Platinum the Basics

The chemical element platinum is a heavy, malleable, ductile, precious transition metal. Platinum has the atomic symbol Pt and boasts an atomic number of 78 and is in group ten of the Periodic Table of Elements. The grayish-white transition metal is resistant to corrosion and occurs in some nickel and copper ores, and rarely, in some native deposits. The word platinum derives from the Spanish word platina, which means “little silver.” The alchemical symbol for platinum was made by the combining of the symbols of silver and gold.

The uses of the beautiful platinum are numerous and usually practical. Platinum is not only used in jewelry, but it is also used in laboratory equipment, electrical contacts, dentistry items, and automobile emissions controls devices. Platinum is also used as a form of currency. Platinum bullion has the ISO currency code of XPT.

Platinum is no new secret. Naturally occurring platinum and platinum-rich alloys have been known about for an extended period of time. The first European reference to the precious metal appears in 1557, through the writings of Italian humanist Julius Caesar Scaliger as a description of a mysterious metal found in Central America mines between Panama and Mexico. The metal was actually used by pre-Columbian Native Americans in the area.

Two men appointed by King Philip V of Spain, astronomer Antonio de Ulloa and Don Jorge Juan y Santacilia, discussed the precious metal. Ulloa observed the “platina del pinto”, the difficult metal found with gold in present day Colombia. Ulloa’s ship was intercepted on the return voyage by British privateers. The British prevented Ulloa from publishing a reference to the newly known metal until 1748; he was well-treated in England and even made a member of the Royal Society.

Charles Woods independently isolated the element in 1741, seven years before Ulloa published his findings in Central America. In 1819, major kinds of the metal were discovered. The Russians produced around ninety percent of the global Platinum production at the turn of the twentieth century.

Because of the rarity of platinum, it is more difficult to work with and needed an alloy with it. An even more valuable metal, iridium, was used with platinum. Platinum saw limited use during the eighteenth century, but changed in the twentieth century when the majority of diamond ring mountings and most exclusive jewels were near fully composed of platinum. From the mid eighteenth century to the mid ninetieth century, platinum defined the SI unit of length.