Understanding The History of Platinum

May 3, 2011 | By | Reply More

Two billion years ago, at the dawn of life on earth, a colossal meteorite crashed in North America. When a star explodes, known as a supernova, debris in the form of meteorites are scattered out into the universe. Meteorites have a very high content of metals such as platinum. Many more have since landed on earth.

We know from jewelry and other adornments found in Egyptian tombs dating back circa 1200 BC that gold containing traces of platinum was imported from the ancient kingdom of Nubia which was located in southern Egypt and northern Sudan.

This land now has one of the harshest climates in the world with high temperatures throughout most of the year and very little rainfall making it unable to support a large population.

In ancient times Nubia had great natural wealth derived from gold mining, ivory, ebony and incense all of which were highly coveted by neighboring civilizations. In the last hundred years excavations have revealed evidence of abandoned cities and vanished peoples, lost kingdoms and decipherable inscriptions. It is not known whether the ancient Egyptians were aware of the properties and value of platinum or whether it’s use at that time was accidental.

  • The intentional use of the metal can be dated to 700 BC when Shepenupet, high priestess and daughter of the King of Thebes, was buried in a sarcophagus decorated with gold and platinum hieroglyphics and where a small casket made of platinum was found.
  • The next known appearance of platinum was amongst the ancient South American cultures around 100 BC. The Incas who are justly renowned for their ability as artistic precious metal workers created items of ceremonial jewellery from both gold and platinum.
  • In the late sixteenth century the Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America and set about plundering the wealth of gold gathered principally from the Incas. Interestingly enough they failed to appreciate the properties of platinum, treating it as an inferior metal to be discarded.

There are no further recordings of platinum for over 100 years until it became considered as an important ingredient in the alchemists search for a formula to change base metals, principally lead, into gold.

In 1751 the Swedish scientist Theophil Scheffer recognized the unique properties and rarity of platinum and declared it to be a precious metal. Thirty years later Louis XVI of France had his jeweller, Marc Etienne Janety, design a number of platinum pieces and announced that platinum was the only metal fit for a king. The rest of European Royalty were quick to follow suit with King Carlos III of Spain commissioning a magnificent platinum chalice to be presented to Pope Pius VI.

Although Louis XVI lost his head in the French revolution the enthusiasm for platinum was not diminished and its properties became increasingly appreciated. As the Napoleonic era dawned the French introduced the Metric System to unify and simplify the previous plethora of types of weights and measures. Marc Etienne Janety, who had fled the country to escape the terror, returned to France and was commissioned to create the standard kilogram weight out of platinum. The metal was chosen as it will not corrode or wear away and being extremely durable the weight would be maintained as the standard.

The original platinum weight, in the form of a cylinder is housed in Paris at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.

Throughout the nineteenth century advances were made in the discovery of deposits in the Russian Urals, processing the metal to become malleable, and with advent of diamond mining at Kimberly in South Africa platinum became a popular and fashionable setting for precious stones. From 1884 to the start of the Russian revolution Peter Carl Faberge, jeweler to the Russian Court, created one  his famous Faberge Eggs as an annual present for Tsar Alexander III to give to his wife Marie. These masterpieces featured platinum, gold and precious gems and are amongst the most highly valued of all collectibles.

The popularity of platinum continued to spread. European royalty, Indian princes and the worlds’ wealthiest coveted the metal for their personal adornment even to the use of platinum threads in their attire. Carlos IV of Spain commissioned a Platinum room at his summer palace at Aranjuez near Toledo, which was completed before the turn of the century. The beautiful and typical Spanish town of Aranjuez is one of the principal tourist attractions in modern day Spain and is famous for its many historical buildings and monuments, its ambiance and even its vegetable gardens.

The platinum room, Known as “ The Platinum Cabinet” features hard wood paneling encrusted with platinum, gold and bronze and is exceptional for its luxury being considered as probably the most important example of the pure empire style in Europe.

In the early 1900s Louis Cartier became the first jeweler to successfully create platinum jewelry and to enhance the beauty of diamonds. The demands for his creations became huge and his fame as a jeweller continues to the present day.

In 1924 Hans Merensky, a German Geologist, discovered the worlds’ largest deposit of platinum near Johannesburg. At the same time commercial uses for the metal other than jewelry were developing and at the outbreak of the second world war in 1939 platinum was declared a strategic metal in the USA. The use of platinum in making jewelry was forbidden as its use in the manufacture of armaments became increasingly important. When restrictions were lifted after the war the use of platinum in jewelry quickly regained its popularity and at the present day the metal has become the jewelry of choice amongst the worlds celebrities and is a ‘must have’ wedding accessory.

At the same time more and more industrial and medical uses for the metal are being found and it is worth considering that the occurrence of platinum in our world is thought to be thirty times rarer than gold and is found in very few places.

Today the principal and best known industrial use for the metal is in the auto industry as a catalyst in the manufacture of exhaust systems. It is true to say that the  most influential price mover of platinum is the health of the auto industry. In these inflationary times and despite its greater rarity and value compared to gold it has yet to achieve the same status as gold as a store of value, hedge against inflation and preserver of capital.

The amount of platinum produced worldwide is about 160 tons annually whereas annual production of gold is some 1500 tons.

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Category: Platinum Group Metals

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