The History of Platinum Jewellery
Our old favourite platinum jewellery has come a long way from its modest beginnings over the years. With a helping hand from curious scientific discoveries along the way, platinum has become a modern household name in precious metals. Such scientific discoveries include historic firsts like unmeltable light bulb filaments, corrosion-resistant vats, and inexpensive, shapeable false teeth.
Initially used for decoration and embellishments on laboratory equipment, it wasn’t long before platinum’s glistening potential as a jewellery material was recognised. All this with a bit of help from the Cartier name. Platinum is one of the rarest metals on earth, with only 0.005 parts per million (PPM) being present on the planet. To put this in perspective, gold exists at 0.004 PPM, with silver the most common of the three, boasting 0.075 PPM.
You might also be interested to know that there are greater amounts of platinum on the moon than down here on earth! When learning about platinum, history plays a vital role in helping us better understand this precious metal That’s why we’re running you through the history of platinum today.
From its humble mining origins in South America, platinum has garnered quite a reputation; boosted significantly by its use in fine jewellery. So with that said, join us as we explore the fascinating cultural evolution of platinum throughout the years.
Discovery and early uses
Spanish conquistadors first encountered platinum in the early 1600s. They unintentionally unearthed it while looking for their primary objective, gold. Because it wasn’t the precious gold they were seeking, they simply cast it aside, considering it worthless. Fast forward to the 1700s, when a Spanish mariner “first discovered” a fascinating new ore in South America. This alluvial, heavy, white metal unearthed in Colombia and Ecuador was christened ‘Platina' – which translates to “little silver.” Platinum’s second discovery would prove to be quite a bit more significant than the first, with word soon spreading about this new kid on the block. This time around, more investigative work was put into uncovering exactly what platinum was. A curious metal, its small particles were both rollable and forgeable (shaped by compressive blows) into solid wearable jewellery. However, they were unfortunately not meltable. To join the tiny pieces, early metalsmiths coated and fused them with melted gold. At this stage, platinum was inconsistent; it was workable but often cracked. The reason? A naturally occuring piece of platinum is frequently an aggregate of the six platinum group metals.
Three of the six platinum group metals are used for constructing jewellery: platinum, iridium, and palladium. The remaining three: ruthenium, osmium, and rhodium (a common plating that resists scratching and tarnishing), are primarily used for industrial purposes. They are all considered ‘noble' metals, meaning they are nonferrous, highly chemically stable, and resistant to oxidation and corrosion from acids.
After initially being integrated into laboratory equipment and used as decoration, platinum was reappropriated as a currency for the first time in late-1820s Russia. At that point, platinum coins were first minted. Although it wasn’t immediately evident that platinum was ideal for use in fine jewellery, there were already many indications that this exciting new metal had the potential to be utilised in the jewellery industry.
An increasing demand
So we’ve already covered platinum’s discovery and early uses, which leads us to the relevant question: when was platinum first used in jewellery?
In the 1880s, the reigning white-jewellery metal was silver. The advantages of its white colour, low melting point, abundant supply, and workability outweighed silver's tendency to tarnish and its need for expensive gold reinforcement. Upon experimentation, gold and silver unfortunately easily dissolved into one another, forming an undesirable appearance in the process. However, one positive takeaway from this gold-and-silver combination was that it created a strong bond and secure setting for the abundance of newly-showcased South African diamonds entering the market.
Because of this unideal tendency for gold and silver to dissolve into one another, the world was left without a viable option for sturdy and reliable white jewellery. Silver jewellery was also too thick and heavy to secure valuable diamonds, and on top of this, the tarnish darkened the diamonds and stained clothing.
Enter the Cartier family
In 1890, the illustrious Cartier added a range of all-platinum luxury jewellery to its iconic garland style. Cartier's secret platinum alloy revealed a shimmering white surface. According to Hans Nadelhoffer’s “Cartier, Jeweler’s Extraordinary” (1984), this was achieved through “millegraining demetalized platinum, dotting edges into glistening reflections of light that encircled diamonds.”
Through their crafty experimentation, Cartier managed to reappropriate platinum for jewellery single-handedly. This action would have resounding effects on the jewellery industry the world over. Iridium platinum had the perfect hardness and malleability for hand fabricating Cartier's popular elements: light and lacy scrolls, flowers, bows, and hearts.
Platinum's strength also allowed for enduring light and delicate hand fabrication. This was achieved through knife-edged fretwork, millegraining, delicate prongs, and beads – all of which were integrated into finely pierced patterns. Furthermore, finer work (with thinner shanks) and stones set closer together with smaller, almost invisibly placed prongs managed to keep these pieces strong. On top of this structural integrity, the pieces still managed to seem dainty in appearance. The finer work also allowed for the pieces to be lighter in weight, creating the perfect platform for highlighting weightier diamonds. Platinum's deadness made setting diamonds both easier and faster. The stronger prongs only had to be pushed down once to stay securely in place — a bonus for those new to working with platinum.
Famous pieces of antique platinum jewellery are also common in circulation – made possible by historic endorsements from the British Royal Family.
By the late 1800s, England's Edwardian era was ripe for Cartier's light, sheer, pastille, and feminine jewellery designs. To improve strength, gain acceptance, and add prestige to jewellery, platinum was sintered, rolled, or brazed over a layer of gold using existing silver-over-gold technology.
Due to different expansion and concentration temperatures, the tenuous bond between gold and platinum created stress, brittleness and gaps wherever the two diffused and interfaced. Nonetheless, platinum-over-gold, garland-style, and foliate-patterned jewellery prevailed. This was made possible through a combination of technology and tradespeople's enhanced capabilities, which allowed for a smooth segue to all-platinum jewellery by the early 1900s.
Art Deco Platinum Jewellery
From here, platinum demand rose exponentially. The fashion world and global media combined to fuel the classic Art Deco black-and-white architectural look. Simultaneously, opening huge new South African and Canadian mines allowed for the vast demand for platinum to be met.
Platinum was suddenly everywhere. Important European jewellery was fabricated in platinum, the brooch movement was dripping in platinum, and the open-work ‘filigree' (light, airy, die-struck designs) helped introduce platinum to the North American market. From here, some of the world's largest jewellery manufacturers collectively supplied the masses. The 33% increased density of platinum die-struck pieces, relative to gold, produced an attractively higher lustre. On top of this added sheen, the pieces also boasted increased strength and durability.
Platinum's higher cost (due to it being 60% heavier than gold) was offset by the creation of thinner, finer jewellery. Though platinum could be melted and cast, hand-fabrication for fine jewellery and die striking for mass production were the prevalent techniques. Platinum’s reign had well and truly begun!
Alloys and purity today
Pure platinum is quite soft, which means it is often alloyed with other metals to increase its hardness. Most platinum alloys used for jewellery contain 85%-95% platinum.
Common additives involved in this process are palladium, iridium, ruthenium, cobalt, or copper. The additive and the particular ratio used will largely depend on what the goldsmith wants to do with it.
An alloy of 80% platinum and 20% iridium, for instance, forms a hard and dense alloy which is highly suitable for fine wirework. A mix of 95% platinum with 5% cobalt produces an alloy with a high viscosity when molten, a characteristic which is preferred when an object needs to be cast.
Regional platinum styles and preferences have, of course, also formed over time. Platinum-palladium alloys are widely used in Asia, whereas platinum-cobalt is preferred in Europe. In contrast, platinum-iridium is the alloy of choice in the United States. If you’re impressed by platinum’s journey, why not become a part of its future by investing in pure-platinum jewellery for yourself? Our exclusive platinum jewellery line will have you feeling like some of history’s most famed Royals and aristocrats. Platinum will even have you feeling elite in the modern age – thanks to its continued reputation as a niche commodity.
Invest in something unique through pure platinum jewellery that you can wear out and bedazzle those around you. If you’re ready to become included in the next step of platinum’s history, visit our page at 7879 to browse through our esteemed Pure Platinum collection.