The Right White

Consumers may not know the implications of having rhodium-plated jewelry—in fact, they may not even have a clue that their favorite pieces are plated—but retailers and manufacturers have long grappled with the pros and cons of making and selling white gold jewelry. Now, it seems, change is on the horizon.

While the White Gold Task Force works toward releasing a set of guidelines at the June JCK Show ~ Las Vegas, David Skuza, vice president of the W.R. Cobb Company in Cranston, R.I., has come up with his own solution for the clients to whom he sells findings and finished solitaire settings: a durable and beautiful white gold that does not need rhodium plating.

W.R. Cobb, a full-service manufacturer since 1877, is always testing new ideas, and a few years ago its employees were working on a project that yielded a very pretty 22k gold that, when alloyed, was about as hard as 16k gold. Skuza’s metallurgist Arthur Taylor thought he could improve upon it by creating a white gold so bright that it didn’t need rhodium at all.

“This, to me, was a great idea and one that we wanted to investigate,” Skuza says. “Because there is no real standard for plating in this country, a lot of people have a lot of very valid concerns. Asking around, I found that many of my clients have a ‘Rhodium and White Gold’ committee to address just such problems.”

Those problems include the fact that rhodium plating is a tedious and expensive process that can require electroplating and wax masking to create two-tone pieces. Also, when the rhodium wears off, clients are angry and retailers are stuck with the job of replating. Often the client wasn’t even aware that the piece was plated in the first place, so the retailer’s task is a double one—repair and explanation. The repair, says Skuza, is not inconsequential in terms of labor because a piece has to be stripped before it can be replated.

In an effort to alleviate as many of these problems as possible, Skuza’s team created a 10k, 14k, and 18k white gold nickel-based alloy that improves four important factors: hardness, luster, brittleness, and durability. Skuza also had the nickel release rate of his alloy tested by an independent lab to make sure that it passed the strict European standards put in place to eliminate allergic reactions.

“The differences between the new white gold we are offering and our old formula are many,” Skuza says. “The new white gold is harder, which makes the metal hold a brighter luster when it’s polished, and it also doesn’t scratch as easily. In addition, the metal is still ductile—not brittle. A setter can still set diamonds; a bench jeweler can still work with it. It is better looking and also will wear much better.”

Of course, there are pros and cons for a manufacturer or retailer to consider when switching to a new alloy. One factor is pricing. Because Skuza’s manufacturing costs go up slightly with the new white gold, so too will prices for findings, casting grain, and finished product. However, Skuza assures that the increase will be less than 5%, and that it will more than pay for itself when compared with the time and labor saved by not replating. Also, a jeweler who sizes the metal must invest in new spring, wire, and bar stock as well as a special solder. W.R. Cobb offers this complete solution for its clients as well as technical support to manufacturers.

For those who want to avoid a nickel-based alloy, Skuza’s team also has devised a 14k and 18k palladium-based white gold that is a bit darker in color and slightly more expensive. Skuza claims the company wants to be a “total solution” for the industry, no matter what the preference. Cobb has been quietly testing the white gold for the past six months, and responses thus far have been positive.

What, then, does the industry think about this renaissance in white gold? James Marquart, president and CEO of Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America (MJSA), hasn’t seen W.R. Cobb’s new alloy firsthand but says it “fits very much within what we are trying to do with the White Gold Task Force.”

The Task Force, an industry-based organization that was formed in 2003 at the Expo New York show, is made up of 40 companies led by MJSA and the World Gold Council (WGC). The key issue for assessment: What defines white? According to Marquart, the goals are to work on the white gold issue and to see how the industry can enhance the product itself. Its plan has been to look at various alloys to eventually come up with the best base white gold from which to work.

The White Gold Task Force’s proposed guidelines and findings will be released at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas in June, but Marquart reminds jewelers that the guidelines are not enforceable. The Task Force is working with organizations like CIBJO and the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC) to create international standards, and it hopes ultimately to address one major question: Will the customer be happy with the product years from now?

Rick Bannerot, vice president, advertising, for WGC’s U.S. jewelry programs, explains that the Task Force subjected 71 white gold samples from 15 to 20 refiners and manufacturers to spectrographic and spectrometer measurement by an independent source. The Task Force expected to get results that fell into two categories—standard and premium—but the answers came back in three distinct ranges: Off-white, Standard White, and Premium White. In most cases, Bannerot explains, the Standard category won’t need plating to attain “optimal whiteness,” and the Premium category should never need a rhodium enhancement. Marquart agrees, saying that many companies rhodium-plate for cosmetic reasons when the metal doesn’t even require it.

The bottom line, according to Bannerot, is that manufacturers must have a new understanding of these ranges and make the best choice in terms of plating based on their base white color. “The pieces that will get the most wear and tear—rings and maybe bracelets—should be created from a higher grade of white gold and shouldn’t be plated,” he says. “The constant use will eventually wear away the plating, and the customer will be dissatisfied. Pieces that have less stress, maybe earrings or a brooch, don’t have to be so white to begin with and may benefit from the plating for that ‘bright white’ look.”

For his part, Marquart wants to be able to provide the retail community with a white gold that is not going to constantly come through at a different whiteness. Is Skuza’s new white gold good news for the industry? Marquart says yes, because he has found that there is no question from the retail side that having a white gold product that is good before it is plated is extremely important.