Platinum is a white metallic element that is strong, malleable and ductile; it doesn’t tarnish or corrode. It gets its name from the Spanish Platina del Pinto which means ‘little silver from the Pinto’ (the name of the river in South America where platinum was first found). Platinum is often found in an alloyed state and was first isolated in 1804. In this post, I am just going to discuss a little about the history of platinum use in antique and period jewelry; I will go into hallmarks and purity in a later post.
A platinum alloy was first developed in 1800 and there were various developments concerning the metal throughout the first part of the 19th century but it wasn’t until around 1870 that the first pieces of jewelry began to be produced using it. These first pieces of jewelry involved platinum applique only; thin pieces of platinum foil were fused to other metals, usually gold. By 1878, the first platinum tipped prongs were beginning to be used for setting diamonds. As the century came to an end, larger pieces of platinum were used along side gold.
It wasn’t until the year 1895, however, that platinum really began to be used frequently in jewelry. This was enabled by the invention of liquid oxygen which allowed for enough heat to melt it. Jewelers started to really love working with platinum and its strength allowed for fine filigree work and delicate gem setting. Between the years of 1895 until the outbreak of the 1st World war in 1914, platinum jewelry was extremely popular. Platinum jewelry, often set with diamonds, from that era is thought of nowadays as being very typically ‘Edwardian’ or ‘Belle Epoque’. Delicate, lacy motifs were popular, and subtle scroll work and curved lines were indicative of the styles of that time. (The Edwardian era is sometimes also referred to as ‘The Garland Era’ in reference to jewelry as the bow or garland motif was so ubiquitous during that time).
Precious metals became very scarce during the First World War and jewelery manufacture stopped almost altogether. It wasn’t really until 1920 that platinum reemerged along side the Art Deco Movement and was used in the bolder, more geometric forms that typified that era. Once again, the fashion for white jewelry was prevalent, but this time with Art Deco motifs, architecturally inspired lines and styling. Splashes of color in the form of sapphires, topaz, citrine, emerald and other precious stones were used along side diamonds, rock crystal and paste. In the mid-1920s, white gold began to make an appearance in jewelry and was soon overtaking platinum as it was less expensive. By the end of 1920, the dominance of all white jewelery reached a peak. Platinum remained the preferred precious metal until 1942 when its use was prohibited by the US government.
There are just a few rare pieces from the Retro Era (1935-1945) and most of those were used along side gold. Although platinum was once again legal to use in jewelry after the Second World War, it seemed to have fallen permanently out of favor, never to quite regain the popularity it once had. My suspicion is that with the prevalence of white gold, people didn’t feel the extra cost of platinum jewelery was worth it. Also, it seems people will always return to yellow and rose gold as basic precious metals for jewelery because they are easy to visually differentiate from silver. Today platinum is still used in jewelry, but it is the exception, rather than the rule.
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