It is very expensive and is only ever used in a plating solution. You will never see a piece of jewelry made from solid rhodium. When I create a custom design engagement ring in white gold, the very last step before my craftsman hands me the ring is to plate it with rhodium. This puts a very thin layer of rhodium on the entire surface of the ring giving it the bright shiny appearance we want and expect.

Have you ever heard someone say "my white gold is turning yellow"? This isn't entirely accurate. The thin rhodium coating is not permanent. As the surface of the ring rubs against hard surfaces, like your car steering wheel or a table top or your cell phone or almost anything, the rhodium slowly wears off, leaving the greyish yellow color of the white gold exposed. The contrast between the natural color of the white gold and the chrome like finish of the rhodium plating makes the exposed white gold look yellow.  

The solution to this problem is what I refer to as CPR. While the shock of seeing your beautiful engagement ring looking dingy may cause you to need CPR, what I'm referring to is Clean, Polish and Rhodium plate.  The steps required to revive the appearance of your treasured engagement ring are; one, have it cleaned really well by your jeweler in a professional ultrasonic and steam cleaner. Next the entire ring must be polished to remove all of the old rhodium and the scratches that have accumulated from months or years of daily wear. Only then can your ring be electroplated with a fresh coat of rhodium. Depending on your lifestyle you may need to have this done every year or two. Some people are more sensitive to the gradual wearing away of the rhodium from the surface of their rings and the resulting yellow appearance. Other people never notice it and happily wear their rings for decades without ever taking them off. Whichever one you are, it's a good idea to have your jeweler check your ring periodically to make sure your diamonds are secure and not at risk of loss. But that's another article.

There are some relatively new white gold alloys referred to as "super whites" that never require rhodium plating. These are white gold alloys that combine pure gold with white metals other than nickel that give them a silvery color without the need for rhodium plating. Many of these super white metals are made from proprietary formulas but the percentages of pure gold are still the same as traditional white gold for them to be legally stamped 14k or 18k. My favorite super white gold metal is a 19k white that has the color of platinum and the durability of 18k white gold. It has the more affordable price tag of 18k gold rather than the much higher cost of platinum, making it a trifecta of beauty, durability and affordability.

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of some basic jewelry terms and will feel more confident when you're out jewelry shopping. If you are still a little confused, don't be afraid to ask your jeweler. That's what we're here for.