Platinum History, Jewelry, and Prices
Platinum Symbolizes Luxury
When you hear the world “platinum,” what comes to mind? Platinum weddings, platinum albums, platinum credit cards, and of course platinum jewelry. In other words, platinum symbolizes the ultimate in luxury and status. An extremely rare metal, platinum is also more valuable than gold or silver, and demand for it remains very high. This is a look into the fascinating history behind platinum, its use in jewelry and industry, and a glimpse into the way in which it has become a very valuable commodity for investors and collectors.
Platinum Was Far Scarcer Than Gold
Gold has always enjoyed a premier status throughout all of recorded history in virtually every civilization around the globe. The same cannot be said of platinum. While there is evidence of limited usage of the brilliant white metal in Ancient Egypt and among Pre-columbian Indians, for the most part, silver and gold were the precious metals of choice throughout antiquity.
There are two excellent reasons for this. First of all, unlike gold, platinum is found in very few locations around the world. Second of all, it has an extremely high melting point, which makes it very difficult to use. It was described in the writings of Italian Julius Caesar Scaliger as a metal “which no fire nor any Spanish artifice has yet been able to liquefy”. In addition to its rarity and difficulty to melt, platinum is often found in combination with other metals, and even today, it is a five- to six-month process to refine platinum.
Europeans were largely unaware of platinum until the Spanish Conquistadors came across it during their excursions to the New World. When they first discovered the “new” metal, they did not realize the value of what they had found. The Conquistadors sought gold treasures and sources of gold mining, and they initially considered platinum to be nothing more than an obstacle to their gold mining endeavors.
The region around what is now present-day Ecuador and Colombia is one of the few places in the world where platinum can be found. The Spanish believed that it was a form of “unripe” silver, and therefore named it platina, or “little silver,” from which the name platinum was derived.
Europe Becomes Fascinated With a New Precious Metal
Although the Conquistadors did not see the value of the precious white metal, Europeans did over time become more intrigued by the unique properties and brilliance of platinum. It was in the 1700s that interest began to build, as European scientists began to study it in depth. Alchemists hoped that platinum could be the magic ingredient to help them in their quest to turn lead into gold.
In the mid-1700s, platinum was “discovered” by British metallurgist Charles Wood, who came into contact with Colombian platinum which had been smuggled to Jamaica. Wood shared his findings with William Brownrigg, a member of the Royal Society in England, who made a report to the Society about this fascinating “new” metal in 1750, making particular note of its unusually high melting temperature.
Around this same time period, the Spanish explorer Antonio de Ulloa also “discovered” platinum while on a scientific expedition in Ecuador. By now, interest was spreading among the scientific community in Europe about the rare white metal, and in 1751, a Swedish scientist named Theophil Scheffer categorized platinum as a precious metal, due to its impressive properties. Besides its very high melting point, scientists were fascinated by the fact that platinum never tarnishes and is highly resistant to most types of corrosion.
The Only Metal Fit for a King
In the latter half of the 1700s, scientists finally found methods of making platinum more malleable, and that led to a demand for the precious metal which continues to this day. The fact that platinum is very hard to melt and is almost twice as heavy as gold made it a challenge to work with, to be certain, but it also made the metal an excellent choice for many industrial and decorative applications. Platinum was the ideal metal for creating laboratory instruments and crucibles for glass production.
When the metric system was devised in France in the 1790s, platinum was the metal chosen to make the kilogram weight. Because it would not corrode over time, it was the perfect choice for making a measure which would never change and would keep a consistent standard. Subsequent kilogram cylinders have also been made of platinum, as have bars to measure meters,although there have been concerns raised recently that these measures may have in fact changed in weight by an infinitesimal amount. Some of the earliest platinum weights and measures are still housed in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, where they are carefully preserved.
It was not only industry and science which took note of platinum in late 18th Century Europe. Jewelers and artists were also intrigued by the tarnish-free brilliance of the new precious metal. A French chemist named François Chabaneau found a method to purify platinum, and some of which was used in a platinum chalice which was created for Pope Pius VI by Francisco Alonso of Spain. It is now housed at the Treasury of St. Peter's in Rome. In that same time period, Marc Janety, the Royal Goldsmith to French King Louis XVI, began using platinum to make exquisite decorative objects, such as cutlery, watch chains, coat buttons, and a sugar bowl. The King was so enamored with the results that he declared platinum to be “the only metal fit for a king”.
Platinum in the 1800s: New Discoveries and New Techniques
In the early part of the 1800s, improved refining techniques greatly expanded the uses for platinum in industry. At the time, virtually all of the world's platinum came from one source: Colombia. Platinum was discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia in the early 1820s, which gave the world a new source for the incredibly rare precious metal. Much of the early Russian production was used to create roubles, which was the first time that platinum had ever been used as coinage, and in a larger sense, as a store of wealth. Years later, that would lead to platinum being collected for its investment value and exchange on world markets.
For most of the 1800s, the use of platinum was primarily restricted to industry. Although the brilliant tarnish-free metal had great aesthetic appeal, its high melting point made it very challenging to use in the creation of jewelry. All that would change with the invention of higher temperature jeweler's torches in the late 1800s. Until that time, it was common to set diamonds in silver to emphasize their white color and brilliance.
While the color was preferable to yellow gold, the softness of silver meant that settings had to be heavy and clunky in order to be sufficiently secure. This caused limitations in design and also could at times overwhelm and diminish the beauty of the diamonds. Once techniques advanced to the point where platinum was a workable alternative, it was quickly accepted as the best technique for setting diamonds and other precious gemstones, as it still is today.
Edwardian and Art Deco Platinum Jewelry
Some of the premier jewelers in the world were at their peak when platinum jewelry really took off in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The incredible strength of platinum meant that very intricate designs could be created which were lacy and refined, yet they were also very durable. New setting techniques requiring much less metal allowed diamonds to really shine.
The Edwardian period (1901–1910) was one of the first major art movements in jewelry which focused on the white brilliance of platinum. The prestigious Cartier firm of Paris was one of the premier jewelers in the world at that time. As King Edward VII of England declared, “If they have become the jewellers of kings, it is because they are the kings of jewellers.”
Cartier created elaborate diamond and platinum jewelry for its wealthy clients of the Belle Epoch featuring popular Edwardian motifs such as bows, garlands, and flowers. Designs included sautiors with tassels of pearls, platinum tiaras, and brooches, all exquisitely crafted in platinum (and usually with diamonds). Oddly enough, a preference for white platinum over yellow gold was also cemented by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, which sparked a trend for black and white mourning jewelry.
The white metal craze continued into the Art Deco period, which ran from the 1920s into the 1930s. While platinum remained very rare, supplies were boosted by the discovery of the world's largest platinum deposit in South Africa in 1924. Geometric designs were the predominant style for platinum jewelry, aided by the invention of new diamond shapes like the Asscher cut and the baguette cut in the early 20th Century. Famous jewelers such as Cartier, Tiffany and Co., and Van Cleef and Arpels excelled in creating spectacular platinum and diamond jewelry in this time period. Cool colors were preferred. The icy white shine of platinum was the ideal metal in which to set white diamonds, blue sapphires, and green emeralds. Glamorous stars from the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1930s wore suites of stunning platinum and diamond jewelry on screen. Platinum jewelry from the Art Deco era is still highly sought after today, commanding impressive prices at auction and through private sales.
Platinum Jewelry Craze Ended by WWII
The chances are that the demand for platinum jewelry would have continued apace had it not been for the eruption of World War II. At the outbreak of war, the United States government declared platinum a strategic resource and banned its use in non-essential applications such as jewelry.
White gold alloys had been invented in the 1920s to mimic the white color of platinum as a less expensive and more malleable alternative. When platinum was designated a strategic metal, jewelers used white gold as a substitute. In the post-war period, platinum did not regain its former position as the dominant metal for jewelry. Yellow gold was very popular in the 1950s, and silver jewelry started to become increasingly desirable in the 1960s and '70s.
Celebrities Make Platinum Hot Again
The 1980s were another hot period for yellow gold, and it was not until the 1990s that platinum began to retake its position as the premier precious metal for luxury jewelry. Its purity, hypoallergenic qualities, durability, and status have all worked together to make platinum very popular once again, especially for wedding bands.
Platinum's reputation as a symbol of luxury and status has been aided by the favor it has found on the red carpet. Jewelers like Harry Winston are known for lending some of their most spectacular pieces to celebrities to wear to award shows like the Academy Awards.
Perhaps one of the best-known pieces of Oscar jewelry is the 40 carat platinum and diamond necklace that Gwyneth Paltrow wore in 1999. When she won the Oscar for Best Actress in Shakespeare in Love, her father Bruce Paltrow purchased the $160,000 Harry Winston necklace as a gift for her. Winston threw in the matching earrings gratis.
Industrial Uses of Platinum
Many people might be surprised to learn that far more of the world's annual platinum production is consumed by industry than jewelry. It is of vital importance to the automobile industry, which uses platinum in the production of catalytic converters. As demand grows in developing economies for cars, so will the need for platinum.
The precious metal is also used in fields such as electronics, cancer drugs, and chemistry. The supply of platinum remains very limited to this day, which has resulted in prices that are higher than those of gold. About two-thirds of the world's platinum supply comes from the mines in South Africa. Approximately another one-quarter is mined in Siberia, with minor amounts coming from other deposits in places such as Canada.
It takes a whopping ten tons of ore to produce one ounce of pure platinum, in a process that averages five or six months. The amount of gold mined each year is more than ten times the worldwide annual platinum production. Incredibly, it is said that all the platinum ever mined would fit in the average American living room! The very limited sources and difficulty in processing have resulted in a stockpile above ground which is estimated to be only enough to supply the world's needs for a single year if production were suddenly halted. By contrast, the above-ground gold supply is about enough for about 25 years of demand.
Platinum: An Investment in the Future
Platinum futures were added to the New York Mercantile Exchange in 1956, as a way to diversify their agricultural offerings. The nature of commodity futures trading has made platinum futures primarily an investment vehicle for large speculators and industrial hedgers, rather than individuals. Platinum as a more modest investment began in the 1970s, when a Japanese company began producing five- and ten-gram bars in 1975, which were affordable enough for individuals. This was in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo, which caused precious metal prices to spike.
By the early 1980s, platinum investing had spread to Europe and the United States, and in 1983, the British Crown Possession the Isle of Man introduced the first modern one ounce Noble platinum coin. Sales were brisk, spurring both Canada and Australia to mint their own platinum coins in 1988. The United States of America finally released their own platinum coin in 1997, called the American Eagle. The coins were legal tender with high face values, but of course their real value was the platinum itself, which made them far more valuable than their face values.
The rarity of platinum has made it alluring to investors, although prices can tend to be volatile. Within a five year span, the high for platinum was $2252 per ounce, with a low of $774. The current price at this writing (May 2010) is approximately $1550 per ounce, while gold hovers around $1215. Not too long ago, platinum was worth more than double gold, with a ten-year average ratio that favored platinum over gold by a ratio of 1.84, and a ratio as high as 2.3 at one point during 2004.
However, worldwide financial instability has sent many investors back to gold as a “safe” place to store their wealth in uncertain times, which has caused the price of gold to skyrocket from a low of under $300 per ounce in 2000 to more than quadruple that price today. Some speculate that a recovering global economy will make platinum the more attractive investment long-term, because of the importance of platinum to the automobile industry. However, at this point, that is nothing more than theoretical speculation, so please don't take that as a recommendation to buy platinum based on this article!
Platinum's modern history is relatively short compared to other precious metals, but its future looks long and bright. Its remarkable density and strength, tarnish-free shine, and hypoallergenic qualities make platinum unique and desirable. Whether seen as a boon to industry, a financial investment, or as the ultimate in luxurious fine jewelry, platinum's prestigious place in our world is definitely assured.