Today, we take for granted that platinum is a coveted precious metal. But how long have we actually known this? Only since 1751 — a mere 270 years. By comparison, Ancient Egyptians began using gold and silver to decorate sacred objects around 3,000 BCE. And from 2551 BCE to 2490 BCE, they capped the Pyramids of Giza with solid gold, the ultimate sign of the metal’s importance and value. So we’re curious about platinum metal history. Where was platinum through all this time?
Incognito Platinum Metal
Platinum metal history slipped into human use as a by-product of gold and silver mining. Gold was found with platinum and the two blended as they were hammered into shape. Platinum was thought to be silver — even though it was much harder. Chemists have identified platinum mixed with gold in items dating back to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (1991-1718 BCE). One example is the gold and “silver” cover on the 700 BCE Egyptian Casket of Thebes. An early examiner noted that while some of the silver was heavily oxidized, curiously enough, other “silver” was unaffected. In 1901, French chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, tested the metal and learned that the untarnished silver metal was a combination of platinum, iridium, and gold.
White Specks and “Little Silver”
Across the Atlantic, archaeologists discovered Pre-Columbian sacred and decorative pieces made of gold with distinctive white specks. These were identified as platinum. In 16th century South America, Spanish conquistadors searched rivers and streams for gold and silver the Spanish King so desperately needed. In the process, they found chunks of platinum. Alas, they called it “platina,” meaning “little silver” and discarded it with no idea it was rare and valuable.
A Hard Fact
To call platinum “little silver” is insulting enough and that isn’t the worst of platinum metal history. In 1735, Antonio de Ulloa, a Spanish scientist, naval general, and explorer, visited Ecuador on a scientific mission. He encountered “platina” in gold mines where it was considered a gold “impurity.” Some thought it was “unripe gold,” and put it back in the mine or ground to “ripen” believing it would yellow with age. Intrigued, de Ulloa undertook to study it. He identified platinum as a separate metal that occurred with gold in alluvial deposits. Indeed, Ulloa found it extremely hard and invulnerable to heat which made it almost impossible to separate from gold nuggets. He observed that platinum was a “nuisance” or “hindrance” that interfered with gold mining. The Spanish abandoned some gold mines with high concentrations of this “nuisance.”
Precious Platinum Metal
In 1751, Swedish scientist, Henrik Scheffer, published the results of his platinum studies. He called it “white gold” and stated that it was —
1. hard but malleable with the hardness of malleable iron.
2. a precious metal with durability and corrosion resistance similar to gold.
3. unlike any of the six “old metals” because it is entirely precious containing no copper, tin, lead, iron, or mercury. Scheffer declared it a “seventh metal.”
4. fusible with arsenic.
Workable? Well . . .
In 1786, Francois Chabaneau, a French chemist working for Charles III of Spain, developed a technique for creating somewhat workable platinum but the results were highly inconsistent. At one point, a story says he grew so frustrated with platinum that he trashed the lab given him by the king. That same year, Antoine Lavoisier, “the father of modern chemistry,” succeeded in melting tiny quantities of platinum, but not enough to work with.
Who Is Marc Etienne Janety?
Monsieur Janety was Louis XVI’s Royal Goldsmith. He created a platinum and glass sugar bowl for the king whose beauty caused Louis XVI to famously declare that platinum was “the only metal fit for kings.” In 1794, a year after revolutionary government executed Louis XVI, Janety prudently left Paris. In 1796, he returned to create the revolutionary government’s official kilogram and meter measures out of platinum because it was the most durable and corrosion-resistant metal.
Above, I mentioned Chabaneau’s efforts to create workable platinum. The results proved inconsistent because he didn’t realize that platinum ore contained other platinum group metals — osmium, iridium, rhodium, and palladium. In the early 1800s, an English chemist, William Wollaston, found a way to produce pure platinum on a commercial scale. He kept his technique secret until just before his death.
The Heat Is On
In the waning years of the 19th century, new high-temperature blowtorches made it possible to work platinum into fine jewelry. Cartier in Paris and Tiffany & Co in New York took the lead, making platinum jewelry a status symbol. Many famous stones are set in platinum — including the Hope Diamond — are set in platinum. Nothing less will do for beauty, strength, purity, and natural white color.
Platinum Metal Strength
Today it holds its status as the elite precious metal chosen by celebrities. It has also become the symbol of the exclusive credit cards, programs, and so on. Yet thanks to advances in technology and techniques — not to mention that its price per ounce is significantly lower than gold — platinum is available to many more customers and very popular in bridal rings. Can anything match the platinum solitaire?
Platinum: The Hypoallergenic Metal
Over the decades, we’ve learned much more about platinum. One discovery stands out: it’s hypoallergenic. This makes it a prime consideration for customers with sensitivities to nickel and copper.