Are you sitting down? We need to talk. There is something you need to know about your White Gold Jewellery:
White gold is yellow.
Not yellow like an omelette, but it is yellow. It appears white in a jewellery store, and it costs less than platinum, but over time your white gold jewellery could need to be whitened again and again.
To understand what's going on, first you need to learn how gold is made into alloys for use in jewellery. I will also explain the differences between “9 karat,” “14 karat,” and “18 karat” gold, and compare gold to other similar metals such as Palladium, Platinum, and Silver.
Gold, naturally, is a soft malleable metal with an intense yellow colour.
Pure gold is sometimes considered too yellow, and its softness makes for very delicate jewellery in its pure form. Pure (24k) gold jewellery is much too soft to protect a solitaire diamond, or for any piece of jewellery that will be worn frequently.
To make gold more durable, less expensive, and to change the colour, jewellers mix in other metals. Different metals create different colours - allowing for some crazy combinations like green, red, and purple gold. The most popular colours are rose gold, yellow gold, and white gold.
Different Types of Gold
- Yellow Gold: Gold in its pure form is yellow. Yellow gold is combined with metals such as copper and zinc to reduce its price, increase durability, and tone down its yellow colour.
- White Gold: White gold is an alloy of yellow gold and at least one white metal (often palladium.) Almost all white gold is plated with rhodium, which I will explain in a bit. There is no such thing as pure white gold, since it would be yellow.
- Rose Gold: There is no such thing as pure rose gold either, since rose gold is an alloy of gold and copper. Rose gold, red gold, and pink gold are all made from varying combinations of gold, copper, and (sometimes) small amounts of silver. The varying percentage of copper used determines the color of the gold.
The term “karat” is used to denote the percentage of gold in a gold alloy. “Karat” is pronounced like “Carat” (which refers to the weight of a diamond) but its meaning is different. Karat is often abbreviated as “kt” or “k.” Pure gold is 24 karats so 1 karat of gold is 1/24 gold, or 4.16% pure.
- 9k Gold: 37.5% pure. Stamped 375. Calling 9k “gold” is like calling a hot dog “meat.” It’s a gold-ish funk with some gold in it. 9k is not recognised as gold in many countries including the U.S.
- 10k Gold: 41.7% pure. Stamped 417. 10k is still less than 50% gold, but it meets the legal karat limit to be considered “real” gold in the United States. It is uncommon in fine jewellery and generally considered to be of poor quality.
- 14k Gold: 58.3% pure. Stamped 583/584. 14k is the most popular form of gold because it wears well, is resistant to scratches, and is more durable than the higher karat values. It is excellent for use in jewellery.
- 18k Gold: 75.0% pure. Stamped 750. 18k is the minimum gold standard for sale in Italy. It is yellower and more malleable than 14k, but considered to be top quality. It is also excellent for use in jewellery.
- 24k Gold: 24K gold is 99% pure and is stamped 999. It is very popular in Asia. However it is generally considered to be too soft for use in jewelry.
Many gold mixes still do not achieve the desired colour. For example, a yellow tint is present in all white gold. To mask white gold’s true colour, jewellers coat it with a lustrous white metal called Rhodium. “Rhodium Plating” looks phenomenal, and gives your jewellery a mirror-like finish. However, since it is just a coating it may wear down over time. When this happens, your jewellery will lose its luster. If the main metal is white gold, it will begin to appear a dull, pale yellow.
People wear their jewellery differently, and there is no way to accurately predict how long your rhodium plating will last. On earrings and Necklaces it can last a very long time, because those pieces experience very little physical contact with the environment. Rings and bracelets are a different story. Constant wear on a ring can cause rhodium to rub off in as little as six months. From my experience both selling and wearing white gold jewellery, it seems that a ring will need to be re-plated roughly once every six months to two years.
Your local jeweller can rhodium plate your ring for you. The process takes a few minutes if they can do it on-site, or up to one week if they send it away. Most jewellers in New Zealand charge around $60 for this service (at time of writing). The price of rhodium changes, however, and the cost for this service will change over time.
The benefit is that every time your ring is rhodium plated, it gets a whole new surface and can appear almost like-new. Minor scuffs and scratches will disappear. The downside is, of course, the cost and time required. Most people choose white gold over platinum to save money. But when you factor in the future expense of maintaining white gold, platinum is often cheaper.
I recently read an article titled “Rhodium Plating; like Colouring Your Hair, Only For Jewelry!” The article advocates using rhodium plating to “change up” your old jewellery. This is a fun idea, but keep in mind that plating white rhodium over a yellow or rose gold ring is a lot like bleaching brown hair blonde. It will look great at first, but then it will start to wear down and require maintenance. Be prepared for a lot of upkeep - or go through that awkward stage where your “roots” are showing.
Other Metals for Fine Jewellery
Rhodium: Rhodium is among the rarest and most valuable precious metals. Rhodium is resistant to corrosion and it does not oxidize. It is commonly used as a thin coating over White Gold, Silver, and Platinum Jewellery. Solid rhodium is rarely used in jewelry because it’s difficult to work with and pure rhodium is very expensive.
- Silver: Like gold, silver is extremely soft in its purest form. “Sterling Silver” is 92.5% pure, so it is usually stamped 925. Silver is often alloyed with copper, platinum and/or zinc. For more information about Silver Jewellery, read my blog entry All That Glitters is Not Gold: Everything You Need to Know About Sterling Silver.
- Palladium: I really like Palladium, but most jewellers in New Zealand do not work with it. A giant conspiracy? No. It’s just less malleable than Gold or Platinum, and requires special equipment and special training.
The metal itself is relatively inexpensive, so palladium (when it is available) is an excellent money-saving alternative to platinum. Palladium is light, which is a plus when used in earrings, mens rings, and oversized jewellery. Like platinum, palladium is naturally white and very durable. Palladium in jewellery is often 95% pure, stamped 950Pd. Due to its purity, palladium it is great for people with allergies to metal alloys like nickel.
- Platinum: Just like in the world of music, in jewellery platinum is king.Platinum is dense, strong, and long-lasting making it perfect for engagement rings. When used in jewellery, platinum is usually 90-95% pure. It is almost always more expensive than white gold.
Platinum is known for its weight, which means it isn’t great for earrings (ouch) or chunky jewellery. However the added weight is a nice touch in smaller pieces - when you hold a platinum ring and a 14k white gold ring side by side, the platinum ring feels more significant.
Platinum’s natural colour is a dull metallic white or pale gray, so it is sometimes coated in rhodium like white gold. But unlike white gold, when the rhodium wears down your platinum jewellery will still appear colourless. Just clean and buff your platinum every so-often to maintain its natural good looks.
For more information on platinum jewellery, read my article Platinum Is Forever: Why Spending More Now Will Save You Money Later.
- Titanium: Titanium is a grey-white metal used in a very pure form (99%). Titanium is inexpensive, durable, and lightweight; it feels “feather light” in comparison to platinum and gold. It is also 100% hypoallergenic.
I think the most enduring reason for titanium’s popularity is that it sounds cool. If you were a superhero, what would your ring be made of? Easy answer.
That said, titanium is extremely difficult to work with. It cannot be soldered, and quickly wears down jewellers tools. So if your ring is damaged or your fingers change size, count on having to buy an entirely new ring. Titanium is best reserved for very basic jewellery such as mens bands.
- Tungsten: Tungsten Carbide is inexpensive, heavy, and extremely durable. When I worked in a jewellery store, I used to challenge our customers to try to scratch our tungsten wedding bands. Some people spent ages scraping the rings on the floor or metal counter. They kept me entertained - but no one ever managed to scratch one.
Tungsten comes in dark grey, light grey (referred to as “white tungsten”) and black. Like titanium, tungsten cannot be resized and is hard to work with. For now, it’s also best reserved for mens bands.
Mixing gold and silver together is on-trend, but ensure that any jewellery that touches is made from the same metal. Rose Gold, White Gold, and Yellow Gold can be worn together as long as they are the same Karat, but 10k should never be worn alongside 18k. The same goes for wearing gold with platinum, titanium, etc.
This is especially relevant for stacking rings, wedding bands, engagement rings. It’s also important if you’re buying a chain and a pendant separately.
The reason for this is that different metals have different densities. If you wear a harder metal and a softer metal together, over time the softer metal will be damaged.
To Sum Up
- If you’re looking to buy diamond earrings, a diamond pendant, or a diamond necklace, I would recommend buying 18k or 14k gold.
- If you want a white metal and you’re purchasing an engagement ring, consider spending a little more on platinum.
- If it’s available, palladium is beautiful, strong, and cheaper than platinum.
- If you’re considering silver, choose a simple style with no diamonds.
- If you’re looking for a mens band, tungsten and titanium are worth looking into. Buy palladium, platinum, or gold if you’d like to be able to resize your ring later.
- Make sure all jewellery that touches is made from the same metal.
Off You Go!
I would like to close with an except from a very good book, and wish you the best of luck in your search for a very special piece of jewellery.
“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.You have feet in your shoes!
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
- Dr. Seuss