A lot of people have allergies to the kinds of metal found in the jewelry they wear. The most common allergy is to that of nickel, where people’s reactions can be anything from itchy, red skin to rashes, or in more severe cases, blisters. In the EU, nickel is considered a health hazard, and most of the jewelry sold there is nickel-free.
Silver is also a common allergen, and causes similar reactions in people as that of nickel. The skin can become inflamed or even turn green, with the earlobes being one of the most commonly afflicted areas.
In order to alleviate metal allergies, most people opt to wear gold jewelry, but even gold can cause skin problems and allergies for people who wear it. Why is this?
The simple answer is this: people suffering from an allergic reaction to gold are having an allergic reaction to another element that the gold has been mixed with. Unless the gold is pure (24-karat), the gold they are wearing has been mixed with another metal.
Gold is a noble element and an inert metal, meaning that it is non-reactive. Non-reactive means that it will not react to the elements around it. 100% pure, 24-karat gold will not tarnish, no matter how old it is or how long it has been exposed to the elements. This, in addition to the scarcity of gold, is what has attributed to its high value for thousands of years.
But little can be done with pure gold jewelry by means of creating custom pieces or engagement rings. It’s too soft to set stones and the modern trend is to have the wedding and engagement bands set in platinum or white gold. But oddly enough, there is no such thing as “white gold”.
White gold is technically non-existent. The only kind of pure gold that exists is 24-karat gold. That means that 18-karat gold is 75% something else and 14-karat gold is 58 ½ % something else. The “something else” is something that is mixed with the gold, and is most commonly another white metal, like cadmium or nickel.
As we discussed, jewelry that contains nickel is commonly a high irritant and affects those wearing it when it comes into contact with water, particularly when the wearer sweats or washes. The salts released from the nickel as it dissolves via sweat or water get into the skin and cause itchy, painful reactions.
So we are right back where we started! If something that is technically “gold” jewelry, has been mixed with something else, and the wearer is sensitive to metals that would commonly irritate them, they will most likely more than likely have a sensitivity to the composition of metals that comprise that piece of jewelry. And if they have a piece of jewelry that’s 24-karat gold, they not going to be able to set it with stones!
This is because pure 24-karat gold is a soft metal and will deform under pressure. If you have a pure 24-karat gold ring, it will actually bend around your fingers as you wear it over time. If you were to set stones in it, the prongs would bend out of place, and the stones would fall out. This is why you don’t see 24K gold rings with stones set in them—instead, a jeweler will use platinum, 14k gold, or 18k gold. But again, this puts us right back to our allergy problem!
Fortunately, a common solution for alleviated metal allergies has been developed.
That solution is ‘rhodium’. Rhodium is a silvery white metal that is related to platinum, and is often used to plate yellow gold and make it white – hence the term, ‘white gold’. Rhodium is very hard, very brittle and very white. It’s almost as expensive as gold and close to the price of platinum.
When coating a piece of jewelry in rhodium, the piece is dipped in rhodium and coated with a layer of the metal. The layer is only a few molecules thick and forms a protective barrier around the jewelry, therefore protecting the wearer’s skin from interacting with the mixture of metals comprising the metal beneath it.
The layer of rhodium will eventually wear off exposing the metal below it, but fortunately the ring or other piece of jewelry can be redipped over and over again in rhodium and not be harmed.
The cost of coating a piece of jewelry in rhodium can vary depending on the size of the piece and the current market value of rhodium. But the benefits of being able to wear your favorite pieces far outweigh the issue of having an allergic reaction every time you interact with your jewelry!