A favored precious metal used in some of the finest jewelry, the first platinum discoveries were 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Traces of platinum were found in gold that was used in caskets in Thebes, which archeologists believe was a natural element in the gold that came from Nubia at that time. On the other side of the globe, in South America, people were creating ceremonial jewelry and objects for ritual use out of platinum (probably mixed with an alloy) that can be dated back to 100 B.C.
During the 1500’s the Spanish conquistadors landed in South America searching for gold. Instead they found platinum. Thinking it was silver, they tossed it away. The conquistadors named the metal “platina del Pinto” --- little silver of Pinto river -- which is the name of the river in Colombia where the platinum was found.
An Italian-French scientist, Julius Caesar Scaliger, analyzed the mysterious metal from South America in 1557 and found importantly, that it wasn’t silver and it wouldn’t melt. The high melting point of 3,214 degrees Fahrenheit (for comparison, gold has a melting point of 1,947 degrees Fahrenheit) made it difficult if not impossible to work with the metal. No one really knew what to do with it, so nothing much happened with platinum until the 1700s.
During the 1740s and 1750s scientists from Spain, Jamaica and Sweden studied the metal and they all agreed on two things: It was a new metal that was very challenging to use. Platinum was making news and getting all kinds of attention including from France’s King Louis XV (reign, 1715-1774), who announced that it was the only metal fit for a king, which of course, sparked more interest in this intriguing metal. Scientists, alchemists and metallurgists were all focused on one thing: How to make platinum melt. Finally, in the latter half of the 1700’s some scientists figured out how to make very small amounts of the metal liquify.
Platinum Age of Spain
Meanwhile, King Charles III of Spain, created a lab for French chemist Pierre-Françoise Chabaneau, who is widely credited as being the first person to figure out how to make platinum malleable enough to use. King Charles III (reign, 1759-1788) issued a royal order that the process was to remain a secret to ensure that the information stayed in Spain. This event debuted the Platinum Age of Spain, during which time malleable platinum was produced in some quantity and sold. This went on until the Napoleonic Wars in 1808, which shut down the industry.
However, some big steps forward had occurred for platinum. King Charles III commissioned a platinum chalice for Pope Pius VI, which was presented to him in 1789. At the same time the jeweler for King Louis XVI (reign 1774-1792), Marc-Ettienne Janety acquired some malleable platinum from Chabaneau and used it to make buttons, watch chains and other small items.
Two British chemists, Smithson Tennant and William Hyde Wollaston, figured out how to make larger quantities of platinum malleable in 1804. This allowed jewelers to create small, simple pieces of jewelry such as cufflinks. By the end of the 1890’s, Tiffany & Co. and Cartier Paris were both creating jewelry using platinum as was Fabergé.
Platinum Trends in Early 1900s
High heat blow torches became available in the early 20th century giving jewelers a tool to create lacy, lightweight intricate jewelry from this most precious metal. The white metal was the perfect complement to the white on white look of diamonds and pearls that was the height of fashion in the Edwardian era. Platinum retained its popularity throughout the Art Deco era, but its use in jewelry came to a screeching halt when it was declared a strategic metal and reserved for military use during World War II.
Platinum had a resurgence of popularity in the 1950s when formal jewelry was the style, especially for evening wear. It fell out of favor during the next three decades and then in the 1990s platinum made a comeback, mainly in bridal and now platinum is trending once again.
Featured image (top of page): Platinum, aquamarine and diamond bracelet, signed Tiffany & Co., made by Verger Freres, France, circa 1930s.
First: Platinum brooch set with diamonds weighing 7.50-carats, circa 1950s; Second: Fan shaped platinum and diamond earrings, circa 1950s; Third: Edwardian platinum, diamond and ruby ring, circa 1918; Fourth: Art Deco platinum, diamond and black onyx pendant.
Authored by Amber Michelle