The Varied History of Platinum

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignThe Varied History of Platinum
By Peter HenselderMore from this author

No other precious metal has experienced such a varied history over the course of time. Discovered early on and appreciated by the high cultures, its path was lined by misunderstandings, highs and also lows. Then name of this extraordinary material is taken from the Spanish conquerors of Central and South America, who found it on their raids and called the unique material "Platina" (little silver).

Varied History
Platinum rings with pearls by schmuckwer, Markus Schmidt
Platinum was already processed in Ancient Egypt. The papyrus casket owned by the Priest Schepen-Upet - decorated with platinum ornaments - is now on show in the Louvre in Paris. Around 750 BC

As early as over 2,000 years ago, the Ancient Egyptians succeeded in working this difficult metal; early Indian cultures were also successful with the same method. However, whereas platinum working remained more of an exception on the Nile, the Incas became very skilled.

The metal granules gained from the platinum soap from Esmeralda were covered ni gold dust and heated to 1,500 degrees Celsius using bellows and a charcoal fire. The gold, which then melted, bonded the platinum granules to each other. When this method was repeated with subsequent cold hammering, it produced metal sheets of significant size, which permitted techniques such as non-chipping deformation, beating or chasing. The platinum content was 55 to 60 %. The gold content 30 to 40 % and where was also a little silver.

But these skills were lost. Whereas wars were fought and aristocratic weddings planned over gold and silver and royals were poisoned and murdered over them for centuries, the purest of all metals slumbered away beneath Egyptian sand or Indian burial mounds, worked into the most beautiful forms, whiling away an uncertain future.

The interest in platinum that merged later on in Europe was initially due to its low price and its approximately identical weight togold, which enabled the yellow metal to be forged in a manner that could not be determined by thermal exposure. Accordingly, the Spanish government took deterrent action in 1758, banning the platinum trade. In 1788, the Spanish crown decreed that all platinum must be delivered to the King for 2 dollars a pound. This incentive was sufficient to flood Europe with almost 4,000 shipped pounds of platinum each year. This monopoly was not a resounding success. "Platinum is already being worked very well here and very soon, Mr. Janety will be able to produce whatever he likes with it." This was written by Gouton de Morviau in Paris (four years later simply known as Citizen Gouton). Mr. De Morviau, himself a chemist, wrote a form of natural history on metals.

Like other of his colleagues, he had not failed to notice that the Court Smith Janety created masterful and revolutionary jewelry and useful objects using platinum.

Scientists studying the mysterious precious metal provided the foundation for its metalworking. Whereas the production of industrial devices made of platinum gradually started in Sweden, England, France and Germany, an important research center was set up in Spain in 1777. Its director, P.S. Chabaneau, manufactured platinum that could be forged as early as 1783. The German researcher Archard bonded platinum with arsenic, thus reducing th ehigh melting point. In 1785, his platinum crucible stripped away the last obstruction to its broad processing to produce jewelry and devices.

However, initial popular belief was that these were fantastical tales from the scientist de Morviau, as King Charles the Third had forbidden the free export of platinum upon pain of censure. Although it is not proven, it is fair to assume that Janety worked with metal that was seized in open waters no later than Jamaica on its way from South America by "official" English pirates - or bandit captains - and that in return, good gold doubloons were sent to the ambitious company in Paris with the blessing of the King.

Nose rings and necklaces from the pre-Columbian culture of the Indians. Around 100 BC. Museum of Indian Art, New York
Nose rings and necklaces from the pre-Columbian culture of the Indians. Around 100 BC. Museum of Indian Art, New York
Volume ratios in the jewelry alloys

These kind sof underhand dealings concerning the purest of all metals have been frequent since platinum was rediscovered. Most certainly, after the Spaniard Ulloa was the first to report extensively on the metal properties in 1748, it was not just in Spain that high value doubloons were minted using this metal and then gold plated. The French copied them with the 20 Franc pieces that were produced in 1878. Bearing the proud contenance of Napoleon III, they were, however, discretely backdated to 1866.

Russia, an important platinum supplier since the start of the 19th century, had less good fortune with this kind of affair. Although they decided against gold plating the freshly minted rubles, the "grey ones" were not liked by the population. Accordingly, a large proportion of the platinum rubles slipped out of the country via black market dealers, where more precious things than green old avarice were produced. Some years later, the Russian Mint discontinued the production of platinum coins.

Of Janety's early platinum creations, only one sugar bowl has remained. Another very beautiful piece, a coffee can from his studio, has been missed since the Second World War. According to rumors, an amorous German Major used the proceeds from the requisitioned piece to purchase fine undergarments for his beloved, a street performer in Montmartre. Even today, optimists believe that this magnificent item by Master Janety could be standing in the cupboard as a mistaken alpaca can. The fact that this suspicion is not entirely fantastical can be seen in the example of a small cult mask fashioned by South American Indians in the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin. For many decades, it was believed to be a forgery due to its "silvery coating" on gold. However, just a few years ago, a metallurgy examination revealed that it was indeed platinum.

In Paris, people knew how to exploit the chemical and physical properties of platinum in a different way. For example, the original meters and original kilograms were cast by Janety using the heavy and incredibly resistant metal and are still today the defining measures.

Claire Woolley for Kestrel. Platinum bracelet "Flower Bracelet" with diamonds
Ruble coins made of platinum are official currency in Russia (1828-1846). Crowned heads of state such as Czar Catherine the Great, Emperor Napoleon and Queen Victoria of England were honored with platinum medallions
The French Kind Louis XVI commissioned his court smith with the production of extravagant dishware made of platinum in 1780
Delicate masterpieces "Floralia" in the form of blossoms, vines and bouquets, richly adorned with gemstones. 1871
Delicate masterpieces "Floralia" in the form of blossoms, vines and bouquets, richly adorned with gemstones. 1871

Not much happened with platinum jewelry for a while after the French revolution. In 1788, the Berlin-based chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered a method of using platinum instead of gold in order to decorate porcelain. Just three years later, this kind of decoration was already run of the mill. The same was true of other European countries. From 1850 onwards, platinum experienced a revival in jewelry. One of the first to draw on the white miracle metal for his exquisite creations was Louis Cartier: His business accounts for 1856 include an entry for the purchase of numerous kilograms of platinum. Examples of platinum jewelry from this period - by Cartier, but also by Tiffany, van Cleef, Boucheron or Bulgari - can still be marveled at in many places today. They are delicate, artistic creations, richly encrusted with precious gems, in the form of blossoms, vines and bouquets. "Floralia" was the name for that era's style.

However, platinum finally set out to conquer the world in 1867 with the discovery of the rich diamond field of Kimberly. For the first time, jewelry artists could draw on a wealth of beautifully pure, large brilliants. And no other metal was as suitable to set these precious gems than platinum. It holds the stones absolutely securely in very delicate settings; also, its pure, neutral, colorful, shining clarity emphasizes the charms of the diamonds. Its deep shine allows the fire to reveal itself fully. There are also still countless wonderful examples of the magnificent platinum jewelry of the late 19th century - the Belle Epoque.

A new era commenced once more during the mid nineteen twenties: Technology and progress were its goals and the Art Deco style was its visible expression. This is particularly true of the jewelry from this era, which mirrors an extremely new self-confidence: it is impressive in size, clear due to its emphasized, geometric forms, but equally reserved due to the unassuming hue of the metal. At the large auctions, the bracelets, brooches and pendants and the expressive rings or elegant colliers are coveted collectors items that fetch top prices. Platinum had a very special role at the time. Howard Hughes discovered the color "platinum blond" for his new film star Jean Harlow. Naturally, May West only wore platinum jewelry; Greta Garbo smoked using a platinum cigarette holder and Cole Porter kept his cigarettes in a platinum case. A journalist from Berlin reported back to his newspaper from New York at the time that: "If you take a look at the shop windows of the local jeweler's shop, you would think that there is only one metal for jewelry: platinum ". If one sees it this way, the famous golden twenties should be actually be renamed the platinum twenties. Indeed, the crown worn by Queen Elizabeth (the current Queen's mother) in 1937 at the coronation of George VI was also made of platinum.

The hunger for platinum in this age was sated by a very significant discovery. The German geologist Dr. Hans Merensky discovered the world's largest deposits to date near Johannesburg in South Africa, the Merensky-Riff, which took his name. This evened the path for large scale, industrial production and refining for both artistic and technical use of platinum.

Art Deco bracelet with diamond, colored stone and onyx. Van Cleef & Arpels. 1924
The German geologist Dr. Hans Merensky
Platinum crown
Necklace made of platinum with brilliants by Cartier. Around 1920
Ititoli. Platinum wedding ring, engraved with "I love you" in Braille

In just a few months it will be 30 years since platinum experienced a major renaissance. For reasons of cost, the rare precious metal was replaced by white gold thanks to a development in Pforzheim in 1913. In addition, the use of platinum for non-military purposes was banned and the metal disappeared almost entirely from the European markets during the Second World War. This means that the reintroduction of platinum jewelry in 1976, marked by the foundation of the Platinum Guild in Germany, for example, was actually a new start, a new day in an epoch of trend-setting jewelry design. In the year in which the Platinum Guild was founded, a lowly 20 kilograms of platinum was processed to make jewelry. 30 years later, thanks to intensive and dedicated work by the partners in production and retailing, a significant market has developed. There are no areas, most notably wedding rings, that would be conceivable without the exquisite metal.

Platinum jewelry was consciously positioned on the German market in an avant garde design style. It should be clearly recognizable and distinguishable from white gold. Matt, silky surfaces, a strict language of firm and pure and clear optics were the philosophy during market introduction. The clamped ring is a perfect example of this. As it was launched, a promise was made that anyone who could succeed in removing a sizeable one-carat stone from its setting could keep the ring. Naturally, nobody managed. At the start of the two-tone age around the mid nineteen eighties, softer jewelry lines were added to the strict forms. Platinum jewelry combined with yellow or red gold has at times advanced to become a main turnover factor in retailing. Since 1994, classic collections have enhanced the designer range in an elegant and feminine design style with diamonds, colored gemstones and pearls. Starting in Europe, platinum provided all continents with important impulses in terms of processing and design.

Platinum necklace "Shibuki" with diamonds by Kuwayama Corporation for the Platinum Guild International
Platinum necklace and blossom pendant made of platinum with 473 diamonds by Henrich & Denzel. A special mechanical contraption means that the pendant can be worn both open and closed
Platinum ring by Helene M. Apitzsch. Silky matt and polished finish in combination with 151 diamonds
Wilfried Schäfer processing platinum

Questions for the platinum expert

For almost 30 years now, the goldsmith and author of numerous reference manuals, Wilfried Schäfer, has focused on platinum. He is recognized throughout the world as practical and technical pioneer for the perfect processing of the demanding metal.

Art + Design: Mr. Schäfer platinum is now once more an integral element of jewelry design. Do jewelers still have reservations about the material?

W. Schäfer: It is more of an uncertainty. They still believe that platinum can only be forged at significant cost and as part of a lengthy process. That is obsolete. When I was charged with developing better processing methods 30 years ago, working with platinum took two to three times as long as a comparable piece of gold. Nowadays, thanks to the new processing methods, it takes approximately as long as working with gold. The requirements in terms of studio equipment are also manageable. Around the world, we now find perfect alloys for the most varied fields of use. Put flippantly, the door was opened a long time ago. Furthermore, my reference manuals and magazines constantly publish new tips and tricks that facilitate working with platinum even more.

Art + Design: Can you give us a few examples?

W. Schäfer: You need 12 degrees of granulation for polishing with standard sandpaper. But two are sufficient if you use the point method developed by 3M. A significant advantage with platinum is also that it can be rendered high gloss without weight loss, as the material is not worn off, but rather displaced. Combined with its stable form, this means that eyes on chains or pendants can never become thinner or deformed as we see in chains and bracelets made of gold.

Art + Design: What do you need to pay attention to when processing platinum?

W. Schäfer: Primarily speaking, platinum is a modeling material. Casting work is possible with the cobalt alloy, but it's tricky. The excellent catalytic properties mean that gold can be combined with platinum without flux or solder. Using a laser is also easy. In view of the fact that platinum does not change its form, i.e. does not expand or contract if the temperature changes - this is why the original meter and kilo were made of it - it is not sensible to combine it with enamel. Conversely, we see everything that platinum has to offer in delicate, filigree creations that would not be possible at all or in this form with other materials. Finer pieces are also a response to rising precious metal prices. Platinum can be pulled into extremely thin threads. You only need one gram in order to produce a two-kilometer wire. These properties mean that you can design with endless freedom, for example woven accessories. If you need a lot of stone and not much metal, platinum is what you want. Furthermore, a blue stone will remain blue in platinum; if it were in silver, it would loose brilliance, quite apart of the more bulky setting.

Art + Design: Why are the prices of platinum so high?

W. Schäfer: The growing demand for platinum. After all, the material is not used only in jewelry and watches, but also in several hundred industrial fields of application. This means that demand has exceeded production for many years. Production is also laborious. You need to shift ten tons of rock to produce just one single ounce, or 31.1 grams of platinum. This is why every little platinum is processed compared to gold.

Art + Design: How long will the deposits last for?

W. Schäfer: Platinum is exceedingly rare. It is found in the earth's crust 30 times less than gold. If you were to cut open the earth and unfurl it as a plate, the deposits would be in a V shape. We have Canada on the one side, Russia on the other and the most important supplier, southern Africa, at the bottom. According to current estimates, the platinum deposits will last another 150 to 200 years.


Necklace "Aqua Platinum" by Margaretha Held. Transparent loop with platinum splinters floating in liquid, magnetic platinum clasp and 21 diamonds
Platinum ornament and aquamarine and diamonds set in platinum on a neck clasp made of blue goat skin by Max Kemper
Platinum necklace with pendant made of platinum and diamonds for the PGI India
Platinum neckline clip with 57 diamonds and 6 mountain crystal drops by Sabine Cempulik

by Peter Henselder

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Peter Henselder

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