Rhodium is probably a metal you don’t hear about very often. It's extremely rare and is only a byproduct of mining platinum, copper, or nickel. However, you've clearly encountered the term “rhodium plating” when browsing online looking for jewelry. But what does it mean, and why is it used? These are all the details we'll explain below so let's jump in...
What Is Rhodium?
Rhodium is a whitish-silver metallic element. It belongs to the platinum family, and you can only find trace amounts of it inside platinum or nickel ore. Rhodium is prized for jewelry because it's highly reflective and hypoallergenic.
Rhodium holds the record as the most expensive metal in the world because no one's discovered a rhodium mine. Since its discovery in 1803 by William Wollaston, nearly 80% of all rhodium comes from platinum mines in South Africa. Since it's only a trace element in these mines, we have very little material available annually. To give you an idea of how rare and expensive this metal is—only 20 tons are mined per year. And in March 2020, its price reached an all-time high of $13,800 an ounce.
Is Rhodium Jewelry Safe To Wear?
Jewelers love using rhodium plating for a good reason. Rhodium itself doesn't easily oxidize, corrode, or react to your skin. It's nickel-free and naturally hypoallergenic, making it a great option if you have nickel allergies.
Is it unsafe? No. The plating process itself has potential risks—specifically that your jewelers can get exposed to acidic fumes during plating. But they take the proper safety precautions and as long as they do, there’s no risk. After they've finished working on your rhodium plated jewelry, it's good to go and won’t cause any problems for you.
Is There Jewelry Completely Made Out Of Rhodium?
Unfortunately, rhodium's price fluctuates massively. Sometimes, it can be ten times more than or equal to the price of gold—making it an unstable investment. Additionally, it’s only a byproduct of mining platinum and nickel, so we never get it in big batches. And because it’s used in automobile catalytic converters, the auto industry buys up most of the stock every year.
As an alloy, rhodium is durable and resistant to corrosion but is brittle in its pure form. This is why commercial industries and the jewelry industry use it for plating purposes rather than solid pieces. You wouldn't want to spend an extreme amount of money on fragile jewelry completely made of rhodium.
Is Rhodium Plating Durable?
Rhodium plating can last you several years, but it slowly rubs off with friction. Your necklaces and earrings might never wear off, but the rings that you use daily may only last a year or so. Eventually, you'll have to re-plate it, but it depends on how often you wear your ring or necklace.
The best way to tell if your jewelry needs re-plating is if its original color starts showing. This will usually begin at the bottom and inside of your ring since it gets the most friction. Keep an eye when you're getting a gemstone set in your rhodium plated jewelry. The plating process is normally done as the last step. When a jeweler works on your jewelry with a torch, the rhodium can get burned off.
Pros Of Rhodium Plating
As mentioned, rhodium plating can hide imperfections. It also will give your white gold and silver pieces an incredible shine. Because it's harder than gold or silver, it's protective coating helps to shield your jewelry from scratches. Another great advantage is that rhodium doesn't tarnish or need a specific cleaning process.
Rhodium also benefits people with nickel allergies since it prevents contact with your skin. You'd know if you have an allergy to specific metals, especially nickel or lead because it would cause a visible skin reaction. Getting this type of jewelry rhodium-plated or switching to other hypoallergenic metals is your best bet.
Cons Of Rhodium Plating
Rhodium is very rare, so jewelers only use small amounts for plating. Ultimately, it will come off, so you’ll have to re-plate every few years if it’s a piece you wear daily. With everyday wear, ask your jeweler if they’ll make the plating thicker. Thicker plating will last longer but be aware that this will change your jewelry's color.
A thick layer of rhodium will make your jewelry look more like platinum. This may or may not be desirable to you depending on your style. Check with your jeweler before making your final decision. They can give you a good idea of how the finished product will look and may have some examples to show you.
Is Rhodium Plating Worth It?
Rhodium plating provides a shine that won't tarnish, but maintaining it may get more costly as the years go by. However, if you plate a piece you don’t wear daily or one that doesn’t get a lot of friction, the plating should last you 7-10 years. If you plate a ring you wear daily, you may need to re-plate every 1-2 years. That being said, it’s not a big deal to have it plated. You drop it off at your jeweler, they plate it, and you get it back in a few days. So, it’s worth it if you want a high shine and scratch resistant piece.