I suppose the purist in me wonders if this is now Rhodium plated
jewelry and not Sterling Silver jewelry.
Tarnish on sterling silver has been an issue for about as long as
people have been working with silver. The traditional answer has
always been to deliberately darken those recessed areas that will not
get enough wear to keep them tarnish free, or to simply accept that
the owner will have to put a tiny bit of effort into the upkeep of
their jewelry. But of course, that's not a total solution.
The newer versions of sterling, like Argentium or United's Sterlium
+, are less prone to tarnish, so they help a good deal with this,
though even pure/fine silver will eventually tarnish, and these newer
alloys are no exception, even if they are a major improvement.
Rhodium plating is a "solution" the industry has used for decades. I
think it may have been the manufacturers of silver chain that were
and are the biggest contributors to this solution, because so many
types of chain, once tarnished, will pretty much never again quite
look like the totally bright silver they were when new. Too many
hidden recesses you can't polish again. For chain, it's a useful
solution, since in a jewelers showcase, it just wouldn't do for the
new product on sale to already be tarnishing...
But Rhodium has several problems. For me, the biggest is simply that
once you rhodium plate your silver, it no longer looks like silver.
it's a different color, and the surface now has a harder surface
coating so the effects of normal wear don't look like silver either.
If you want your jewelry to look like cheap chrome, hey, you're in
luck. If you want it to look like silver's unique color and
character, you can't expect to keep that with rhodium plating.
Second is what you then do to the ability of future jewelers to work
on the piece. Ordinary heating from a torch, such as for sizing a
ring, will cause the rhodium to blister. Can't fix that. For some
cases, Firescoff flux can help prevent this, but it's not perfect.
Polishing off the blistered rhodium to get back to the silver
underneath, either to leave it that way or plate it again, takes off
significant metal. Destructive. And will cause unlucky
gold/silversmiths who get caught by the stuff to prematurely get old
Then there's cost. Rhodium may be put on in a very thin layer, but
the stuff isn't cheap. So you add to the cost of the silver, while
doing what some (like me) would call damaging the look of the piece.
Finally, there's the technical aspect. Rhodium plating silver isn't
as simple as rhodium plating white gold. With gold, you can put a
thin rhodium plate directly on the gold if you want to brighten up
the color of the white gold. Works well, if that's the effect you're
after, and is fairly easy and simple to do. Not so with silver.
Rhodium doesn't adhere so well directly on silver, and more
importantly, silver in direct contact with the rhodium plating
solution will tend to contaminate it, causing it to no longer plate
with the nice white color you want. So to rhodium plate silver
correctly, you need to first copper plate it (the copper is also good
so you can see just from the color if you've got complete coverage)
and then plate again with nickel (again, the contrast in color from
the copper lets you see whether you've got good coverage). The
nickel plated surface can then be rhodium plated. This is a good deal
of extra work, and each step is an opportunity for something to not
be quite right, or not clean enough, or otherwise lead to a less than
perfect rhodium plated layer. And when you do this, you also have to
be sure the rhodium plated layer is now thick enough to protect the
eventual end user, who's going to wear this jewelery, from being
exposed to the potentially toxic or allergenic nickel layer. Just
bad news all around from many perspectives.
The bottom line for me is that rhodium plating on sterling silver is
the mark of crappy sterling silver. The only benefit that's real is
the convenience of the retailer who doesn't then have to deal with
inventory tarnishing in the showcase.
But careful storage in a showcase, perhaps using one of a number of
products that can protect unplated sterling from tarnish (temporary
dips, or 3-M anti tarnish paper, for example), may be a bit more
fuss, but can solve that problem without the insult to the silver.