Platinum Voices: Man Against Metal

Here’s how a number of designers who have established a name in platinum describe their stormy relationship with this marvelous material.

Cool. Steely. Strong. Sensuous. Heavy. Difficult. Unforgiving. Magical. Solemn. Eternal.

Jewelry designers use these words to describe their feelings about platinum. They think of platinum as a charismatic, yet moody lover; while drawn to it and attracted by its strength and appearance, they find the relationship a difficult one requiring much time and nurturing. But for the designer who’s patient and willing to try, try again, the rewards of creating in platinum are many.

PAUL KLECKA

“To me, platinum says purity, subtlety and power. I found that platinum was a brilliant, neutral reflector for my Mirage group, and 18k white gold wasn’t.

“Flat sheets have no voluptuousness, no form and no sensuality. But when I cast platinum, I found sensuality. It has a powerful feel. It has density, it has a presence that gold doesn’t have. I found that when I hand one of my designs in platinum to a customer, they say “wow.”

“My biggest challenge is creating these heavy, sensuous pieces. Platinum has a high melting point, higher than the crucibles it’s melted in, and it doesn’t want to flow as a liquid like gold does. Gold is very cooperative. Platinum is not.

“Cast platinum gives a very powerful, demanding presence to design, but there’s a high rejection rate. Each piece is a law unto itself. It does eventually work, but you may have to start over multiple times before it does and it takes a lot of time. It depends on how patient the retailer is!

“Many of my designs visually translate very well into platinum. From a technical standpoint, it depends if platinum is the appropriate metal for the design and the technique. I think good design is good design and doesn’t have any bearing on the metal, but you have to consider technical modifications. What’s going to be hollow, what’s going to be solid, and so on. However, these same considerations apply to gold.”

ELLA GAFTER, ELLAGEM

“I love the metal. It’s a beautiful metal. It ages gracefully. With other metals, you can see the years in the color. Not so with platinum; its beauty will last forever. That’s important for expensive pieces, the kind it takes a maestro to create, because they’re going to outlast the maestro.

“It’s a warm metal. I don’t think it has that cool, cool touch like silver, and I also think it’s warmer than white gold. I love to set colored gems, especially sapphires, in platinum. Some gems, like ruby, emerald, or pink or yellow sapphire, do need yellow gold around them, but blue sapphire looks best in platinum. And diamonds have to be really white, beautifully cut and very clean, because in platinum you can see everything.

“The challenge of platinum is the cost. It’s difficult to work in, it’s a hard metal, and a lot of workers don’t like to work in it at all. For expensive jewelry, you need to hire master craftsmen because everything has to be handmade. Casting doesn’t go in platinum. It’s also much easier to do a flat look, but we’re building height in our pieces and it’s difficult.”

WHITNEY BOIN

“I’m drawn to the color. It’s cool, it’s bright, it has that beautiful steely gray color and it’s basically the only metal that stays that color.

“What challenges me about platinum? Working with it altogether is a challenge. It’s a particularly unforgiving metal. You have to be very precise. Everything has to be meticulously clean; there can be no contaminants in the workplace at all. It takes one or two times to solder a piece correctly, and two or three tries to cast it correctly. And polishing is a very long process. It takes a very nice polish, but you can’t skip any steps. You have to use every single grit. With gold, you can skip a few steps and it looks great. Not platinum.

“Designwise, I think some gold pieces translate well into platinum and some pieces don’t. Some pieces look good in platinum and don’t look good in gold. We brush our platinum, which warms it up a bit, but I personally don’t care for certain gemstones like rubies and sapphires – or really any colored gem – set directly in platinum, without some yellow gold right around the gemstone. I think ruby should be surrounded by yellow to keep the warmth of its color. Sapphire you can set in platinum, but it will look very cold. I don’t know – I might suddenly change my mind and like that.

“What I like to do with platinum is tight, intricate work, because it does that so well. In my first platinum pieces, I used a very tough alloy (20% iridium) and made very thin wires that were like spring steel – very strong. I like platinum for something that calls for intricate, lacy, tight solder joints.

“Conventional wisdom says don’t cast platinum, although lots of people do. It’s a little less malleable than other jewelry metals, but it’s the only metal you can use to do many solders next to each other without it falling apart. You could produce a model of the carbon atom if you wanted.”

MICHAEL GOOD

“It’s taken me a long time to like it. It’s got a very strange consistency. It’s not like gold. It doesn’t have the same ductility, it tends to tear when you stretch it and compress it, and finishing is extra time-consuming.

“Almost everyone I talk to started out hating it, but when you get into it and get used to working with it, you eventually grow to like it. Now I design some things specifically for platinum, because you can stretch platinum very thin and create very interesting structures.

“When I think of platinum, I think of durability, toughness and coolness. I think it’s a very cold material, but I don’t necessarily think that’s bad. Even if you make the same piece in two materials, in platinum it’s more remote.

“I have the most fun seeing how little of the material I can use to make the largest possible statement. I’m a formulist. I think about forms before materials. I do some of my signature gold forms in platinum, and there are a lot of pieces I can make in both media, but many of the designs I do in platinum, I don’t do in gold, and vice versa. There are certain things that you can do in one metal that are not compatible with the other.

“My biggest challenge is forming it without tearing and cracking. To stretch gold, you start at the edges and work toward the center. With platinum, you have to do it evenly. The form or structure is critical, because the metal is giving, so there has to be strength in the structure. With gold, you can work it and get it very, very hard by heat treating it. But annealing platinum is a problem, because you have to get it very hot and maintain it over a long period of time, and with my kind of work I can’t use a furnace. I have to do it by hand, over a flame. But as I’ve found the technical solutions to platinum, I’ve become much more efficient in other areas.

“I like challenges, things that you’re not supposed to be able to do. As a production jeweler, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth investing the time. It took a very long time for us to get to the point with platinum where we are now. It’s tough. A big company can invest the time and resources, but for a small experimental company like mine it’s a big problem.”

ALISHAN HALEBIAN, ALISHAN DESIGN

“I love the metal! If you do your own benchwork, you love the feel of the metal. It’s like a passion. It draws you. It has very strong characteristics, and you just feel it. It is technically difficult, a complex relationship, but you can master it. That challenge is what makes it unlike any other metal. You can see when the designer has treated the metal with respect.

“Platinum is unforgiving. There’s no room for error, but yet there is give and take. Some things are easier in platinum. Soldering, for example, is very clean and non-oxidizing. I can hold a piece of platinum wire in my hand while I’m soldering it, and that gives me more control. It’s a poor conductor of heat, unlike gold or silver. On the other hand, polishing and finishing take twice as long as with any other metal.

“I think you can tell the difference in the design when someone has just made a yellow or white gold piece over in platinum. If I have a piece in platinum, I think in platinum. One of the things I love to experiment with is to take the metal out of its own appearance, to give it the look of cloth or something else. I also like doing the total opposite, enhancing platinum’s very strong structural, architectural, industrial look. I like the two extremes.

“I think the pure white of platinum enhances gem color but the gems have to be very intense – sapphire, ruby, tanzanite. It’s another way that platinum is unforgiving. There’s no room for gems that aren’t intense.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do with platinum, except perhaps change the color of it, and I’m even hearing about some alloys using 5% cobalt, which gives it a slight blue tinge, as opposed to iridium.”

STEVEN KRETCHMER

“Platinum has a lot of energy. I like to melt it – it just radiates energy, like riding a fast motorcycle. Watching it solidify is like watching a planet form. It’s pretty cool. I like its heft. I like just sitting there and bouncing ingots in my hand.

“I think platinum gives a very solemn vibe. I love to inlay it with different golds, because I think the seriousness of platinum and the brightness of gold need each other. The technical things you can do with it are amazing. It’s such a high-temperature metal and it doesn’t oxidize, so you can do things like inlays and bondings. Recently I hammer-set a spessartine garnet into a tension setting. The setting was a 95% platinum alloy, to which I bonded pure platinum.

“Nobody really works in pure platinum. They work in alloys, which work differently, depending on the alloy. In the U.S., most of the platinum is iridium platinum, with a smattering of ruthenium platinum. In Europe, there’s a lot of copper platinum. (Platinum alloys are generally 95% platinum, 5% other metal). Cobalt platinum is coming on fast. It has lower porosity and is easier to polish than iridium platinum, which is kind of gooey and tends to damage tools.

“Commercial platinum galls, grabs and sticks. My alloy is pretty dry, but there’s lots of room for experimentation in platinum alloying. I think a lot of the information out there about platinum alloying is not only incomplete, but often incorrect. But I have to give a lot of credit to the Platinum Guild. They’ve made a great effort to make manufacturing in platinum easier. They’ve gone out of their way to find materials, such as polishes from Japan, to make platinum easier to use.

“Designing for platinum is very different than designing for gold. Earrings in gold, for example, are too heavy in platinum. It’s 30% heavier. Color is also an issue. Some designs just don’t look good in the platinum color. The metals are structurally different. Some platinum alloys are stronger than gold; some gold alloys are stronger than iridium platinum. The expansion coefficients of platinum and gold are different, but stress relieving will help prevent problems when the two metals are bonded. Machining of platinum requires different lubricants and different tooling, but it’s worth it.

“Platinum will never be equal to gold in price. Even if the metals cost the same per ounce, the labor to produce platinum is greater. Even the energy required to heat it is greater. Pure gold melts at 1950 degrees Fahrenheit, pure platinum at over 3200. But if people want a certain aesthetic result, they’ll pay.

“I wonder, if someone trained first on platinum, what they’d think if they went to gold. Most people think platinum is an evolutionary step up in technology, but if they learn first in platinum, they’ll think gold is a breeze.

MICHAEL BOGOSIAN, MICHAEL B. JEWELRY

“Platinum has a magic touch, a magic feel, a certain elegance. When you have it in your hand, it feels beautiful. If a jeweler holds a piece of white metal jewelry, the first thing he’s going to ask is, ‘Is it platinum?’ When it’s in platinum, it’s special. It has mystique. And when you say a designer works in platinum, it says craftsmanship. Many jewelers will walk away from a request to work in platinum.

“I love that I don’t have to play with it. It doesn’t tarnish, it doesn’t have to be rhodium plated. It’s a pure white, whereas white gold has a yellowish tinge. If you rhodium plate white gold, eventually it’s going to wear off. I love the pureness of platinum. It’s like working in 24k gold, a pure metal.

“The people who buy platinum are people who are looking for something that says, ‘I am high class.’ I think today the people who are spending money on jewelry are people who have money. There’s no middle. These people want something that’s unquestionably high quality and high end, and they’re willing to pay for it. They’re getting tired of all the yellow looks.

“That, frankly, is the part of the market I’m aiming for. I’m targeting the people who don’t worry about price. It’s a small segment, but it’s the one I want to attract. I give 100% of myself to create something that’s not in the marketplace. I don’t want a Kieselstein [Barry Kieselstein-Cord] or a [David] Yurman look.

“I don’t think platinum is a good item for mass manufacturing. If you want to treat platinum like gold, you won’t be in the marketplace. For example, nobody wants to take the time to create their own clasps. You have to have an artisan’s love for it; you can’t look at it just from a profitability standpoint. I’ve had a retail store for 25 years; every product I make I test market there, so I’m not going into this blind. I’m personally seeing the consumers’ reactions.

“For so long, nobody had platinum with a hip look. Everyone had a platinum ring that was handed down from their grandmother, and the first thing they did was re-set it in yellow gold, because nobody had created platinum jewelry that appealed to the younger person who wanted to wear it during the day, every day. I try to create a hip look in platinum, one that will appeal to the Baby Boom generation, one that will create changes for the next century. Platinum lasts forever. It won’t be recycled. Look at Art Deco. It took a while, but it’s coming back. I don’t think any jeweler today would take a beautiful piece of platinum and melt it down.”

MICHAEL BONDANZA

“Platinum is like heaven. It’s very rewarding if you’re willing to make the effort, but you can’t slip up along the way. It’s like getting to heaven – you can’t get in if you sin along the way.

“I was drawn to platinum because nobody was working in it. It had its glory days in the jewelry of the ’20s, but I really liked that jewelry and I felt that if I wanted to run with the big dogs, that’s the kind of jewelry I had to learn to make.

“When I started, it wasn’t easy to get hold of platinum. I had to buy bars. Nobody was really refining it, nobody was making much in sheets or wires, and nobody was making findings, so I had to learn to do all that myself, by hand. But it was OK, because it taught me how to use the metal. It’s so radically different than gold. It melts at a higher temperature, it solders at a higher temperature, you have to wear dark glasses and you have to keep everything incredibly clean. Even things like the oil from your fingers or the tiniest sliver of another metal will contaminate platinum and you have to scrap it. All the things you take for granted with gold and silver go out the window.

“In the beginning, even scrapping it was a problem. I stockpiled scraps for four years before I could find a refiner. It was a costly problem, but I was willing to bear it to reap the rewards. Now, as more and more people work in platinum, things like refining and findings become readily available. Now I almost forget those days because getting it refined is routine.

“Necessity was the mother of invention. Because I had to learn to create everything I needed by myself, I learned to make snaps for bracelets and catches for necklaces that really worked for my designs. Now, even though findings are available, I still make my own, because they work best with my designs and I can have control over making as many as I need.

“When I design, I design for platinum when the piece is going to be platinum, for gold when the piece is going to be gold and for a combination if the piece is going to have both. I don’t make the same piece in both metals. I don’t think the same design works. I tried a few crossover pieces, they just didn’t work.

“When I work on paper, I’m thinking of the metal color as part of the design. I’m now interested in different colors of gemstones and the different kinds of light that emanate from a textured platinum surface. For a long time, I worked only with polished platinum, then three or four years ago I got into heavy surface patterns, engraving and carving. I also am fascinated by the combination of platinum and pastel gems or gems that have traditionally been set in gold. It will be an avenue to explore for a while. I’ll add some gold accents, too. I think the blending of color and surface is the real art of my work – the technique is just experimenting to get the look you want right.”

RUDI OEDING-ERDEL, OE DESIGNS

“When you’ve been in a mine and seen what an incredible effort it is to get it into a pure state, you’re in awe. Platinum is extreme, the utmost in challenges. It lasts forever. I’m creating pieces that will last well beyond my presence.

“From a business aspect, I like platinum because the threat of being copied is almost non-existent. The way I mix platinum and gold is almost impossible for anyone else to duplicate. There’s also not one piece of jewelry that I make that doesn’t have platinum in it.

“To research and develop the perfect way of casting was expensive and time-consuming, but we’ve developed it to the point where our results are consistent and efficient. Since we do only platinum, our experience curve is high. The second most complex difficulty is combining it with gold. You have to understand the two metals and design with those differences in mind. In our Quantum Leap collection, for example, each of the gold dots has to be created individually and set by hand, like a diamond.

“Platinum is powerful, romantic and lasting. It is a high-maintenance relationship, yes, but it’s high-maintenance without the negatives. When you love it, when you have passion for it, you want to spend more time with it. You don’t think, ‘Oh, now I have to polish it for hours.’ You want to spend that time.

“Platinum can’t be trendy. I believe in creating something that will last beyond today’s perception of design. It has to have an element of classicism, of timelessness, because platinum lasts forever. As much as I love modern art, I feel timelessness isn’t there in some extreme pieces. But oddly, that’s how platinum began [in recent times]. In Germany, in the ’80s, platinum was very trendy, very modern. Now there’s a move toward classic. If you look at pictures of jewelry from the ’80s, you can see it’s from the ’80s.

“The only thing I think shouldn’t be made in platinum is anything that has been made in other metals. Some jewelry manufacturers see the profitability of platinum, so they take the same designs and make them in platinum. That doesn’t show respect for the metal. When you work in platinum, design for platinum.

“I feel there are limits to the material, such as weight issues for earrings, but I feel the more we work with it and learn about it, there won’t be limits.”

SURVEY LOOKS AT PLATINUM AND THE BRIDAL MARKET

The Platinum Guild International and Modern Bride magazine recently designed a survey to gauge consumer attitudes and desires for platinum bridal jewelry. The survey appeared in the Engagement & Wedding Ring Guide of the February/March 1996 issue of Modern Bride, and the first 100 reader responses tabulated netted these findings:

  • 71% of respondents know of a relative or friend who currently owns or has owned platinum jewelry.

  • 56% of respondents own platinum jewelry themselves. Of these, 66% received it as a gift, 32% inherited it and 13% purchased it themselves.

  • 80% of respondents have considered platinum for their engagement and/or wedding rings; 67% considered it for their fiancé’s wedding ring.

  • Among those indicating they’ve already selected a platinum ring (61% of respondents), 64% said they chose it because “platinum is practical, the most precious metal and holds diamonds better than any other metal”; 44% said “its everlasting quality symbolizes our love.”

  • 97% of those who own platinum rings would consider another platinum purchase in the future. Of these, 42% would purchase jewelry by the same designer/manufacturer as their wedding jewelry.

  • 87% indicated they would like to receive more information on platinum.

PLATINUM GAINS GROUND WITH TRADE AND CONSUMERS

The Platinum Guild International conducted consumer and trade research last fall to identify changes in the platinum jewelry marketplace over the past five years and, where applicable, since Management Horizons’ first-quarter 1994 Consumer Benchmark Study.

Surveyed were 1,134 adult consumers age 21 and over with personal or household incomes above $25,000; 50 manufacturers of platinum jewelry; and 67 U.S. retailers who sell platinum jewelry.

Here are some highlights of the survey:

  • 47% of adults 18 or older surveyed in 1994 were familiar with platinum jewelry; 50% of respondents in fall 1995 were familiar with it.

  • 17% of people surveyed in 1995 said they were more familiar with platinum jewelry now than five years ago.

  • 16% said they have seen or heard more platinum jewelry advertising.

  • 14% said they have seen more platinum jewelry in stores.

  • 5% were expecting to receive (3%) or purchase (2%) platinum jewelry within the next year.

  • Consumers ages 21-34 with incomes of $25,000 to $40,000 (the bridal segment) showed the strongest levels of increased familiarity.

  • Consumers 45-54 years old represented a strong secondary market.

  • There were more women expecting to receive platinum jewelry than men planning to buy it (5% vs. 2%).

  • 96% of manufacturers surveyed had increased the number of platinum designs in their lines from five years ago; 94% had added new platinum designs in the previous nine months. The average number of new designs per manufacturer in five years was 34, with the highest percentage falling into the engagement/wedding ring category.

  • Every manufacturer surveyed said retailers are more receptive to buying platinum now than five years ago.

  • Retailers said bridal jewelry was their best-selling platinum category. Next, in descending order of sales importance, were designer jewelry, gem-intensive jewelry, platinum chain and estate jewelry or watches.

  • Independent jewelers were most likely to have more than 25 customers per week asking for platinum jewelry (average was 27). Department store respondents reported an average of nine customers per week asking for platinum; catalog showrooms, 3; regional chains, 2. Figures were unavailable for national chains and mass merchants.