The Great Appeal of Platinum: Catalytic Properties

Platinum has many other uses outside of watches and jewelry, most of which are used in industry. Anyone who has ever benefited from a catalyst or experienced its benefits has actually seen platinum make a difference. As? Well I’m happy to assume you asked this question because the catalyst in catalytic converters is usually platinum. So if you have owned a car that was manufactured after 1975, then you are indeed a person who owns just a little bit of platinum. While electric cars don’t need catalytic converters, platinum is still the material of choice in diesel, gasoline and hybrid cars, as well as countless other types of engines (including power generators) as the world struggles to tackle pollution from the burning of fossil fuels .

An interesting point that we will examine later is the case of rhodium, which also belongs to the platinum family of metals. This metal shares many properties with platinum, including its catalytic properties. However, rhodium is extraordinarily expensive, becoming the world’s most expensive metal in 2021 at more than $80 per gram at the most conservative end. At its peak, rhodium traded at $744 per gram. So platinum is still the cheaper option, and not by a lot.

This means that platinum has practical advantages that make it less volatile in price than its alternatives and, for watch and jewelry purposes, gold. In fact, there are times when gold is actually more expensive than platinum. We are indeed living in such an era where platinum is trading at around $30 a gram and gold is currently selling for twice that. This has been the case for some time now and perhaps it was only in the 2008 recession that platinum traded over gold. You’ll no doubt be rushing to Google now, and that’s okay – you can come right back because this isn’t the only unusual nugget here for scarcity and value warriors. Just read this particular section in front of your laptop or your phone as you will feel the need for confirmation of the information almost constantly. However, be careful not to fall too deep into any rabbit holes as there is a lot of confusing and seemingly conflicting information out there.

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Stability matters

Demand for platinum remains relatively stable given its industrial applications, while in practice gold serves as an economic hedge (typically against inflation) and a publicly recognized store of value. Most economies no longer use the gold standard, but virtually every government has gold reserves. That means there are tons of gold bars just sitting in vaults around the world, and no, we’re not going to engage in any conspiracy theories. In contrast, no country is known to have platinum reserves. Add to this the fact that the US considered platinum such an important strategic resource that it regulated its use during World War I (President Woodrow Wilson’s platinum policy) and again during World War II. This put the metal out of play for most jewelers, effectively ending a brilliant run for all fine jewelers of the era, from Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels to Bvlgari and Tiffany & Co. Watchmaking was a different matter.

Switzerland, like the US, has made platinum a strategic asset, like gold and silver. One of the reasons for this was that watchmaking was hugely important to the economy (even more so than it is today) and watchmakers had campaigned for anti-fraud laws. The same protection already existed for gold and silver, but platinum was not covered as it was not used much commercially as its official discovery and classification did not occur until the 18th century. In fact, some evidence suggests that platinum was used to adulterate gold, requiring legal standards to protect gold’s purity and sanctity. In any case, these types of legal protections were not carried out expressly for the benefit of an industry, but were undertaken to establish standards. Today such standards define the use of precious metals in the manufacture of watches and jewellery. Thanks to such measures, for example, the exact proportion of gold in alloys is standardized worldwide. For this reason, platinum 950 is also the standard order for platinum in typical use, and this simply means 95 percent platinum. It is not specific to watchmaking, although the exact wording is Platin 950 Swiss.

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So platinum finally made its way into watchmaking in the early 20th century, but still in pocket watches. The process of extracting pure platinum and then alloying it was difficult at first. Since platinum comes with other related metals such as rhodium, iridium and palladium to name a few, it must first be purified. In fact, some of these other materials were also mislabeled as platinum, leading to all sorts of problems. Thus, the pre-Columbian culture of La Tolita (ca. 600 BC to 200 AD) used platinum in combination with gold. We believe they worked with platinum in powder form, sintered with gold in a similar form, and then used simple tools to shape the resulting alloy. Unfortunately, this culture left no written records, and the Spaniards’ dismissive attitude towards platinum (they saw it as a contaminant that tainted the coveted gold) didn’t help. In fact, the name platinum comes from Spanish references to the metal as La Platinaor little or less silver.

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A major problem in processing pure platinum was reaching the metal’s melting point of about 1,769 degrees C. In contrast, gold melts at about 1,065 degrees C and iron at 1,538 degrees C. This is also a problem for purification, but here chemical processes work to a certain extent. Platinum (and platinum group metals) are largely unreactive, with platinum not subject to acids at room temperature. However, European researchers were familiar with aqua regia, and this combination of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid can dissolve platinum just as it dissolves gold. Iridium and osmium do not react with aqua regia and can therefore be separated from platinum. Aqua regia allowed metallurgists in the 18th century to create gold-platinum alloys that could be worked, but they did not realize that other metals such as palladium could also penetrate since it also dissolves in aqua regia.

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Only with the invention of the oxyhydrogen burner in the 19th century, when various European industrial nations tried to use platinum, could the temperatures required to melt platinum be reached. The Russians and British even made coins out of platinum, but this never caught on. Keep this in mind the next time you play a computer game in a medieval setting that contains platinum coins or objects, or read a fantasy novel that contains the same thing.

As previously mentioned, platinum’s primary use today is for industrial purposes, with the automotive industry using up to 50 percent of the available material (an estimated 41.45 percent by 2022 on Statista, the source of all production and usage figures used in this article). . The estimated share for watches and jewelry is 21.27 percent; Investments don’t even justify a predicted percentage. Gold, on the other hand, is estimated to be used 90 percent in the watch and jewelry industry and for investments. One effect of this is that platinum is becoming relatively rare in watches and jewelry due to competition from other suppliers. Unusually, there is enough platinum to solve this problem, but miners seem reluctant to increase supply for fear of damaging prices, and not just for this material.

We close this segment with a note on density, platinum’s defining characteristic. In its pure form, platinum is only 8 percent denser than gold, and that number may come as a surprise. This is mainly because we are often told that platinum is 60 percent denser than gold, which is a reference to platinum 950 and 14k gold. For 18k gold, the number is around 30+ percent. The practical effect of the resulting confusion from these numbers is most felt in the case of watches and jewelry, but the overall effect is that the general public has the idea that platinum is so heavy that it is impractical to wear.

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