In my retail days, one of the pleasures of the business was selling an engagement ring to a young, first time buyer or couple. This might be their first (and maybe only) chance to shop for an expensive piece of jewelry with both substantial value (and cost), and a strong meaning attached to it.
Once the diamond was chosen, the next task was to select a ring to set it in. Traditionally, the diamond was set into white metal to distinguish it from everyday chains and bracelets. So inevitably the next question would be whether to use white gold or platinum.
A Brief History
Up until the 1940’s, the white metals commonly available for jewelry were silver or platinum. Silver’s habit of tarnishing precluded it from being used in most ‘serious’ jewelry. But as World War II escalated, the government decided that platinum had too many industrial uses for war (namely its catalytic properties) to let it be wasted on jewelry. So it was actually banned from public use. What was a young couple in love to do?
The always enterprising jewelry industry had an answer—white gold, which had been around for a while as a less expensive alternative to the more expensive platinum. But gold is yellow, you say. True, there is no naturally occurring white gold. It is actually an alloy, which is a mixture of different metals used to create a new metal with specific properties.
Understand that all your 10k, 14k, and 18k jewelry is made from an alloy. 24k is pure gold. 18k means that this particular alloy is 18 parts pure gold and 6 parts of other metals (adding to 24). 14k is 14 parts gold and 10 parts other and so on. So a ring made from 14k white gold is 14 parts pure yellow gold and 10 parts of other white metals (nickel being most common) with the intent of making it look white.
Well, if it’s cheaper than platinum, I’ll take it! But not so fast! There are other considerations.
The Difference Between Platinum and White Gold Jewelry
Let’s take a look at platinum. Yes, it is more expensive. For one, there is much more gold mined every year than there is platinum, so it’s about 60 times rarer. It’s also heavier by volume. A one inch cube of platinum is about 10% heavier than a one inch cube of pure gold.
The difference is even more pronounced in jewelry as platinum is used at a higher purity. Remember, the 14k is only 14 parts or 58% gold, while platinum is used at 90-95% purity. Plus, the metals it is alloyed with (iridium and ruthenium) are just as heavy and even more expensive. So all in all, it takes more platinum to make the same item than white gold.
Even at today’s market where the price of gold and platinum are competitive (which is unusual), the cost difference is still 2-5 times greater than white gold.
Price aside, the properties of the metals themselves are diverse. White gold is harder, but more brittle. This means that prongs on a ring made of white gold are less liable to bend, but when they do, they can easily crack, whereas platinum prongs can be bent back.
The hardness of white gold also makes it more scratch resistant, but polishing requires buffing and then coating with another platinum-based metal called rhodium. Which leads me to the biggest difference—COLOR. As white gold is alloyed to make it appear white, the color is not a pure white, but more yellowish/brownish, especially when it becomes scratched. That is why, after polishing, white gold is plated with the pure white metal, rhodium.
Platinum, on the other hand, is white by nature. When it gets scuffed, it turns a little grey and a polishing is all that’s needed to bring it back to new. Fortunately, platinum can be polished until it is worn out, whereas white gold can only be rhodium plated so many times before it turns dark, and you have to strip all the plating and start from scratch. And while platinum is somewhat more difficult to work with and repair (partially reflected in the cost), it generally requires less maintenance.
Although there are new white gold alloys made with palladium (yet another platinum group metal), the majority are still alloyed with nickel, which is a highly allergenic material.
Many people are skin-sensitive to nickel, and can get a dermatitis-like rash from prolonged contact. I’ve encountered many a swollen earlobe and finger rashes from people wearing nickel-alloyed white gold. In many cases, the only solution to this sensitivity is platinum, which is one of the most highly hypoallergenic materials.
In sports, the awards are bronze, silver, and gold highest of all. But in real life, we strive for the platinum card. And so, young lovers, my recommendation is to use white gold for your ordinary jewelry and platinum for the two most important pieces of jewelry in your lives—your engagement ring and wedding band. Like your marriage, the platinum should last forever