Watchmaking: STS innovates to offer an alternative to the most expensive metal in the world!

In just a few months, rhodium’s price has reached historic highs, recently reaching CHF 690 per gram! Rhodium, which is used to coat specific watch movement components, is presenting the watchmaking industry with a new challenge in becoming the most expensive precious metal in the world. Fortunately, STS Saulcy Surface Treatment, the largest consumer of rhodium in Switzerland, is able to offer alternatives.

At the beginning of January 2021, the price of rhodium rose by 24% to CHF 690,000 per kilo in just a few days. That’s an amount 13 times the price of gold! It’s a surge that in 2020 had already made rhodium the most expensive metal in the world. According to the unanimous opinion of experts, this explosion in price is no coincidence, and it could continue to increase.

The demand for rhodium has exploded in recent years because of new anti-pollution vehicle emission standards. Diesel cars are disappearing in favour of petrol and hybrid vehicles; rhodium is used in catalytic converters in these vehicles to reduce toxic emissions from their exhaust systems. This is just one example of the wide range of applications of rhodium (reflectors, lighting, mirroring, nuclear applications) despite the fact it is very rare (about 20 tons is produced every year), mainly coming from mines in South Africa. Therefore, everything suggests that this inflationary trend won’t stop here, as shown by the continued increase since the beginning of 2021.

Alternatives with the same properties
The inflation in the price of rhodium is bad news for watchmaking and jewellery. Rhodium is used as an anti-scratch finish for jewellery, especially white gold. But it is for the watchmaking industry that this recent steep price rise has more unfortunate consequences. A rhodium layer is applied to several parts of the watch movement, especially to an ébauche movement.

The Swiss company STS, which has specialized in this type of operation in watch movements for many years, has mobilized its R&D teams to find alternative solutions to rhodium at much lower costs.
“Over the course of one year, we developed and tested two alternatives to rhodium in a laboratory and then in production,” explains Frédéric Saulcy, CEO of STS. “Among these two alternatives, the use of white platinum enables us to produce a large amount of coating with the same technical characteristics and colour as rhodium. This is a chemical and technological innovation that aligns perfectly with our company’s values and history.”

An innovation much less expensive than rhodium
As opposed to rhodium, whose worldwide extraction seems limited, STS’s alternative solutions, like platinum, show significant reserves and much more stable prices.
Aware of the manufacturing costs of watch components at a time when the sector is going through an unprecedented crisis, several major Swiss manufacturers have already expressed their interest in these technological alternatives to respond to the incredible surge in the price of rhodium.

STS technical data sheet:

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