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It's the late 1500s and the Spanish conquistadores are busily ransacking the cultures of Latin America, looking for gold and silver to take back to the mother country. Both metals are agreeably soft and can be heated into liquids that pour into convenient bar forms, which are easier to stack in the holds of their galleons than the exquisite objects they are so eager to melt down. But from time to time the explorers come upon another silver-colored metal. It won't melt the way silver does--it must be some kind of inferior silver--so they name it platina, meaning "little silver" or "lesser silver." Then they kick it aside and continue their plundering for silver and gold. They do, however, find one practical use for the uncooperative metal: as gunshot, in place of lead.
Over the years, the name stuck, but not the odium. Today, platinum is a precious metal, and in Europe it is known as a "noble" metal, which is a fair description of its exalted position in the metallurgical world. Platinum's incredible strength, its density and its absolute inertness make it the perfect metal for a variety of widely diverse uses, such as fighting cancer, cleaning pollutants from automobile exhaust in catalytic converters, and creating incredibly sensuous photographic prints. But when most people ponder platinum, they think of the function it serves on the ring finger of the left hand: platinum holds a diamond more securely than any other metal, yet it has a delicacy that is unrivaled.
About 2,700 years ago, the Egyptians found a way to work the platinum-gold alloys that occurred naturally in the nearby Nubian mines. But for millennia to follow, jewelry makers who struggled to apply goldsmithing techniques to platinum probably didn't consider it to be noble. Stubborn, maddening and impossible are the words more likely to be associated with the process of converting platinum into beautiful jewelry. The metal was not widely used because it required intense heat during the metalsmithing process. Casting, the most popular form of jewelry-making in gold, sends the expe- rienced jeweler back to school when he tries to utilize it with this white devil of a metal.
But the artisans of the early twentieth century were undeterred. Platinum's formidable strength and utter resistance to tarnishing made it ideal for a new kind of jewelry design, one based on light, delicate-looking wirework that was strong enough to support the most precious of gems. This new style began to appear during the time of the belle epoque, the era of King Edward VII, whose enchantment with elegant design came as a refreshing change from the 64-year-long rule of his mother, Queen Victoria. The singular proponent of the new fashion was the firm of Cartier. Louis Cartier, one of three Cartier brothers, was eager to take advantage of the availability of small, well-cut diamonds in new, lighter and livelier settings. As luck would have it, the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa, coupled with improved cutting techniques, opened up a reservoir of vast quantities of small stones for jewelry designers. But they needed the right metal in which to set the dazzling stones. Silver, the previous metal of choice, tarnished quickly and was too soft to be shaped into elaborate constructions. Platinum, with its great density, tremendous strength and resistance to tarnishing, was the ideal metal--if the jewelers could only find a way to tame and work the metal.
Using newly available technology, Cartier devised a way to work the metal and created a look during the first four decades of the twentieth century that became synonymous with platinum. Whatever design the mind imagined, platinum could now be bent to fulfill the thought. The airy, open lacework of the Eiffel Tower was interpreted at the jeweler's bench. Hair-thin wires were used to suspend diamond drops in earrings that dazzled as they caught the light from Edison's new electric lighting. Platinum, the most obdurate of metals, seemed to suddenly flow as easily as water into gentle and perfect curves.
Eventually the style of the early twentieth century evolved into one of the greatest expressions of jewelry design, the Art Deco period. Art Deco, taken from the name of the influential fair held in Paris in 1925, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, was an expression of modernism that was sweeping all fields of design. Other French jewelers, including Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron, worked in the new style and through it interpreted the dominant influence of the day--the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt. Van Cleef & Arpels' Egyptian bracelets rendered hieroglyphics in rubies, sapphiresand emeralds, along with the ever-present diamonds. Platinum became a sturdy backdrop to an explosion of colored gemstones and materials such as coral and enamel.
Just as quickly as platinum had insinuated itself on the jewelry world, however, it left the scene completely--and for an equally practical reason: the metal's unique qualities made it a strategic mineral during the Second World War, and its use in all but military applications was forbidden.
Overnight, the face of jewelry changed. Without platinum to set diamonds, jewelry makers turned to gold and to a greater use of colored gemstones. A white gold alloy became the accepted metal for setting diamond engagement rings, though it didn't approach platinum's tenacity. Platinum is 40 percent denser than gold, and platinum wires, thin enough to appear delicate, are far stronger than wires made of white gold in a comparable size.
Denied platinum jewelry during the war years, consumer taste was nurtured in other directions. In time, the craftsmen who could work magic with platinum grew old and retired. Platinum was relegated to a narrow range of jewelry, used mainly to hold diamonds in pieces that were otherwise fashioned from white gold. A few designers continued to turn out pieces in the classic platinum mode, such as Harry Winston, whose name in the 1950s became synonymous with opulent jewelry made entirely of diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds. Again, the look depended on platinum. A minimal amount of the metal was needed, virtually all of it hidden from view, as support for the best diamonds available. It enabled Winston to create multitiered necklaces that gave the appearance of cascades of water, each drop symbolized by a round, pear-shaped or marquise-cut diamond.
But the heyday of platinum was past.
As increased industrial uses were found for platinum, they more than took up the slack as its demand in jewelry-making diminished. Platinum is now used as a catalyst to produce high-octane fuels. It also plays a crucial role in computer technology, as well as being a component in the glass screen of the monitor. The electrical and electronics industries account for half of the palladium and ruthenium (both members of the six-metal platinum group) consumed each year. The wires used by Thomas Edison in the first lightbulbs were made of platinum. The crucibles that are used to grow crystals of electronic materials consist of yet another platinum group metal: iridium.
The main source for platinum, indeed the producer of nearly three quarters of all the platinum mined in the world, is the Merensky Reef in South Africa. This huge reserve (some 50,000 tons of ore are believed to be in the ground) was formed about two billion years ago. It supplies all of the metals in the platinum group, which range from rare to very rare to extremely rare and include rhodium, osmium and platinum. For each ounce of platinum wrested from the ground, 10 tons of pulverized rock are left behind. Only 150 to 155 tons of platinum are mined annually, compared with more than 2,000 tons of gold.
Only 40 percent of newly mined platinum is used in jewelry, of which only about 3 percent is used in the United States. While the United States is considered the fastest-growing market for platinum jewelry, based on a consumption increase from a level of 20,000 ounces in 1991 to 90,000 ounces in 1996, the Japanese have long been the champion consumers of platinum jewelry. They annually consume 85 percent of all the platinum used in jewelry, while the rest of the world divides the rest. The Japanese thirst for platinum is a practical response to their own government's prohibition during the Second World War; they were not permitted to own gold, so platinum became the metal of choice by necessity. Once the ban was lifted--it remained in place for years after the war--the Japanese increasingly turned to gold jewelry. Perhaps for this reason, the Platinum Guild International in Japan promotes the metal incessantly, with programs dedicated to each sector of the consumer market.
Today in the United States, a small renaissance of platinum jewelry is underway, thanks to the vigorous efforts of the Platinum Guild International USA. PGI supports individual jewelry designers with technical information that enables them to work with the metal successfully. This new movement uses platinum as a design element, rather than as a support for diamonds. But well before the guild was up and running, there were young metalsmiths working in platinum. One of the finest and most innovative of these jewelers is Michael Bondanza of New York City, whose well-designed and beautifully constructed bracelets have taken platinum in a new direction and are the signature pieces of his design collection.
Platinum also adds a purity to jewelry that is unequaled, because it is used in a virtually unadulterated state. Even when alloyed, it is usually combined with a member of the platinum group, making the metal far more precious than the average gold alloy. And because the platinum group metals are inert, they cannot cause allergic reactions. Platinum cannot leave a black mark on the skin or clothing the way silver often does.
In an age in which image is everything, it is fitting that platinum is still the supreme material in the processing of photographic prints. Although widely superseded by much less expensive silver, platinum is preferred for exhibition prints because of its great beauty. For archival use, nothing comes close to platinum; 100-year-old prints retain their vitality and are expected to do so for up to 500 years. Palladium is combined with platinum to give the prints a warmer tone. But that beauty and longevity are achieved at a very high price, a difference in cost of more than 15 to 1. An 8-inch-by-10-inch platinum print costs $380, while a silver gelatin print is only $25.
Only a handful of printers work in the platinum process today. Duggal Color Projects, a custom photo lab in New York City's Soho district, is one of the few labs with a craftsman (in this case, Arkady Lvov) who can produce a platinum print. According to manager Jules Labat, the platinum print offers "a three dimensionality of image, much deeper than silver- or resin-coated print. It has a tactile quality. It's the only material where the emulsion is laid down on paper with a brush. It offers an amazing range of tone and grades. There's a sense of looking through a window."
Another testimonial, another role for the noble metal. It's gone through many incarnations in the past 400 years, but one thing's for sure: no one is likely to use it in place of lead again. *
Ettagale Blauer writes frequently on jewelry and precious objects for Cigar Aficionado.