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A journey into the birthplace of the metal Louis XVI called “the only metal fit for a king” By Wei Koh


t is an experience somewhere between night patrol in the army and what you imagine to be walking on the moon. Sheathed in a slick yellow rubber safety suit, feet swimming in oversized rubber boots, you follow a line of similarly clad space men with lights affixed to their helmets. It is an innately lonely experience; you feel profoundly isolated from language, from oxygen and light. The men take on a certain fixed stare brought on by a lifetime’s dwelling in the half-light. Their jackets are festooned with scrawled reminders from their families; a rakish connection to the world a mountaintop’s distance above them. Here in the mines, their conscious minds are focused on one thing: the search for a vein of silver rock rich in one of the world’s rarest precious metals. Platinum, the word conjures up near caricature-like images of affluence, maharajahs crowned with Cartier’s intricate wreaths of silver and diamonds, and the gem-encrusted champagne swivel sticks. But with the exception of brief moments of selective incandescence,

their coffins, while the pre-Columbian Native Americans used it to make adornments. In the late 16th century, however, the Spanish conquistadors, not recognizing its value, gave it the derogatory name of “platina”, literally translated to mean “little silver”. It was only from the 18th century that platinum gained popular recognition as a valuable metal. Its rich iridescent hue, high resistance to corrosion and immense weight compelled French king Louis XVI to declare it, “the only metal fit for a king”. In 1795, platinum weights became the cornerstone of the metric system. Because of the metal’s high stability, many believed it would remain the most constant of all metals over time. In the 19th century, techniques were devised to work platinum into intricate shapes. Fabergé used it to create his signature eggs, and platinum thread was used in clothing worn by royalty. But it was Louis Cartier’s fusion of the combined brilliance of platinum and diamond in his garland-styled jewelry that completely swept the world of jewelry. The modern platinum age began with geologist Hans Merensky’s discovery of one of the world’s platinum deposits in Johannesburg, South Africa. The platinum here is found in rocks and mixed extensively with deposits of other materials, motivating the creation of a whole new realm of science related to extracting and purifying platinum. Platinum attained an all-new level of popular awareness when it was used to make the Cartier wedding bands for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In the Second World War, it was reclassified as a strategic material and used for the manufacturing of arms. Its return to the luxury stratosphere symbolized a new era of peace and wealth. As the world modernized, platinum came to be used in catalytic converters for cars. But it is hardly the pragmatic benefits of platinum that race through your mind, as you climb aboard a ski-lift-type apparatus designed to take you deeper into South Africa’s Impala mines. As you twist through stairs cut into the side of mud banks and reach a precious vein of rock that contains platinum, you cannot help but be affected by the massive undertaking involved in extracting even the smallest amount of platinum. The Impala mines chew through 18 million tons of ore per annum, out of which they extract a mere four grams of platinum per ton. It’s been said that if you were to pour all the platinum on earth into a single Olympic swimming pool, it would barely reach your ankles! The ore is crushed, made into slurry, and then mixed with a substance that contains collector molecules. When air is blown through, the grains of different

materials get trapped in air bubbles. This is just one of the vast number of refinement processes involving everything from chemical extraction to ion exchange. Throughout the processes, numerous metals are extracted, including nickel, copper, cobalt and all the platinum metals, including rhodium, iridium, ruthenium, palladium and, of course, platinum. As challenging as platinum extraction is, the Impala mines are dedicated to minimally impact the environment. The mines’ processing plant is adjacent to a nature preserve of wetlands, home to a massive ecosystem of African wildlife. As such, every precaution has been taken to minimize the impact on the land. The result is a company that produces 70,000 ounces of gold at 99.97 percent purity, and two million ounces of platinum a year — making it one of the chief players in the world of platinum production. With market-beating levels of purity in its product and an environmentally-conscious approach, the Impala mines are a key collaborator of the world’s oldest watch manufacture, Vacheron Constantin, in its brilliant new project to completely reinvent the aesthetic values of platinum for an all-new generation of watch lovers.


platinum has flown decidedly under the radar. Its reputation is wrought neither with the notoriety of prospecting like gold, nor with that of armed conflict like diamonds. Yet it is the most mysterious, misunderstood, at times maligned, and, ultimately, magnificent fixture of high luxury. Where does platinum come from? Picture this: In a nearby solar system, a star goes supernova. Boom! Suddenly, it explodes with as much light as generated by the sun in a billion years, and fragments of the star are blasted through space at a velocity of one-tenth the speed of light. From that distant shore, a meteorite (essentially a fragment of the star) slams into our planet, bringing with it shimmering metals with properties heretofore never discovered. As wild as it may sound, many believe this is how platinum first made it to earth. Want proof that platinum is literally the fabric of stars? While incredibly rare on earth, it exists in greater abundance on the moon and is found in the highest concentration at sites of massive meteor crashes, such as South Africa’s Merensky Reef. Platinum has had close brushes with greatness before becoming elevated to its current status. The ancient Egyptians used it to decorate




the impala mines in south africa chew through 18 million tons of ore per annum, out of which they extract a mere four grams of platinum per ton




THE PLATINUM EXCELLENCE COLLECTION It’s true that perhaps platinum is too strongly associated with the past. The golden age of platinum led up to the Second World War, when it was the material of choice for Gloria Swanson’s signature 1930s Cartier bracelet. Where does platinum fit in the modern horological world; a domain of luxury materials that has seen a rapid influx of usurpers, arrivistes and dilettantes, where the prevailing aesthetic theme is the unmitigated darkness of ceramic, forged carbon fiber and PVD, or the exhibitionist bravado of rose gold? How can it be recreated and made relevant to prevailing aesthetic values? Vacheron Constantin seems to have found the answer. Its Platinum Excellence Collection was launched in 2006 with a sublime Patrimony watch, a retrograde perpetual calendar, a minute repeater — a major achievement, as the cell structure of platinum does not make itself highly conductive to sound — and a resplendent Lemania-based chronograph. Even as this collection paid homage to platinum, it has completely recreated the emotion that the metal conveyed. The watches were boldly monochromatic and rigidly minimalist. Dials that were also

made of platinum were micro-sandblasted to created a boldly modern, industrial-inspired texture. As the manufacture’s product development director Christian Selmoni explains, “Our goal, and our challenge, has been to be truly innovative without having to resort to wild alternative materials that might be outside our perception of truly lasting luxury.” Following this new beginning for platinum are a tonneau-shaped Malte tourbillon and an oversized perpetual calendar chronograph. The monochrome concept is pushed further with even subdials rendered in the same tonality. Yet, the high contrast of textures evidenced by the perpetual chronograph’s moon phase adds charm to what initially appears to be a realm of high sobriety. What does the future hold for the Platinum Excellence Collection? A watch in Antiquorum’s Only Watch Auction may have the answer. It features a platinum bridge in the movement as well as platinum thread woven into the strap. Says Vacheron Constantin’s CEO Juan-Carlos Torres, “Adding a platinum bridge has turned out to be quite a challenge, but we are committed to adding value… to our enduring love affair with this exquisite material.” H