Let White Gold Wear a White Hat

In the United States, white metals such as silver, white gold, and platinum have enjoyed a boom in popularity over the last three decades. This is a function of fashion trends and red carpet events, as well as advertising by Platinum Guild International, Diamond Trading Company commercials, national TV spots by the big chain stores, and aspirational print ad campaigns from upscale jewelry designers.

Unfortunately, this growth area for jewelers comes with some baggage. As a retailer, to what degree are you responsible—even obligated—to reveal that some, if not all, of your white gold jewelry is rhodium plated? How do you deal with returns of white gold product whose plating wears off, revealing a grayish to brownish gold alloy underneath?

The law does not require the disclosure of rhodium plating, but it is highly recommended, especially if the piece is likely to need replating because of normal wear and tear. (Bangles and rings are likely candidates.) One jeweler at a gold jewelry sales seminar actually said that they welcome customer complaints about jewelry whose plating has worn off because “it gives us the opportunity to turn a frown upside down” by offering to “re-dip” the offending piece. That sounds good in theory, but why look for trouble? How many disappointed customers never come back at all? Re-dipping is sometimes necessary, but it’s not a panacea. It’s better to avert problems in the first place than build in customer disappointment.

One simple thing you can do is buy nonplated premium white gold jewelry, which is alloyed with higher percentages of palladium, rhodium, and other white metals that produce a higher “white” luster. You can—and should—charge a premium for this product, if you explain that it has not only 14k or 18k gold content but also is alloyed with other precious metals. You enhance your reputation by being straight with your customers and explaining why you chose to sell a more precious white gold.

Earrings and necklaces, which receive less wear, can get away with rhodium coatings, but be sure to ask manufacturers to specify the thickness of the plating to ensure that it’s sufficiently thick not to wear off under normal use. (Ideally, 3 or 4 microns for low-friction jewelry. Note that the plating may wear off faster if it’s thinner or a client has acidic or salty skin.) This is a simple specification, but it’s rarely asked for in buying contracts. Require manufacturers, in writing, to replace, at their cost, any jewelry that does not remain white. This gives you legal recourse not only for yourself but also as an advocate for your customer.

When purchasing white gold product, buyers should have a controlled light-source box that exactly matches the light source the manufacturer uses so they can specify and agree on the degree of whiteness, especially for uncoated white gold pieces. For the sake of consistency, that specification should be based on color standards developed by the plastics industry, not paint chips, Web-based color standards, or Pantone ink standards.

Disclosure of plating does not have to be an obstacle. Educate your employees about the manufacturing process so they can discuss it with ease and conviction at the counter. You can provide an attractively designed information card with each piece that explains the process, why recoating may be necessary in the future, and what your guarantee includes. And, of course, make sure it’s a piece that can easily be re-dipped. If it isn’t, you might want to reconsider whether to sell it in the first place.

The U.S. jewelry industry currently does not have enforceable legal standards for white gold. Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America has devised a set of standards, but those are voluntary. As an industry, weshould embrace higher standards and full disclosure and actively police ourselves so that poor-quality, thinly plated gold jewelry does not get into the marketplace and sow consumer confusion, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. In a tight economic climate, where we are fighting harder than ever for share of wallet, how jewelers approach the buying and selling of white gold jewelry is critical to our future success with jewelry consumers. If we don’t set and adhere to higher standards for white gold manufacturing and sales, outside regulators will create and enforce standards that we, as an industry, will find onerous and costly.