History of Platinum

Widespread knowledge of the white metal platinum stretches back only a few hundred years, versus thousands for gold. Meteorites contain platinum and the earliest recorded meteorite impact on Earth happened 2 billion years ago. Since then, this rare and beguiling treasure has made sporadic appearances throughout history, mysteriously disappearing for centuries at a time, both baffling and enchanting those who have come across it.

In 700 BC the daughter of the King of Thebes, the great high priestess Shepenupet, was buried in a magnificent sarcophagus decorated with gold and platinum hieroglyphics. Ancient South American civilizations, the most famous being the Incas, used platinum and gold to create nose rings and other items of ceremonial jewelry. Platinum is then lost to mankind for two millennia, forgotten for thousands of years, only to briefly re-appear when European explorers discover the new world. Not until the Spanish conquest of the New World during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did news reach Europe of this new metal. The Spanish first considered it a nuisance because it interfered with their gold mining activities and Spanish conquistadores gave it the derogatory name 'platina', meaning 'little silver'. Spanish naval officer don Antonio de Ulloa y Garcia de la torre was one of the conquistadores to misunderstand the value of platinum. Thirsty for gold, and unimpressed by platinum's appearance, the Spanish mistakenly dismiss it as an inferior metal and throw it back into the rivers of Ecuador to 'ripen'. Platinum’s extraordinary properties did interest European scientists and was noted that it would not “melt by fire or by any of the Spanish arts.”

Heavier than gold and virtually impossible to corrode with gases or chemicals, in 1751, platinum was finally recognized as a newly discovered element and it was used to make durable laboratory instruments in Berlin in 1784. In France, crucibles for glass production used it, a significant use still today. Platinum also began to impress jewellers and goldsmiths. Leading metal workers, such as Marc Janety, Royal Goldsmith to Louis XVI, and Pierre Chabaneu, of Spain, were using platinum to make expensive cutlery, watch-chains and coat buttons.

Increased platinum use was limited by its supply. In 1820, Columbia, still the only major producer of platinum in the world, ceased exporting the metal. Then in 1822, Russian alluvial platinum was proved to be present in the gold fields of the Ural Mountains. The Russian government made platinum into roubles. Over the next 18 years, the Russian government minted almost 500,000 ounces of platinum and, perhaps more importantly, introduced to the world the notion that platinum was like gold, a store of value.

Platinum jewelry remained rare until high-temperature jewelers’ torches were developed. Louis Cartier becomes the first person to successfully create platinum jewelry, revealing for the first time the hidden characteristics of the metal. Cartier uses platinum in his "Garland Style" pieces and to enhance the brilliance of diamonds. His skill in working with platinum is unrivaled and he is hailed by King Edward VII of England as the "jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers".

The sources of platinum production remained limited until 1924 when German geologist Hans Merensky discovered the world's largest platinum deposit near Johannesburg, South Africa.. The demand for platinum is essentially satisfied by the mining activities in just two regions. The Bushveld Complex, which is just north of South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, produce more than two thirds of the annual platinum supply. The Noril’sk-Talnakh region in the extreme north of Siberia in Russia supplies most of the rest. Russia is the only nation with significant stocks of platinum and many believe that these may be running out.

In 1975, after the Arab Oil Embargo sparked increases in precious metals prices, platinum bars that were small enough for the individual investor to buy were introduced in Japan. With platinum’s huge price changes during the late 1970s and early 1980s interest in platinum bullion investing spread to Europe and the United States. Two platinum fabricators, Johnson Matthey & Co. Ltd., and Engelhard Corporation began to produce one and ten ounce platinum bars.

In November of 1983, The Isle of Man, a British Crown Possession, issued a one ounce Noble platinum bullion coin. The highly successful Noble enticed other mints to issue their own platinum coins. During the second half of 1988, Australia (the Koala) and Canada (the Maple Leaf) introduced platinum legal tender bullion coins within three months of each other. Despite the proximity of the launches, both introductions were enormously successful, bringing the level of investment demand to new highs. For nearly ten years, Australia’s Koala and Canada’s Maple Leaf were among the leading platinum coins in annual sales. Not until 1997 was the platinum American Eagle released.

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