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The Story of Platinum

Oct 13, 2007
The overnight stardom of platinum really boils down to years of paying dues and working hard prior to its introduction and sudden success in jewelry at the turn of the 20th century. Let's look at the history of platinum and the properties that have made it an important metal in the world of jewelry.

The properties of platinum that make it perfect for jewelry, its exceptional hardness, ductility and high melting point, are the very properties that kept it in obscurity for centuries. True platinum appeared on a casket made by ancient Egyptians a few millennia ago, but small amounts of platinum are found with almost all native gold. This appearance could have been accidental.

The Pre-Colombian Incas of Ecuador also used platinum, but their fabricating techniques mysteriously disappeared when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived. Spanish considered platinum a nuisance and named it platina (small silver). While platinum resembled silver visually, it resisted melting or forging, so the Spanish government banned its import in the 17th century.

A little platinum did make its way to Europe as contraband and by the 18th century, platinum had captured the interest of the scientific community. Scientists first thought platinum was an alloy of gold and iron. In 1751 they concluded it was a new metal.

Research disclosed platinum could be melted if small amounts of arsenic were added. It is also malleable and could be beaten into sheets, and that it was extremely ductile and could be drawn into very fine wire. One gram of platinum yields a thread over a mile long.

By the end of the 18th century, platinum's non-reactive properties and resistance to heat and acids made it invaluable as a vessel for scientific, medical and industrial purposes. This brought it to the attention of the rich and powerful.

Just before the Revolution, Louis XVI hired a goldsmith to fabricate a platinum sugar bowl and coffeepot. Just after the Revolution, the Republican French government hired the same goldsmith to make standard weights and measures in platinum.

In the beginning of the 19th century, platinum was separated from other metals in its group -- palladium, iridium, osmium, rhodium and ruthenium. After new deposits of platinum were discovered in Russia in 1822, it began to appear in decorative chains.

By the 1850s, it was featured in cuff links and shirt studs. At first, platinum was backed with gold (like silver) to protect skin and clothing from tarnish. It was not needed because platinum doesn't oxidize, however the gold backing elevated platinum in the public mind as a precious metal.

Three technological advances in the second half of the 19th century benefited platinum:

- A furnace was developed that could melt platinum and its alloys on a large scale.
- Techniques for refining platinum were improved.
- The oxyacetylene torch was invented, making bench work with platinum easier.

After 1880, platinum began to replace silver in settings for diamonds and pearls Around 1890, settings of pure platinum appeared. As demand grew, the price of platinum rose until it surpassed silver and gold. From 1890 to 1920, many bench jewelers continued to make jewelry in silver and gold, resisting the trend toward platinum. Large jewelers such as Cartier and Tiffany Lamp, Co. offered a choice to the client.

In early 20th century garland-style jewelry set predominantly with diamonds and pearls brought platinum to the forefront. Jewelers discovered platinum could be worked very finely without losing shape, allowing the fabrication of incredibly delicate and durable jewels.

So, after several hundred years, platinum has finally achieved the recognition it deserves as a precious metal.
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