Thursday, 27 February 2014

Platinum on Credit

by Daniel Rollins

Platinum has become a by-word for premium; platinum credit cards, platinum experiences and platinum holiday packages all promise the best and highest service available. When an album sells 500,000 units it goes gold, when it sells a million it's platinum. In jewellery it has become the height of fashion and elegance, American socialite and later Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Spencer, declared, ‘Any fool would know that with tweed and other daytime clothes one wears gold; with evening clothes one wears platinum.’ This dense, silvery metal however has not always been as valued and esteemed as it is today; in fact, when the Spanish conquistadors began to mine gold in South America, some were abandoned due to the presence of platina, a mixture of Platinum and other precious metals or iron, making the mines unprofitable.

Pure malleable platinum was first presented to the Royal Society in 1750 by William Brownrigg but this was not in workable quantities. Even when pure platinum was first isolated from the native platina in large quantities, by French chemist Pierre- Francois Chabaneau working in Spain, very few uses were found for it. While for a short time it had some popularity within the nobility of Europe with Louis XVI of France having several pieces made and King Carlos III giving the Pope a platinum chalice in 1788, the invasion of Spain by Napoleon in 1808 and unrest in Spain’s colonial supply of platina brought this brief Spanish ‘Age of Platinum,’ to a premature end. Platinum’s useful properties of high density and resistance to corrosion were, however, recognised in the new French Republic, being used to cast the standard metre and kilogram.
New supplies in Russia and Canada and a lack of demand led to a drop in value of this once-precious metal; Russia even minted three rouble coins out of platinum for some time to use up its supply. How then did this metal become the symbol of wealth that it has become today? Supply is not the issue; while in similar quantities to gold in the crust platinum is actually more abundant in the soil - therefore simple economics suggests that demand must be responsible.

Part of the increase in demand was caused by new industrial uses being found for platinum as a catalyst and electrical conductor; however, the major increase was caused simply by an increase in perceived value. The famous jeweller and populariser of the wristwatch, Louis Cartier, resolved to use platinum instead of silver in his jewellery, especially in pieces with, ‘white stones,’ such as diamond, as not only did it have the colourless setting needed to emphasise the stones but it does not tarnish like silver. This brought platinum into fashion in high society, setting it up as the metal that most clearly signifies high status that it is today. This was demonstrated when Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) had the Koh-i-noor diamond, the largest in the world, set in her crown with platinum.

When at the 1904 St Louis Olympic games the, Gold, Silver and Bronze system of medals was introduced; marketing people soon began using gold to promote their premium products but, when it began to be used to market everything from coffee to washing powder, a new, more luxurious metal needed to be found to market things above common gold, and the platinum credit card was born.

With no special intrinsic value, built on fashions and snobbery, platinum remains the symbol of ultimate desirability… for now. 

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