Back to Ganoksin | FAQ | Contact

Rhodium plating question


#1

Is there a debate of any type regarding Rhodium plating of Sterling
Silver jewelry? I work in a pretty confined environment and until I
joined Orchid I spoke “Jewelry” only with my brother and pretty much
noone else.

I am a silversmith and work in the American Craft Tradition. While I
may make a dozen bracelets I make them one at a time and each is
unique in its own way. I did a craft fair this past week end.
Business was good. A woman I graduated from High School with 44
years ago asked if I rhodium plated my silver jewelry. I said I did
not. She asked if I was worried about it tarnishing and I said I was
not. Tarnish in the right places gives sterling jewelry depth and
character that it won’t have any other way.

It turns out she owns a jewelry store in an Eastern Adirondack
resort community and they rhodium plate all of their sterling
jewelry. I know why theyplate it and I suppose I have no problem
with the plating of product in the market they are working in. And
at the same time

I suppose the purist in me wonders if this is now Rhodium plated
jewelry and not Sterling Silver jewelry. And I suppose this question
has already been beaten up on the Orchid forum and if so please
direct me to the archive.

Don Meixner


#2

Hi Don,

I mostly work in sterling silver and don’t use rhodium plating. The
same applies to the other jewellery artisans I know around this
area. I absolutely agree with you that some the platina of tarnish
contrasting with polished highlights gives depth and character to
silver jewellery. I note that most of the mass produced silver
jewellery in the stores around here seems to be rhodium plated with
a cold hard shine that reminds me more of surgical instruments than
the softer warmth of sterling silver.

I am also aware of discussions on this forum that suggest that
rhodium plating makes jewellery very difficult to repair because
when the piece is hit with the torch plating forms a hard black skin
that is difficult (understatement) to remove. I suppose it suits
throw away items if you like the cold hard shine.

I will stick to sterling.

All the best
Jen


#3
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
and angry…

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.

Peter Rowe


#4

Don-

She owns a store. She wants stuff to look bright and shiny. That’s
fine, but rhodium plating silver in my book is not.

then you have to re hand finish the whole thing. It all has to be
removed with abrasives. It’s a miserable job to do.

B: It’s a hard bright white that does not look like silver. It can’t
be oxidized the same way and is often just painted black in the
crevices.

C: It has to be copper or nickel plated underneath the rhodium
before plating on silver so when it does wear off is shows badly.

D: I have always associated rhodium plated silver with cheap
imported goods. That’s just a personal aesthetic.

Or., was hand polishing all of the silver.

It’s her store, but I wouldn’t do it. I own a lot of silver and just
keep anti tarnish strips with it.

Have fun and make lots of jewelry.

Jo Haemer
timothywgreen.com


#5

I’ve always heard that putting silver into your rhodium bath will
destroy the bath.

Maybe they’re nickle plating their silver and rhodium plating after
that.

Or maybe they’re just plating with nickle.

But either way, it’s a lot of extra labor to mess up a perfectly
good piece of silver jewelry.

I’m with you and hold that silver should tarnish.

Paf Dvorak


#6

Plated is plated is plated. You are right, it is now rhodium plated
sterling. which seems a bit odd to me! If the maker wanted it not to
tarnish why not use fine silver? The purist in me says “don’t
consider doing things any way other than YOUR sensibilities
dictate!”…rer


#7

I’m not a “Silversmith” per se, however I do work with silver
occasionally. To the best of my knowledge plating silver directly
with rhodium is a no, no for two reasons. First, silver will
contaminate a rhodium solution. It will dissolve in the rhodium
base, I. E, sulphuric acid. Secondly, rhodium plating itself is
porous. Silver will tarnish through it. Silver requires a nickel
plate before rhodium plating.


#8

I agree with you, Don, about rhodium plating. I don’t do it, nor do
I ‘seal’ copper because it’s not permanent. I myself am running into
a conundrum however because I really really like the oxidized silver
look, esp. when mixed w/ gold. Without subverting your thread, I am
wondering how folks feel about BLACK rhodium plating. I think it’s
more honest, as it’s more obvious - but it isn’t permanent either.
Yet I have seen black rhodium plated jewelry set w/ diamonds, as if
the designer expected it to last. Some will say shiny polished
silver isn’t permanent either, but that’s a maintenance issue to my
mind, whereas replating… somehow isn’t. Thoughts?

Blessings,
Sam Kaffine
Sterling Bliss, llc


#9
It has to be copper or nickel plated underneath the rhodium before
plating on silver.... 

If copper/nickle plating is necessary before rhodium plating,
doesn’t it rather beg the question: Why bother to make anything in
silver in the first place? If you want to please the cheap, bright
and shiny brigade (and there’s nothing wrong with that, I guess:
it’s a big market) you may as well make everything in Cu and then
sling on the rhodium. Not foe me though. My copper pieces are
unashamedly copper, and for the rest I use sterling and gold.

Janet


#10

About 20 years ago I had made a pendant for the head of an
organization, they liked it and wanted 500 more in sterling silver
but they did not want them to tarnish. I asked around and at that
time was told, by the people at large plating facilities who plate
for a living (like Tanury), that I couldn’t just rhodium plate over
sterling. They said that I needed a barrier coat under the rhodium
because the rhodium is porous and the silver will eventually oxidize
underneath and that will bleed through. The barrier coat was nickle
(non-porous) and I had to flash plate it with copper to get the
nickle to plate nicely. So it was copper then nickle and last
rhodium, the whole thing a huge pain. These days, with oxidation
resistant silver alloys, maybe the bleed through is less of an
issue?

Either way, rhodium is a different color than silver so I don’t like
the way it looks when rhodium plated. There is something about
silver in its natural state that I like.

But what I think doesn’t matter much, it’s what the customer wants
that matters. But is what the customer wants really what they would
want if they understood the choices better? Are they just influenced
by the mass marketed crap-ola that is all they ever see? Or do they
really prefer silver that doesn’t look like silver? Mark


#11
Yet I have seen black rhodium plated jewelry set w/ diamonds, as
if the designer expected it to last. 

This specific use has some defenses. If you use black rhodium on a
nice smooth polished surface, it won’t last. Even less durable than
standard rhodium.

However, it’s use on diamond set areas has one big difference. Much
of the metal around diamond settings is protected by the settings.
The stones, project up above much of the metal, and prongs or beads
may be exposed at their tips, but their sides and bases are hard to
reach in normal wear and tear, so while the very tips of beads and
prongs will quickly wear to a bright color again, the bulk of the
metal will remain dark (unless someone puts it in something that can
damage it, like leaving it in the ultrasonic too long…)

In this, it’s not different from the use of liver of sulphur or
other oxidized finishes on sterling. Textured, recessed areas retain
the dark coloration, while high spots get worn bright again.

So long as this is anticipated and expected by the designer and
appropriate for the design, I rather like the look. It’s much better
than using things like paint on “antiquing” to fake the dark colors
on golds…

Peter Rowe


#12

Don.

I am coming to this conversation a little late. I have been away
from Orchid for a while as I recently lost my mind and agreed to
tutor kids in one of the Syracuse City High Schools. This has taken
a lot of my time. When I learned how to make jewelry from Dad over
forty hers go, he taught me a very simple method that he learned
while working with Native Americans in Oklahoma that was not
dependent on a lot of complicated tools and processes (you would not
know this looking at my shop today). The designs were simple,
straight forward, and relied on the native qualities of sterling
silver, gold, and whatever stones might also be included in the
piece. With time, as the cost of silver and gold went up, I adjusted
my designs, added new designs, and also incorporated other metals.
At no time did I choose to plate one metal with another, glue pieces
of low cost stone to thin pieces of expensive stone to make it go
further or make other compromises that took away from the quality
that was part of the native material. This is what I think that
rhodium plating does. It may be what you have to do to commercially
sell jewelry in the Eastern Adirondacks, but it is not what we have
to do to sell to the market that we enjoy. The only exception that I
would make is commercial chain for reasons that have already been
discussed in this thread. Tarnish is a fact of sterling silver life.
We have figured out how deal with it and, as long as we are up front
with our customers about that fact that tarnish happens, we can use
it in ways that enhance the look of our jewelry over time and make
our pieces unique. There was a time in the 70s when I was curious
enough about plating to buy a Hoover plating system. I used it once
and decided that it wasn’t for me. The chemicals went in a hazardous
waste collection twenty years ago and the rectifier went to the dump
a couple years ago after I discovered that mice had chewed away the
insulation on most of the components. I do still have most of the
lost wax casting equipment that I also had to have about the same
time and quickly discovered that I really didn’t want to cast with
the exception now of using Delft clay. I may figure out how to use
the burn out oven to harden silver. At the age of 65, I will
continue to explore the qualities native to sterling silver, 14 K
gold and other unadulterated metals and try to design, make, and
present pieces to my customers that are true to our heritage and are
in no way a compromise to that which I learned many years ago. Rob

Rob Meixner