Platinum has long been associated with luxury and exclusivity. Marketers use the word to tell us that an item or service is desirable and of high value – the best of the best. We feel this way about the word platinum because the metal itself is so highly regarded. Though it looks similar in appearance to silver or white gold, we can’t help but be drawn by its intoxicating rarity.
Platinum is best known for its use in high-quality jewellery, but there’s much more to it than the silvery sparkle it brings to rings and bracelets. Here you can learn fascinating platinum facts that will renew your admiration for this prestigious metal. You’ll discover what platinum is used for and the interesting properties it possesses. And if you’re lucky enough to own platinum pieces, you’ll learn how to take care of this valuable, rare metal.
We don’t know for sure when humans first discovered it, but we can see from early Egyptian artefacts (including Queen Shapenapit’s casket) that this metal has probably been in use in some parts of the world for well over three thousand years.
Platinum is part of a collection of metals known as the platinum group metals (PGM). Alongside platinum, the PGM includes palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, osmium and iridium. When you mine platinum, it is often found alongside one or more of these other PGMs.
This precious metal can be found in sand or gravel beds, such as in streams and rivers. Mining for platinum also takes place underground in a costly, time-consuming process.
The name platinum comes from the Spanish word platina, meaning small silver. Platinum is not widespread – it is concentrated within just a few countries and regions. These include South Africa, Russia, Canada, The United States, South America and Australia.
We pay such a premium price for platinum because of its scarcity. There are only five parts per billion in the Earth’s crust, making platinum thirty times rarer than gold.
Only a few hundred tonnes of platinum are mined and produced each year, far less than gold or silver.
Historically, platinum was known as the un-meltable metal. It has a very high melting point of 1,768°C – hundreds of degrees higher than silver and gold.
Platinum is exceptionally dense at 12.4 ounces per cubic inch, making it six times denser than diamond. Dense though it is, it is useful metal thanks to its malleable nature. This malleability allows platinum to be readily shaped when making jewellery or mechanical parts. It’s also a ductile metal, meaning it can be drawn out into threads, allowing platinum wire to be created.
Platinum is extremely unreactive, meaning that exposure to the environment and substances like acids, oxygen and water won’t alter its appearance easily. This is another property that makes it a superior metal for jewellery making since it won’t rust or discolour.
The ancient Egyptians used platinum decoratively and made jewellery using this metal, often mixed with gold. In ancient South America, the indigenous people crafted ceremonial jewellery such as nose rings out of platinum.
There was then something of a global historical hiatus in platinum’s use after this time, and it wasn’t until the Spanish conquistadors explored South America that platinum came onto the radar again. Though the 17th-century Spaniards found platinum while they were mining the rich gold supplies in the country, they initially cast the platinum aside in favour of gold.
In the 18th century, Spanish mariner Antonio Ulloa drew attention to platinum when he discussed the science of the metal – with much interest in its ability to resist corrosion and tarnishes. Having brought the metal back to Spain, the country took great interest in platinum, notably the ruler Charles III. He ordered a laboratory for scientists to study it, leading to Spain’s “platinum age”. Platinum ingots and utensils traded very successfully within the country and then beyond.
British chemists William Hyde Wollaston and Smithson Tennant, during this century, formulated a technique for purifying platinum using nitric acid. A similar method is still used to this day.
By the end of the 18th century, platinum’s use in jewellery had become well-established, with craftsmen like the Cartier family working with it. Seen as a “new” metal and one that was hard to master, platinum jewellery became sought after, especially in wealthy and aristocratic circles.
During this period, platinum was found for the first time in Russia, allowing for greater accessibility to the metal. In the 19th century, it was also discovered in Canada; with more of the metal to experiment with, the uses of platinum began to grow.
Following the historical trend, platinum remains a desirable metal for jewellery work, but it has many other uses.
Since the early 19th century, platinum has been incorporated into catalytic converters for vehicles, where its physical and chemical properties make it a usefully stable and unreactive component. Today, around half of our mined platinum is used to make these catalytic converters. As you might imagine, platinum is so well-suited to this role because it can be taken to a very high temperature without liquefying. This property is also crucial for its use in missile cones and jet engine blades, where temperatures can soar.
Because it can be readily shaped and remain chemically stable, it is used to make laboratory equipment, electrodes, thermometers and electrical contacts.
Thanks to this stability and its resistance to corrosion, platinum can be utilised in structures that need to be placed or kept within the human body, such as dental crowns, catheters, stents and even pacemakers. Being non-toxic, it is perfectly safe to ingest platinum or have it sitting within tissues, teeth or bone.
A further medical use for platinum is its inclusion in drugs for cancer patients. In fact, up to half of all cancer patients receive a medication containing this rare metal. The anti-cancer drugs cisplatin, nedaplatin and lobaplatin are all platinum medications that play an essential role in specific chemotherapy regimens. Platinum is used as an anti-cancer agent thanks to its ability to damage the DNA within cancerous cells.
Platinum is also used as a catalyst in the production of nitric acid, benzene and silicone.
Because platinum is rarer than gold (up to fourteen times more gold is mined per year), platinum and platinum jewellery can be more expensive than the equivalent in gold. Interestingly, gold remains the favoured metal for investment because platinum is so widely used in the automobile industry, has a smaller market than gold and platinum futures are less actively traded than gold futures.
Now that you’ve familiarised yourself with some essential information about platinum, it’s time to explore the more unusual and fascinating facts about this rare metal.
As stable and unreactive as platinum is, if you own platinum jewellery, there are still care tips you should follow to keep your items looking their best. Though time will not fade or tarnish your platinum jewellery, the metal can scratch and may develop a patina.
To take the best care of your platinum jewellery, be sure to adhere to the following rules:
Another vital care tip for your platinum jewellery is the insurance of your pieces. Not only does platinum jewellery come with a high price tag, but the metal is also often used in engagement or wedding rings. This means your platinum jewellery may rank highly on the sentimental front too. Protecting your platinum with a specialist jewellery insurance policy gives you the peace of mind that allows you to wear and enjoy your accessories with confidence.
With over 130 years of experience insuring jewellery, TH March offers you the safest of hands for your jewellery. With competitive insurance premiums and a wealth of jewellery insurance knowledge, you know your platinum pieces are well cared for with TH March. If you’d like to find out how we can help with your platinum jewellery insurance needs, contact us today.