White gold is an alloy created by mixing pure yellow gold with white metals. Jewelry made from white gold is often plated with rhodium, a bright white precious metal, to cover up its off-white undertone.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll delve into the history, composition, and properties of white gold, explore how it compares to other precious metals, and discuss how to care for your beautiful white gold jewelry.
The Origins of White Gold
The creation of white gold as a jewelry metal was in response to market demand for platinum, a naturally white metal that was first encountered by Europeans in the 18th century. The French king Louis XVI was famously a fan, declaring platinum to be the only metal fit for royalty.
However, platinum proved a difficult metal for jewelers to work with, and platinum jewelry remained scarce outside of elite circles. Its breakthrough moment came in 1890, when the French jewelry house Cartier began releasing jewelry crafted from a new, more workable platinum alloy.
Yet platinum was (and still is!) very expensive, as well as being much rarer than gold. In the early 1900s, enterprising jewelers created a more affordable alternative by alloying pure gold with white metals that “bleached” its natural bright yellow color to a pale, off-white one that more closely resembled platinum.
White gold finally came into its own during the WWII era. Platinum had been classed as a strategic metal for the war effort, which severely restricted its availability. So, the jewelry market turned to white gold as a substitute. It became so successful that, even after the restriction on using platinum for jewelry was lifted, white gold retained its popularity.
White gold remains in high demand to this day, and is especially associated with engagement rings.
What Is White Gold Made Of?
White gold is made from pure gold mixed with various white alloy metals such as nickel, zinc, palladium, and/or silver.
There’s no such thing as “pure white gold”, as all pure gold is naturally yellow. The addition of white metals masks the gold’s yellowness, producing alloys in warm-toned, grayish-white hues.
These alloy metals also add necessary strength to white gold. In its pure form, gold is a very soft metal that’s easily bent, dented, and scratched. Mixed metal gold alloys are more suitable for everyday wear.
If you own or have seen white gold that’s completely silver-white, without any yellowish or grayish tint to the jewelry, it’s because it’s been rhodium-plated (more on that coming up).
10K vs. 14K vs. 18K White Gold
The percentage of gold in white gold is measured in karats, with 14 karat and 18 karat gold being the two most commonly used in jewelry.
Though of lower gold purity, 14k white gold (54.3% pure gold) is harder and whiter than 18k, since its lower gold content allows for a higher percentage of stronger white metals.
However, 18k gold (75% pure gold) is heavier and has more of the natural beauty and luster that only alloys of high gold purity can provide. It’s more resistant to tarnish and corrosion, as well.
10k white gold (41.7% pure gold) is also widely available, but is not as traditional a choice for meaningful, long-lasting pieces like wedding rings due to its low gold content.
As well as being less valuable, 10k alloys are also more susceptible to tarnishing over time. Pure gold is 100% tarnish-resistant, but most other metals aren’t. Meaning that lower purity gold alloys are the most likely to tarnish.
Genuine 14k and 18k white gold are generally resistant to tarnishing, and if tarnish does occur, it can be removed without damage to the jewelry.
White Gold Alloys
White gold typically comes in one of two main alloy varieties:
Palladium White Gold
Made from alloying pure gold with palladium, a white precious metal that’s rarer than both gold and platinum. Sometimes silver is also added to the alloy.
Gold, palladium, and silver are all hypoallergenic, making this alloy variety ideal if you have sensitive skin.
Common alloy compositions:
|18K White Gold||75%||0% to 10%||15% to 25%|
|14K White Gold||58.3%||28% to 35%||8% to 14%|
|10K White Gold||41.7%||46% to 48%||7% to 11%|
Nickel White Gold
Made from pure gold mixed with nickel, copper, and zinc. As none of its white metal content is precious, nickel white gold is often more affordable than palladium white gold.
However, nickel can cause allergic reactions in some people. If you’re one of them, then nickel white gold is best avoided in favor of nickel-free alloys.
Common alloy compositions:
|18K White Gold||75%||17% to 19%||4% to 6%||2% to 3%|
|14K White Gold||58.3%||7% to 9%||6% to 8%||18% to 20%|
|10K White Gold||41.7%||16% to 18%||11% to 13%||29% to 31%|
See also: The Top 15 Different Types of Gold
To Plate or Not to Plate?
Most white gold pieces produced today, particularly white gold rings, are finished with rhodium plating. Rhodium is a hard, highly reflective, bright white metal that resembles platinum (they’re actually part of the same platinum family).
While commonplace, the practice of rhodium coating white gold isn’t mandatory, and some people prefer unplated pieces. There’s no objective “better” option, as it depends on your personal taste.
Before making a decision on whether to plate your white gold engagement ring or wedding ring, you should consider the pros and cons of each approach.
Pros of rhodium plating:
- Covers up the natural warm tint of white gold
- Extremely bright, shiny, and eye-catching
- Adds a layer of protection against scratches and dents
- Hypoallergenic (protects wearer against any nickel in the alloy)
Cons of rhodium plating:
- Conceals white gold’s natural beauty and charm
- Wears off and needs to be replated (about once every 1-2 years at $60 to $120 per treatment)
- Wears off unevenly, resulting in unsightly patchy areas (which can look like tarnish, even though it’s just the white gold underneath showing through)
- So bright it might “steal the thunder” of your sparkly (and expensive!) diamond
How to Identify White Gold
To tell if the piece you’re looking at is genuine white gold, try to find its quality mark. Also known as a quality stamp, this mark states the purity of the alloy from which the piece is made – typically 10k, 14k, or 18k gold. To keep these marks discreet, they’re usually placed on hidden areas of the jewelry, such as the inside of an engagement ring band.
Quality stamps aren’t mandatory in the United States, but adding them is still common practice in the fine jewelry industry. If a piece isn’t stamped, it’s the responsibility of the person selling it to disclose its gold purity through other means.
Here are the marks to look out for, and what they mean.
- 18 Karat, 18K, or 750. Any of these marks state that 18 of 24 parts (75%) of the metal content is gold.
- 14 Karat, 14K, 585, or 583. State that 14 of 24 parts (58.3%) is gold. Sometimes 14k gold is slightly overkarated at 58.5% gold content, indicated by a 585 mark.
- 10 Karat, 10K, or 417. State that 10 of 24 parts (41.7%) is gold.
- GF, GP or GEP. These marks mean gold-filled, gold plated, and gold electroplated, respectively. Usually found next to a karat number – for example, 14K GP.
- Vermeil or 925. States that the item is made from sterling silver and gold plated.
Types of White Gold Jewelry
White Gold Engagement Rings
White gold is by far the most popular precious metal for engagement rings. According to a 2021 study of more than 5000 newly-engaged participants, 45% had an engagement ring in white gold, followed by rings in yellow gold (20%), platinum (14%), rose gold (11%), and sterling silver (10%).
The appeal of a white gold engagement ring is easy to understand. It’s beautiful, lustrous (especially if rhodium-plated), very rarely tarnishes (if made from 14k or higher gold content), and resists damage well enough to be suitable for everyday wear.
White Gold Wedding Rings and Wedding Bands
Unplated white gold makes a great low-maintenance option for wedding rings or bands. It doesn’t require the upkeep of regular rhodium plating, and over the years takes on a lovely “lived-in” character.
You can also choose a rhodium-plated wedding band or ring. Though not the cheapest to maintain, there’s no denying that they look impressive!
White Gold Earrings, Necklaces, and Bracelets
Whether plated or unplated, white gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets have a timeless elegance about them.
Unplated white gold accessories complement most skin shades and tones, can be worn with a wide variety of outfits and fabric colors, and are suitable for occasions from formal to casual.
Pieces with rhodium plating impart a monochromatic sleekness to diamond jewelry, flatter cool-toned gemstones like tanzanite, and provide eye-catching contrast to garnets and other warm-toned gems.
A safety note for earrings:
If you have (or suspect you have) a nickel allergy, then approach nickel-containing white gold with extra caution. Any jewelry that pierces the skin is more likely to trigger a reaction.
How Does White Gold Compare to Yellow Gold and Rose Gold?
The price of gold pieces depends largely on their karat value and weight. All other things being equal, a white, rose, or yellow gold engagement ring cost about the same.
However, white gold can be slightly more expensive if the alloy contains palladium, and/or it’s been treated with rhodium.
As noted earlier, unplated white gold and yellow gold and require less upkeep white gold with rhodium plating.
Rose gold is also relatively easy to maintain, but lower karatages are more susceptible to surface discoloration due to their higher copper content. Copper reacts readily with oxygen and other chemicals in the air, which over time can give rose gold a darkened patina.
Regularly wiping down your rose gold pieces can slow or prevent patina from forming. If a piece already has it and you’d prefer it didn’t, you can take it for professional polishing. Don’t try to remove the tarnish yourself at home – this can damage your jewelry.
White gold is safe for most people to wear. However, those with nickel allergies should stay away from nickel white gold. Palladium white gold of any karatage is fine because all its alloy metals are hypoallergenic.
18k yellow gold alloys shouldn’t cause contact dermatitis issues either, as their nickel content (if any) is too low. Keep away from anything 14k or under, unless you’re sure it’s nickel-free.
All rose gold alloys are nickel-free and suitable for everyone, except perhaps the small percentage of the population with copper hypersensitivity.
Strength & Resilience
14k or 18k gold in any color is reasonably hard and durable, and with proper care can last for lifetimes. 10k alloys are even tougher.
White gold can be slightly more resilient against scratches and dents, as its primary alloy metals are palladium or nickel, which are both harder than rose and yellow gold’s main alloy metals of silver and copper. Plus, rhodium plating provides an extra layer of protection against damage.
According to style experts, yellow gold looks great on nearly everyone, but high purity alloys with a stronger yellow color can potentially wash out cool-toned pale skin. Yellow gold suits all warm-toned skin, from pale to olive to dark.
Rose gold also goes well with all shades of warm-toned skin, as well as cool-toned olive and dark skin. It may not suit cool-toned pale skin.
White metals such as white gold are flattering on most people, though they’re particularly striking on those with cooler tones.
If you have a neutral skin tone, you’ll probably look great in any color metal.
Not sure of your skin tone? Some simple guidelines that can help you find out:
- Warm-toned: You look best in yellow or rose gold accessories vs. white gold, and in off-white or cream vs. pure white clothing. You probably have deep brown to dark blonde hair. If the veins on the inside of your wrist are visible, they appear green to olive.
- Cool-toned: You look best in white metals and in pure white clothing vs. off-white. You probably have very dark or very light hair. Your wrist veins appear blue to purple.
- Neutral-toned: You look good in all metals and clothing colors, especially nude fabrics. You probably have hazel eyes. Your wrist veins appear green to blue.
What About Platinum and Silver?
Interestingly, pure gold is currently priced higher than pure platinum. So why is jewelry made from platinum more expensive than jewelry made from white gold?
The main reasons are:
- Platinum is denser (and therefore heavier) than gold. Because it weighs more, a platinum ring costs more than a white gold ring of the same size.
- Platinum alloys are typically 90% or 95% pure platinum. White gold alloys are usually 75% (18k) or 58.3% (14k) pure gold. The lower precious metal purity of white gold alloys brings down their price.
- Platinum has a higher melting point and greater brittleness than gold. Jewelers need specialized skills and tools to work with it, which raises the cost of craftsmanship.
Unless you’re a fan of platinum patina, platinum is the most difficult precious metal to maintain. While they don’t tarnish, platinum rings are highly liable to scratching and need regular polishing to renew their shine.
Silver also comes with relatively high maintenance, as it’s the precious metal most susceptible to tarnishing. Sterling silver tarnishes faster than pure silver, but even a pure silver ring will eventually tarnish from reacting with sulfur in the air.
Rhodium-plated white gold is comparatively simpler to maintain – which is sort of ironic, considering it’s the highest maintenance gold color. Though you have to pay for new rhodium plating after every 1-2 years of regular wear, the plating does a good job of protecting your jewelry from scratches and tarnish while it lasts.
Unplated white gold is the easiest to care for, needing only occasional at-home cleaning and professional polishing to keep it looking its best.
Jewelry made from platinum alloys or pure silver is 100% hypoallergenic.
Sterling silver can be an issue if you have copper sensitivity. But this condition is very rare, and skin reactions to copper are not as severe as reactions to nickel.
White gold is also safe to wear if you have sensitive skin, provided it’s made from a nickel-free alloy.
Strength & Resilience
While platinum scratches easily, it’s highly durable and resistant to wearing down. Many jewelers recommend an engagement ring with platinum prongs for this reason, as platinum is a good metal for holding gemstones securely.
White gold alloys resist scratching better than platinum, especially if they’re rhodium-plated. However, they’re less durable, meaning they wear down through metal loss as the years pass. You might even have an older relative who’s had to get the band of their white gold ring replaced after a few decades of wear and tear.
Silver alloys are the softest and least durable of the three. Most jewelers don’t recommended a sterling silver ring for your engagement or wedding ring.
As a general rule, a white metal like sterling silver, platinum, or rhodium-plated white gold will look better on people who have cool or neutral skin tones.
Saying that, if you’re more on the warm-toned side and you love white metals – then wear them! Rules are made to be broken, and what matters most is how you feel when you wear your favorite jewelry.
Other FAQs About White Gold
Is white gold really gold?
Yes, white gold is an alloy of real gold and other metals that make it look white. 18k white gold is as precious as 18k yellow gold or rose gold, as the three alloys contain the exact same percentage of gold content.
Can white gold rings be resized?
If the ring design isn’t too complicated, then yes. However, a ring with rhodium plating will need to be replated after getting resized.
Can I swim in white gold?
Jewelers don’t recommend swimming in white gold. Jewelry of any metal should always be removed before you get in a swimming pool or the ocean. Both types of water contain chlorine, which is damaging to jewelry metals.
Can I shower in white gold?
If it’s solid white gold, then yes. You can wear any color of solid gold in the shower. Tap water itself doesn’t damage gold alloys. But over time, soap and shampoo residues can build up on your gold and mask some of its shine, so some jewelers advise against it.
It’s up to you whether you’d rather endure the inconvenience of removing and replacing your jewelry on a regular basis, or risk it becoming duller and in need of cleaning.
If you do wear white gold in the shower, it’s best to avoid personal care products containing harsh chemicals, particularly sulfur compounds (scan the ingredients labels for sulfate or sulfite to check). Sulfur can’t damage gold, but it can tarnish other metals present in the alloy.
Costume jewelry that’s only surface-plated with white gold should always be removed before showering. The same goes for rhodium-plated white gold, as showering in it will reduce the plating’s lifespan.
How do I clean my white gold?
- Soak your white gold piece in a warm water and gentle dish soap solution for ten minutes.
- Gently scrub with a soft-bristled toothbrush. (Don’t use an old toothbrush for this – toothpaste residue might harm your jewelry.)
- Rinse and pat dry with a soft cloth.
Jewelers recommend against other DIY home cleaning methods, as many can be damaging to precious metals and gemstones.
Thanks for reading! To learn about another color of gold, head on over to our guide to rose gold jewelry.