Rhodium plating: what is it?

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Rhodium plating is a process used to coat materials with a decorative and protective layer of rhodium, commonly used on white gold jewelry. It is applied using electroplating techniques and can enhance the appearance and longevity of any metal. Non-electroplating methods exist but are inferior. Rhodium is a rare and expensive metal, and the plating is usually quite thin. It can cause blemishes on the skin in some cases.

Rhodium plating is a metal deposition process used to coat materials with a decorative and protective layer of rhodium. Rhodium is a noble metal that imparts an extremely lustrous and durable finish when applied as a plating. The most common examples of rhodium plating are the finishes applied to white gold jewelery to enhance, protect and preserve the shine of the pieces. These finishes are best applied by experienced professionals in properly equipped facilities, although DIY (Do It Yourself) rhodium plating solutions are readily available. Plating is typically applied using electroplating techniques, but a variety of non-electrical plating methods can also be used.

One of the most common, if not controversial, methods of preserving the stark, lustrous beauty of precious metal alloys such as white gold is rhodium plating. Rhodium is a member of the platinum family of metals and, by itself, is one of the rarest precious metals available and is quite expensive. When applied as a thin sheet, it provides a durable finish of exceptional gloss. Unfortunately, many jewelry manufacturers and retailers do not disclose the presence of rhodium plating on their white gold products, which has subjected its use to occasional controversy. However, rhodium plated finishes can greatly enhance the appearance and longevity of any metal they are applied to.

The most used method for applying rhodium-plated finishes is the electroplating process. This involves immersing the recipient material in a heated bath of rhodium-based plating solution and running an electric current through the bath using the recipient as a cathode or negative electrode. This process causes the rhodium in the solution to permanently bond to the receiving surface. Rhodium plating solutions typically consist of rhodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, and water. While these solutions are available as do-it-yourself kits, it’s usually preferable to have pieces plated by professionals, as the solutions can be dangerous and the results are often much better.

There are also non-electroplating methods of applying rhodium plating that rely only on chemical reactions to deposit the plated finish. While simpler, the end results with these methods often tend to be inferior to electroplating processes. From a health point of view, pure rhodium plating is totally inert and harmless. However, it can cause blemishes on the skin in some cases. Due to the extremely high cost of rhodium, the plating applied is usually quite thin. For this reason jewelry that sees frequent use may need to be relaminated at some point in its life.

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