Platinum jewellery isn’t just beautiful to look at; it is also beautiful to wear. With a silky polished surface and weighing more than half as much again as 18 karat gold, it conveys a feeling of value and beauty to the wearer.
Used for decoration by both the ancient Egyptians and Inca civilisations and in modern times the first material capable of holding diamonds in a delicate framework; leading to the creation of the beautiful art deco pieces of the 1920’s that can be seen in museums today. Until it was declared vital to the war effort in the 1940’s, nearly all engagement rings were made from platinum. It is only in the two decades, however, that platinum has begun to enjoy a renaissance as people have again begun to appreciate its subtle yet refined look and feel.
France’s Louis XVI proclaimed it the only metal fit for royalty. Legendary jewellers such as Cartier, Faberge and Tiffany created their timeless designs in platinum. The world’s famous diamonds, including the Hope, Jonker I and Kohinoor, are secured by the permanence of platinum. Platinum, in fact is the rarest and the most precious of the three noble metals – gold, silver and platinum. Its rarity is evident from the fact that some 15 times more gold is mined each year. Platinum is extremely dense and weighs much more than gold. A piece of platinum jewellery contains 95% pure platinum and as compared to it gold jewellery contains much less precious metal. Thus working with platinum requires a high degree of skill that only special craftsmen possess. Hence, it commands a significant price premium over gold. Nothing enchances the brilliance of diamonds like the pure white of platinum.
Platinum is a white metal (looking similar to silver), but unlike gold it is used in jewellery in almost its pure form (approximately 95% pure). The other 5% is usually made from other metals such as gold, nickel, iridium, palladium, rhodium, or ruthenium. Platinum does not need to be Rhodium plated like white gold, as it is extremely resilient. In fact, its durability is what makes Platinum so popular. It is so strong that it doesn’t splinter or whittle away like other metals, and will not need to be reinforced to make it stronger.
While it is the strongest of jewellery metals, platinum can still scratch with everyday wear (see tips on caring for your jewellery). This produces a sheen unique to platinum, called a patina. Many people prefer this finish. Those who prefer the shiny reflective look need only polish their jewellery to return it to its original lustre. Despite its growing popularity, platinum remains one of the world’s rare metals. The annual worldwide production of platinum amounts to some 160 tons, compared to about 1,500 tons of gold. It can be found in just a handful of regions of the world. The mining and refining processes are both arduous and time-consuming. For example, in order to extract a single ounce of platinum, about 10 tons of ore need to be mined. After that, the refining process takes a full five months.
Platinum in jewellery is actually an alloyed group of six heavy metals, including platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium. These other metals are so similar to platinum in weight and chemistry that most were not even distinguished from each other until early in the nineteenth century.
Today, it is often alloyed with copper and titanium. It’s the only precious metal used in fine jewellery that is 90% to 95% pure, largely hypoallergenic, and tarnish-resistant. Look for platinum jewellery marked 900Pt, 950 Plat, or Plat.
We are often asked why platinum rings are so much more expensive than gold. Aside from the obvious known facts about platinum such as its rarity in comparison to gold, the higher purity content and the special skills and equipment needed to work it. There is one very good reason why the price of platinum has almost doubled since this time last year (as shown in the graph below). 80% of the worlds platinum comes from South Africa, in fact it comes from just 4 different primary mining companies. In 2007 alone there were 162 mining fatalities.
In response to these deaths, South African President Thabo Mbeki called for an audit of all mining companies, and due to ongoing industrial action by the miners unions and government imposed mine closures, the world platinum price has continued to rise sharply since November 2007. With the global credit crisis seeing investors switch from hedge funds to precious metals, it is little wonder that platinum reached a record high of almost $2200 per ounce recently.