What exactly is metal plating?
In the grand scheme of things, metal plating is a manufacturing process where a thin layer of metal is used to coat another type of metal known as a “substrate.” Plating is done to all sorts of metals and used for many different things, like brass-plated home decor, chrome-plated car accessories, or gold- or silver- plated jewelry. Pretty much any type of metal can be plated over any other metal substrate.
In jewelry, plating is mostly done for aesthetic reasons. Plating a low-cost substrate like brass or copper with gold or silver allows jewelry designers to offer customers the look of solid metal jewelry at a lower price. Sometimes jewelry plating is done for protection of the substrate metal, such as when white gold is rhodium plated to increase scratch and tarnish resistance.
The downside of plated metals is that the plating will break down over time. How much time varies depending on the metals used, but also on how much the item is used. The plating on high-touch items like brushed nickel plated door knobs or a silver plated ring will break down much faster than brass plated candlesticks that just sit on a shelf.
Can you wear plated jewelry even if you have metal allergies?
The short answer... Maybe.
Nickel is the most common metal allergy, so if you know that neither the substrate nor the plating solution contained nickel, then you should be able to wear the piece without having a reaction. The problem with this is that there’s no convenient, easy-to-read ingredient list on most jewelry.
If you’ve had a reaction while wearing gold plated jewelry specifically, it might be because there’s nickel “hiding” in the jewelry! Copper is a common substrate for gold plated pieces, but gold applied directly over copper will tarnish so plating services commonly apply a layer of nickel before applying the gold in order to reduce the tarnishing. This means that the second your gold layer starts breaking down, you’re being exposed to the underlying nickel.
While researching this post, I came across a LONG list of rules from the FTC regarding jewelry labeling, but nothing about manufacturers being required to disclose all the metals used in their plating process. Fortunately for me, the main supplier I use for my plated metals DOES disclose that information, so I can confidently say that my plated metals are nickel-free!
What happens if you wear plated jewelry all the time?
As I mentioned above, plating will break down over time. If you wear plated jewelry 24/7 it’s guaranteed to break down quickly. In my research, I saw one estimate that gold plating typically lasts about 2 years with proper care, which means you might only get a few months of that piece looking good before the plating breaks down!
Aside from losing the aesthetic of your jewelry piece, wearing the bare substrate metal can cause discoloration or allergic reaction (in the case of the gold-plated jewelry with nickel underneath). Your piece might become completely unwearable once the plating breaks down!
How to care for plated jewelry
Exposure to water and daily-use chemicals (like in soap, perfume, sunblock, etc.) speeds up the breakdown of plating on jewelry, so the best way to prolong the life of your plated jewelry is by keeping it clean and dry! According to one plating service company’s website, silver plating is particularly prone to cracking and flaking when exposed to humidity.
- Remove your plated jewelry before any wet activity, including washing your hands, getting in the pool, going white water rafting, etc. And yes, sweating counts as a wet activity, so don’t wear your plated jewelry in the gym, sauna, or out for a long run.
- Store your plated jewelry somewhere dry, like in cute boxes on top of your dresser or hanging in your closet. Just NOT in the bathroom!
- Putting on your jewelry should be the last step of your getting-ready process, only after you’ve sprayed all your hairspray, makeup setting spray, perfume, etc.
- Remove your plated jewelry at bedtime (if not before), especially if you’re prone to night sweats or drooling. Again, the goal is just to keep your plated jewelry DRY.
What can you do if the plating breaks down on your favorite jewelry?
There’s a couple of options once the plating on a piece breaks down. One option is to take (or send) your piece to a re-plating service. You might be able to find a local jewelry store that can re-plate your piece or you might need to send it to a plating service by mail.
The other option is asking a jeweler to re-make the piece for you using solid metals that can stand up to being worn all the time. This is likely to be a pretty expensive process because - unless you know the maker who made the original piece - anyone you take it to is going to have to figure out how to re-create the piece from scratch. It’s likely to be much more expensive than just buying a brand new solid-metal jewelry piece.
So what metals CAN be worn all the time?
If you really want a put-it-on-and-forget-about-it piece of jewelry that you can wear all the time without it affecting the aesthetics of the piece, your best bet is to invest in a solid metal like gold, silver, or surgical steel. If you can’t afford a solid metal piece, “filled” metals like gold-filled or silver-filled are much more durable than plated metals, but know that those will eventually break down too (but I’m talking years, not months). There’s more info about filled metals on my Materials & Care page if you want more info about those!