The history of platinum
From prehistory to princesses and pop divas - the story of platinum, the so-called 'new metal' is much longer than you would think. 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. The Ancient Egyptians, pre-Incan civilizations and the Spanish conquistadors all encountered platinum. It then re-emerged in the 1700s to fascinate kings and alchemists alike. Platinum grew in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries and today it is the precious metal of choice of movie stars and the glitterati.
Two billion years ago, long before the age of dinosaurs, when life on this planet is nothing more than simple bacteria, an enormous meteorite crashes to Earth in North America. This is the earliest known meteorite impact. Meteorites are the product of a supernova - an explosion of an enormous star (the remnants of a supernova are pictured here) and are rich in metals such as platinum.
1200 BC - The Egyptians import gold, which contains traces of platinum, from the ancient kingdom of Nubia. They make jewelry and adornments from the metal mix. Although no-one knows if their use of platinum is intentional.
700 BC - the daughter of the King of Thebes, the great high priestess Shepenupet, is buried in a magnificent sarcophagus decorated with gold and platinum hieroglyphics. A small document casket made of platinum (pictured here) is also placed in her tomb.
100 BC - Ancient South American civilizations, the most famous being the Incas - gifted metal workers and craftsmen, use 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.
1590 - Platinum is next encountered by the Spanish conquistadores, who give 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'. Once again, platinum mysteriously disappears from history.
1700s - In the 18th century, platinum begins to arrive in Europe and soon becomes a highly prized ingredient in the alchemy craze. Because of its chemical qualities, platinum is a desired ingredient in the potions and cocktails of intrepid inventors trying to change lead into gold.
THE METAL OF KINGS
1751 - When Swedish scientist Theophil Scheffer categorizes Platinum as a precious metal it's only a matter of time before it falls into favor with royalty. In the 1780s King Louis XVI of France declares it the only metal fit for kings and, his jeweler Marc Etienne Janety fashions several platinum pieces for him, including an ornate sugar bowl.
1788 - Not to be outdone by his French counterpart, King Carlos III of Spain, another platinum enthusiast, commissions Francisco Alonso to craft an ornate platinum chalice, which is presented to Pope Pius VI. The chalice is 12 in (30 cm) high, such a magnificent piece is worth around $75,000 at today's prices.
THE METRIC SYSTEM
1795 - In the wake of the French revolution, France creates the metric system of weights and measures. King Louis XVI's former jeweler, Marc Etienne Janety, who fled during the revolution, is recalled to Paris to create the standard kilogram weight out of platinum. Platinum is the metal of choice for the task, as its durability means it will not wear away and corrupt the standard. This original platinum cylinder is kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris.
FABERGÉ'S FAMOUS EGGS
1884 - Peter Carl Fabergé, jeweler to the Russian tsars, volunteers to create a jewelry egg for Alexander III to give to his wife, Marie. Thus begins an annual Easter tradition and Fabergé jewelry eggs become legendary masterpieces, adorned with precious gems and platinum. As it is being made, each egg is a closely guarded secret, always containing a surprise inside, such as this one with a fully functioning gold and platinum wind up model train to celebrate the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway. After the Russian revolution of 1917, the Fabergé collection is dispersed and many of the eggs are later sold in the West.
PALATIAL PLATINUM ROOM
Late 1800s - Platinum mania spreads across Europe and Russia. Kings, queens, tsars and maharajas bedeck themselves in platinum and even use platinum thread in royal gowns. Carlos IV of Spain commissions the creation of a 'Platinum Room' at the royal palace in Aranjuez. Reflecting the grandeur and splendor of the era, the room features hard wood decoration encrusted with platinum.
Early 1900s - 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". Not only kings but maharajas clamour for Cartier creations, with the maharaja of Patiala wearing a turban ornament (pictured here) and necklace made by Cartier.
1912 - On her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York, the world's largest luxury ocean liner, the Titanic, strikes an iceberg about 400 miles south of Newfoundland and sinks. Some 1,500 people lose their lives. In the wake of the disaster New York high society adopts a trend for wearing black and white "mourning jewelry" and platinum is a popular choice of white metal in these mourning designs.
A MAJOR DISCOVERY
1924 - German geologist Hans Merensky discovers the world's largest platinum deposit near Johannesburg, South Africa. The modern platinum industry is born.
1930s - With the invention of "talkies", the leading ladies of Hollywood become an inspiration to a nation of Americans, looking to the big screen for escapism during the great depression. Actresses such as Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich, adorn themselves in platinum jewelry. Platinum's success in Hollywood is summed up by the title character in Frank Capra's movie 'Platinum Blonde', played by Jean Harlow.
1936-7 - King Edward VIII of England abdicates so he can marry divorcee Wallis Simpson. George VI is made king. At the coronation, his wife, Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) is crowned with an elegant platinum crown holding the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond. Edward, now the Duke of Windsor, marries Wallis Simpson and they exchange platinum wedding bands made by Cartier. Wallis, Duchess of Windsor is an expert collector of jewelry and declares platinum the one and only choice for evening wear.
WORLD WAR II
1939-1945 - With the outbreak of war in 1939, platinum is declared a strategic metal in the USA, used for the manufacture of armaments. Its use for making jewelry is forbidden. In the post war era however, platinum's popularity is once again reborn as the passion for jewelry is rekindled. At the "White Heat" exhibition in New York in 1947 a number of precious platinum and diamond pieces are displayed, proving that platinum is back in vogue.
ELVIS AND PRISCILLA SAY "I DO"
1967 - Elvis Presley marries his sweetheart Priscilla Anne Beaulieu in a private ceremony at the Aladdin hotel in Las Vegas, USA. Their wedding rings are in platinum. The next few decades see platinum jewelry's popularity grow, especially for wedding bands and bridal jewelry in the USA, with many brides opting to say "I do" with platinum.
CINDERELLA'S PLATINUM SHOE
1997 - Thanks to a remarkable platinum creation a fairytale became reality when Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo of Tokyo, Japan, created a Cinderella shoe using 41/2 lbs (2 kg) of platinum metals. The amazing piece was displayed at the Ideal Home exhibition in the UK and a small gift (sadly not the shoe) was awarded to the woman who fitted the size of the shoe exactly.
THE RED CARPET MUST HAVE
Today- Platinum has become the precious metal of choice of the world's glitterati, loved by stars such as Sir Elton John. When movie stars Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones married in November 2000 they chose platinum wedding bands. Platinum is paraded down the red carpet at award ceremonies and worn by Oscar winners such as Halle Berry.