Going Platinum Featured

Discover the history and exceptional qualities of platinum and how it's used in prestigious, limited-edition watches.

by 11 May 2010

Highly valued by ancient South American and even pre-Inca civilisations, platinum was used to create nose rings and other ceremonial jewels. After which it vanished from human history for two millennia, only to resurface when the European explorers embarked on their quest for the new world. The precious metal was dismissed, thus ignored, by its modern “discoverers” – the Spanish conquistadores – who mistook it for literally “little silver” or “platina”. It was only around the mid-1700s that platinum emerged from this paradoxical obscurity to become, thanks to scientists and alchemists, an object of study and investigation. Indeed, in virtue of its qualities of resistance and stability, it began, finally, to be appreciated in full as it deserved.

At the end of the 1800s, a happy intuition led Louis Cartier to launch the platinum-diamond combination in a market where silver was the only white metal available. In 1895, an exhibition gave him the chance to present a whole collection of platinum jewellery. The exceptional response of the public and the orientation of other major jewellery houses – first and foremost Van Cleef & Arpels, Fabergé and Tiffany – in the same direction finally consecrated platinum as a highly prestigious metal, the favourite of stars – from Grace Kelly to Liz Taylor, from Sir Elton John to Catherine Zeta Jones - and of lovers of precious objects.

Even though platinum remains irreplaceable in many scientific and technological uses, jewellery has enabled it to play its greatest role. As widely documented, the noble white metal was the protagonist of the splendid Art Deco creations, which gave platinum its most glittering season. Watchmaking also adroitly harnessed its potential, using it alone or teamed with precious stones, making it the essential complement in the historic collections of the leading watchmakers. An innovative raw material for űber-luxury creations. The unknown history of this metal can therefore be explained by its superb characteristics, unanimously associated more with science than art, more with technological progress than beauty.

The quality of platinum

Platinum cannot be spoken about without the use of several adjectives, which fully enlighten us as to its key features.

Purity. Usually, platinum jewels are 95% pure, 20% purer than 18K gold (which by comparison is 75% pure). It is so pure that it never alters shape or colour, ever. Platinum has a natural whiteness that is ideal for reflecting the lustre of diamonds, while its durability and resistance ensure gems a secure casing.

Rarity. Platinum is 30 times rarer than gold and only a few deposits exist in the world, mainly in South Africa and Russia. Every year about 90 tons of platinum are transformed into jewellery versus 2,700 tons of gold. It takes 10 tons of rock to extract and process 31 grams of platinum and only five tons to make the same quantity of gold.

Eternity. Its specific weight – 21.45 grams per cubic centimetre – is the highest known. A 15cm cube of platinum weighs 75kg, more or less the weight of a human. Its density and specific weight make it more durable than other metals. It is resistant to heat and acids and has a high melting point. Such high resistance enables a higher level of polish and shine and the safe encasing of precious gems. A famous example is the Koh-I-Noor diamond, a key piece of the platinum crown jewels of England.

Versatility. In addition to resistance and density, platinum is also ductile. Once melted, it can be worked to form leaves or the finest wires without losing strength: one gram of metal will yield a wire almost 2 km long. A property that has also enabled the production of platinum cloth, such as the famous wedding dress fashioned in Japan. Other fields of application are catalytic converters and medicine. Platinum is rust-proof, is an excellent conductor and is compatible with organic tissue.

State of the art

Platinum is precious, so precious that making a watch out of this metal involves a level of craftsmanship far superior to that needed by other minerals. For example, the polissage phase is particularly complex, which, due to the metal’s specific characteristics, is highly different to that of gold and completely rules out the use of automatic tools.

Nevertheless, platinum watches remain the privilege of master watchmakers, and they are produced in limited editions.

These timepieces are particularly elegant, enriched with movements of highly technical content, designed for exacting clients, lovers of excellence. Some examples to consider are the Lange Zeitwerk offered by A. Lange & Söhne with platinum case and two windows, featuring a jumping numerals mechanism that displays hours and minutes. Or the Jules Audemars by Audemars Piguet with direct impulse balance wheel. Bulgari celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2009 by dedicating a superb limited edition of 30 timepieces with guilloche and opaline workings to founder Sotirio Bulgari.

While IWC has launched the Perpetual Calendar Digital Date Month with tonneau-shaped case and flyback chronograph at 12 o’clock in a limited edition of 500 pieces. Jaeger-LeCoultre with Master Minute Repeater Grand Feu – 100 pieces – gives us a rare form of high art made in white enamel to enhance the platinum case, while the Safari Jaquemarts Minute Repeater by Ulysse Nardin has a large platinum case encircling a dial that plays with a cute little monkey who, when the minute repeater is pressed, swings away on a branch to escape the lion.

Omega also celebrates special occasions with platinum, presenting a special 69-piece edition of the Speedmaster Chronograph – platinum case and strap – to fete the 40th anniversary of the first man to land on the moon (21 July 1969), marking the number on a medal on the dial along with the symbol of the Apollo 11 mission. On the other hand, the Montblanc Villeret 1858 Grand Tourbillon Heures Mystérieuses marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Minerva; made in platinum 950, the chronograph shows its “mysterious hours” with floating markers on transparent disks, fashioned to give a suggestive “floating” effect. Minimalist yet seductive lines enhance the sobriety of the Platinum series by Bell & Ross, which numbers just 99 pieces.

Ultimately, Vacheron Constantin has clad the latest addition to its Patrimony line in platinum, and limited it to a series of just 100 pieces stamped Vacheron Constantin Collection Excellence Platine. The case and dial are both in platinum. The dial features two original retrograde – or the instantaneous return of the hands – day and date indicators, while the alligator strap is hand-sewn using silk and platinum thread.

Making a platinum watch is the best way to savour the lunar allure of a metal in which beauty, taste and style sparkle with mystery.

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