The History of Platinum Jewelry

© 2013 EraGem
© 2013 EraGem

Platinum enjoys a fascinating history. Ancient Egyptians (1200-700BC) was used it in small quantities combined with gold for decorative objects. One group of natives (La Tolita Indians) to the platinum-rich border between Ecuador and Colombia used platinum for nose rings, earrings, and masks. While these isolated uses of platinum are well documented, it seems that platinum eluded popular use for thousands of years.

The very characteristics which make platinum such an ideal metal for fashioning jewelry are the same reasons for its delayed debut in the industry. The lustrous white metal has an astonishing melting point of 3221.6° F, and its durability and strength make it nearly impossible to shape without first softening it.

Up until the early 19th century, no one knew how to make platinum malleable. The techniques of the Egyptians and the South American Indians were lost in time, as were its sources. Platinum’s modern discovery dates to the late 1600s, at which time the Spanish Conquistadors cast it aside, believing it to be an unusable form of immature gold. Once again, platinum remained in obscurity, this time for only another 50 years.

In 1741, platinum first reached the European scientific community when Englishman William Brownrigg, a physician and scientist, began experimenting with a sample of native Colombian platinum sent to him by his brother-in-law. Throughout the 1700s, English and Parisian chemists worked tirelessly to crack the code on melting and refining platinum.

Some victories were won in the 1800s, when it was discovered that arsenic and platinum powders, when mixed, would fuse to one another. Further inroads were made when Antoine Lavoisier melted platinum with a flame composed of hydrogen and oxygen. Soon after, Robert Hare and Daniel Clarke invented a blowpipe using these same volatile gases. However, these methods were dangerous and therefore were not adopted by mainstream workshops.

For the next 75 or so years, chemists, mineralogists, and even physics professors throughout Europe continued to explore the mysteries of platinum. Riding the momentum of those discoveries made before their time, Edmond Fouche and Charles Picard, finally succeeded in producing a safer torch which allowed for the melting, casting, and fusion of platinum to itself. This landmark event, which took place in 1895, sparked the widespread use of platinum in jewelry, a trend that would endure until the outbreak of World War I.

During the war, the production of fine jewelry diminished. Those who once indulged in luxury were either selling their gold and platinum jewels to the government in an expression of patriotism, or they were stashing their jewels in vaults, hoping that a sunnier day would come soon. At the time, platinum was highly prized for making military equipment, particularly for the touch holes (a small hole in early firearms through which the charge was ignited) in guns.

When the war ended, jewelers turned once again to platinum as the foundation for their fine craft. The high-society elegance of the Art Deco is paved not only in diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, but in that most durable, most beautiful shiny white platinum.

Through the 1930s, platinum was the metal of choice for the masses. Unfortunately, another war would encroach upon the rare mineral. In 1942, the US government declared platinum a strategic mineral, prohibiting its use in any capacity besides the industry of war.

Though the war ended only 3 years later, advances in the use of white gold eclipsed the demand for platinum post-war. Indeed, platinum jewelry would remain out of vogue worldwide until the 1960s.

The Japanese began to clamor for platinum jewelry first, esteeming the white metal for its purity. Slowly, over the following three decades, platinum jewelry began tits resurgence throughout Europe, first in Germany, then Switzerland and Italy, then the UK. Finally, in the 1990s, it gained in popularity in the US and China. Today, platinum jewelry holds its own alongside gold, particularly for wedding and engagement jewelry.