Headline image, Omega Speedmaster 321, in platinum.
One of my earliest memories of gold is also one of my earliest memories, as I have written elsewhere. While rare – and heavy, lustrous, malleable, and expensive – gold is not so uncommon that encountering it is a particularly unusual event. I would venture a guess that for most of us, the first gold we ever saw was in someone’s wedding ring. Yellow gold is perhaps not as de rigueur as it was during the long-lost days of my ill-remembered youth, but it’s far from an exotic experience to see a yellow-gold ring on someone’s finger. My first conscious memory of gold was a gold Day-Date, and it was a defining moment in the evolution of my own irrational personal tastes – a firmly, and deeply ingrained introduction to the world of luxury, which was reinforced further by experiences such as seeing the 1979 exhibition of treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art (and probably just as much, by multiple viewings of Goldfinger).
By contrast, I have no such defining early memory of platinum at all. I can’t even remember when I first saw a platinum object – the material has been used in jewelry and the decorative arts for a surprisingly short period of time, and it is sufficiently rare that encountering a platinum object is a much less common event. For a lot of us, unless you know what to look for, you wouldn’t necessarily even recognize a white metal as platinum at all. In fact, it was not until relatively recently that I had an opportunity to wear a platinum watch for any length of time – as it happens, a Lange Datograph, on loan – which was an experience that showed me in no uncertain terms that, lack of early indoctrination notwithstanding, it is indeed possible to fall in love with a platinum object.
The question occasionally arises when we do a story on platinum watches as to why platinum-cased watches are so much more expensive than gold ones. Is the increase in price driven by materials costs? If so, we would expect to find some uniformity or at least similarity in price increases from one brand to the next, and yet, this appears not to be the case. To cite just one example, a Patek 5196J in yellow gold currently lists for $ 20,870, while a platinum 5196P lists for $ 37,990 – both are time-only watches, with sub-seconds; both use the same movement (caliber 215), and yet the platinum watch is $ 17,120 more expensive, which represents a whopping 82% increase (approximately). The platinum Datograph Up/Down is listed at €87,100, and in pink gold, it’s €73,800 which represents, by contrast, an increase of just 18% or so. At Vacheron Constantin, a Patrimony hand-wound watch in platinum is $ 27,400; the same watch, in pink gold, is $ 18,100 – about a 51% bump.
Now, while we must accept that rationalizing costs for luxury products is something of a fool’s errand, and that the answer in such cases to the question, “why is it so much more costly” is at least to some degree, “because people are willing to pay,” I don’t think we necessarily need to leave it at that. So, is it materials cost? This seems the least likely explanation. A quick look at prices for platinum vs. gold over the last couple of decades shows that, while the prices for both metals have skyrocketed, they are also very volatile, and today, gold trades for around double the price of platinum. The situation was almost exactly reversed in 2008 when platinum was trading for more than double the price of gold (these are spot prices; I don’t know if they are directly reflected in the costs, in any given year, of ordering actual raw stock for machining, but it seems logical that this would be the case – indeed it may be the only logical data point in this entire article). Steel trades for at least a couple of orders of magnitude less (904L seems to go for around two to ten bucks a kilo, depending on the size of your order), and we all know how expensive steel watches can get, so we can assume, I think, that when a premium is paid for platinum, materials costs are not the biggest reason why.
Is platinum more rare than gold? At least in mass percentage terms, this is not the case either – gold exists in the Earth’s crust in about 4 parts per billion and platinum about 5 parts per billion. However (and here, at last, we are getting somewhere), the overall rarity of each metal is perhaps less relevant to their perceived value than the amount which has been torn by force from the bowels of a protesting earth – in other words, the amount actually mined. The numbers are necessarily estimates, but a reasonable figure for gold is that all the gold ever mined, would, gotten together, form a cube roughly 25 meters on a side; all the platinum ever mined, by contrast, would fit into a cube just 7 meters or so on a side. Of that amount, quite a bit used to go to the automotive industry for use in catalytic converters, in which platinum and platinum group metals (PGMs) catalyze the conversion of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and water – nowadays, though, there seems to be a move to find replacements for PGMs in catalytic converters, and of course, electric cars don’t need them at all.
Rarity certainly correlates with perceived value when it comes to precious metals. They must, however, have other properties as well. Both gold and platinum do not readily form chemical bonds, which means they do not rust or tarnish. You can corrode both gold and platinum with some very strong acids, but anything you encounter outside of a laboratory will leave them both largely untouched. (Platinum reacts “vigorously” with fluorine at 500º Celsius to form platinum tetrafluoride, but if you are exposed to blazing hot fluorine – that’s over 900º Fahrenheit – you probably have bigger problems, as detailed in a wonderful short article on the perils of fluorine chemistry, “Sand Won’t Save You This Time.”). This means that both metals can be found in their pure form in nature, as nuggets, although usually, mining and refining processes are necessary to extract both metals from their ores.
While gold has been known, coveted, and turned into objects both beautiful and useful for thousands of years, platinum is a more recent discovery. It was unknown in Europe for most of recorded history; it has been found in small amounts in ancient Egyptian artifacts, though it is not clear that the Egyptians understood it was a distinct metal (it occurs mostly as an additive in gold craft objects). Platinum was used by pre-Columbian Americans to make small objects but, again, not in its pure form; it was added to gold granules to form a sintered metal that could be worked with hand tools.
In 1557, one Julius Caesar Scaliger wrote of an unknown white metal, “which no fire nor any Spanish artifice has yet been able to liquefy.” The discovery in European culture of platinum is generally credited to the Spaniard Antonio de Ulloa, who published the first systematic studies of the metal in 1748. It was not until the 1780s that it was discovered that platinum is a highly malleable metal – platinum in nature is often contaminated with other platinum group metals (osmium, iridium, ruthenium), and in this form, it is rather brittle. Once methods had been discovered to purify platinum, and its resistance to wear and corrosion became more well known, it began to see wider use in decorative objects that covered a very wide range – everything from firearms to Fabergé eggs.
Part of the reason that both platinum and gold are as rare as they are is that it takes fairly extreme conditions to produce these elements – and extreme is putting it mildly. Just after the Big Bang, the universe was mostly hydrogen – the heavier elements are formed in the cores of stars, as they burn through the lighter elements as fuel for fusion. Hydrogen, helium, lithium, and so on, are gradually consumed in increasingly less efficient fusion reactions, until you get to iron. The problem with iron is that it costs more energy to fuse iron atoms than the energy the reaction produces, so energy production in the star starts to drop. If radiation pressure from fusion is no longer strong enough to hold up the star’s atmosphere, the star implodes, scattering elements like carbon and iron to the four winds (figuratively speaking, there is no wind in space no matter how many whooshing noises you hear in sci-fi movies).
For many years, scientists thought that supernovas might be powerful enough to produce elements as heavy as platinum, but as it turns out, even a supernova won’t do it. However, one of the leftovers from a supernova – a neutron star, which is composed entirely of a sort of soup of neutrons (that is an oversimplification, but it will do to go on with) – can produce platinum. The trick is you actually need two neutron stars to make it happen – it is the unimaginable force of the collision which generates enough energy and pressure to produce the heavier elements, including platinum. When you next put on a platinum watch, that is something to consider – the material for the case, in intimate contact with your person, was produced in a rare event which is also one of the most violent in the universe.
Platinum is in some respects an almost ideal material for a watch case. Short of an industrial accident, you are unlikely to encounter anything that corrodes it, and the same strength and resistance to corrosion that endears it to jewelers (Cartier became famous partly for its enthusiastic adoption of platinum, which allows much lighter and stronger settings than gold to be made) also makes it highly suitable for a wristwatch. Moreover, platinum’s ductility means that it is very long-wearing. Platinum is a very “gummy” material, as machinists say – if you try to cut material off it, or abrade it, you will displace material but not actually remove it, unless you are using exactly the right tools and techniques.
These properties, however, also make platinum very challenging to machine. Here I’ll quote a technical paper on the subject, from the good folks at the Johnson Matthey Technical Review.
“Platinum is usually considered to be a ductile workable metal readily fabricated by all the usual processes; it is therefore somewhat surprising to discover that the machining of platinum by conventional techniques results in rapid and extensive tool wear, with consequent deterioration of the surface finish imparted to the platinum article. “
The paragraph following is I think worth quoting in full:
“To the platinum fabricator his material presents an enigmatic mixture of characteristics; its strength and ductility coupled with its high melting point and tarnish resistance make many operations such as forming and soldering straightforward. However, others such as wire drawing can result in extensive, and often rapid, tool or die wear … attempts have been made to apply the techniques normally used by manufacturing jewelers for carat golds and silver to these platinum materials. One such technique, using a specifically shaped diamond tool on a small lathe, enables many thousands of gold and silver items to be gloss turned to an excellent surface appearance, superior in both topography and finish to that produced by traditional hand polishing techniques. This high quality finish is imparted to the surface of less than ten platinum items before wear of the diamond tool causes surface deterioration to the extent that the product is no longer acceptable to either the manufacturer or the customer [emphasis ours]. In addition there is considerable evidence from our own workshops that any turning of platinum with either tool steel or cobalt bonded tungsten carbide tools results in severe tool wear problems.”
I mean, you would expect an element formed by a stellar event that produces a black hole to put up a little bit of a fight when you machine it, but this seems to be very stubborn stuff indeed. Another paper from the same company notes:
“Platinum watches are normally made from 95 per cent pure platinum alloy, usually alloyed with ruthenium. The basic material is homogenized by hammering and annealing, so as to eliminate porosity. Even the minutest contamination might cause craters, fissures, indentations or an “orange-peel” effect on the case surface.”
“Platinum plate or sheet is rolled down to the required thickness and stamped out to form round or shaped blanks, or discs, for the watch case. These are machined in stages by computer-controlled lathes into the final configuration. Up to fifteen different tools are put into action to turn, mill and drill the case and other parts. It takes three times longer to produce a platinum case than one in gold [emphasis ours], as slower tool speeds and lower pressures have to be applied to platinum to minimise [sic] friction and tool wear.”
Platinum at one point even nearly defeated the DIY-er of all DIY-ers among watch enthusiasts – the indefatigable Walt Odets, who, wanting to enjoy a view of the movement of a platinum IWC Mark XII, thought he would machine a platinum display back. Of his experience trying to machine the stuff, he wrote, “Platinum is a bear to cut and machine. The case has spent endless hours in hydrochloric acid to remove broken taps [the back is held on by screws, and so taps have to be used to cut threaded holes for the screws – if a steel tap breaks off, you can remove it by immersing the work piece in hydrochloric acid, which will dissolve the steel and leave the platinum untouched]. I am not going to make another one any time soon.”
The only instance in which platinum seems less suitable for a watch case is minute repeater cases – the density of the metal and its softness and ductility seem to absorb and deaden sound, although there are exceptions. But in general, platinum seems, except for its high cost, like an ideal material for a watch case – in fact, its chemical and mechanical properties make it an ideal material for tool watches, a category which most of us do not associate with platinum. The single largest annual production of platinum watches from Switzerland involved a watch not usually thought of as a luxury – the year in question was 1993 when Swatch produced a run of 12,999 platinum Swatch watches (the Swatch Trésor Magique; price at launch, $ 1,618) out of a total of 22,687 platinum watches overall.
And indeed, it is possible to develop a taste for its aristocratic hauteur. While at first, it is easy to mistake for white gold, it has a strange, soft grey glow like moonlight on snow on a still winter night, which once recognized is hard to resist. In the hand, its density seems to be a private signal from the metal, forged between the hammer and anvil of two dying stars, of its ancient origins, and of the cosmic cataclysm in which it was born. I suspect that it will never be as popular as good old gold – it is too hard to work and, once turned into a watch, too expensive, leaving aside the fact that as a material it is not as costly. (I can’t imagine anyone being able to take a movie called Platinumfinger seriously either). But perhaps in years to come, if platinum prices stay below gold (and they may, especially if demand is diminished by a reduction in the use of PGM-based catalytic converters), platinum will experience a renaissance as a watch material in more rough-and-tumble timepieces – the ultimate luxury and technical metal, for the cases of a generation of tool watches yet to come.