Platinum is a rare element found in the Earth’s crust. It is a chemical element with the periodic table symbol Pt. Platinum was discovered in 1735 by Antoine de Ulloa in South America. Pre-Colombians Indians were said to have used platinum before its dated official discovery. Small percentages of platinum have also been discovered in ancient Egyptian artefacts. It has now been discovered across the world in the USA, South Africa, Canada, Zimbabwe, Australia and Russia.
The name platinum comes from the Spanish ‘Platina’, which translates to ‘little silver’. At the time of its discovery it was not known to be particularly precious and it was regarded as similar to silver due to its appearance. In fact, many Spanish who were panning for gold found platinum to be a nuisance, as it was hard to separate from the gold. The high melting point of platinum and sometimes brittle nature, meant it was later disregarded as it was too difficult to work with.
In 1557 there was a notable mention of platinum by Julius Ceaser Scaliger in his worl ‘Exotericarum Ex Ercitationum’. He describes an unknown metal found in Colombia which is not silver and which no fire or any Spanish artifice has been able to liquify.
Soon platinum had reached Europe but in many ways it was still a mysterious substance which baffled scientists and alchemists.
Louis XV declared that Platinum was the only metal fit for a king. Counterfeiters took a keen interest in platinum as it was heavy and made more doctored gold a possibility, however no one knew how to melt it. This was only made possible in 1758 by Pierre Joseph Macquer and Antoine Baume with a 22inch diameter burning mirror.
It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century when chemist Pierre Francois Charbeneau produced pure platinum. This however, was not an easy achievement and Charbeneau was known to have lost his temper in frustration during the process, once breaking all the apparatus in his laboratory in a frenzied rage.
By 1786 Charbeneau had achieved his ambitious goal to melt platinum creating it as a malleable substance for the first time. Charbeneau did not initially receive much acclaim as his breakthrough was kept secret by royal order. Keeping the discovery a top secret lead to Spain’s ‘Age of Platinum’. Charbeneau began to manufacture platinum utensils and ingots in a surprisingly large quantity and quick pace. Platinum was soon used by royal jeweller Marc Janety to craft watch chains, spoons buttons and more. In 1789 a 55 troy ounce platinum chalice was given to Pope Pius VL.
Englishman William Hyde developed on Charbaneau’s technique in 1804 and invented a new process which allowed malleable platinum to be made in mass quantities. The 1850’s saw the use of platinum in jewellery increase but the technique was not refined until the 19th century. 1924 saw the discovery of the world’s largest platinum deposit in South Africa. This gave birth to the modern platinum industry.It was of course Cartier of France and Tiffany and Co of New York, who began to use platinum in ornate fine jewellery. The popularity of platinum carried through and was widely used in the jewellery of the Art Deco period of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Like much of the glitz and glamour of the roaring 20’s platinum became less common with onset of world war two. Platinum was declared a strategic metal, no longer available for use fine jewellery making and reserved for military purposes.
By the 1960’s platinum was back in vogue and in use for jewellers across the world. In 1967 Elvis and Priscilla Presley said ‘I do’ and exchanged platinum wedding rings. From then onward the popularity of platinum bridal rings grew.
In 2008 Japanese designer Ginza Tanaka ,produced the world’s most luxurious handbag which was crafted entirely from platinum and over 2,000 diamonds. It was valued at over £1 million pounds.