How can a metal easily mistaken for steel and derogatorily named “little silver” by the Spanish exercise such an attraction to watch collectors and the glitterati alike, making watch brands reserve it for their finest and most exclusive creations? How has Vacheron Constantin managed to create one of the most attractive, sexy, über cool and forceful watch collections (Excellence Platine) with this metal? And what is this rare metal which requires the crushing of 14 tons of rocks to obtain just 1 ounce?
What is platinum?
A beautiful silvery-white and considered as one of the most precious metals, platinum is part of the so-called Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) such as Palladium, Rhodium, Ruthenium, Iridium and Osmium, platinum and palladium being the most important of the PGMs.
Platinum is one of the densest and heaviest metals, highly malleable, soft and ductile. It is extremely resistant to oxidation and to corrosion of high temperatures or chemical elements as well as a very good conductor of electricity and a powerful catalyzing agent.
Platinum is a rare, scarce and costly metal and it shows certain properties which make it unique. The specific chemical and physical properties of this metal are of essential use for many different applications such as in autocalysts that control vehicle exhausts emissions of carbon monoxide, the production of hard disk drive coatings and fibre optic cables, it is used in fertilizers, in the fabrication of silicones for the aerospace sector or glass for liquid crystal displays etc…
Despite ancient Egyptians and Pre-Columbian Indian civilizations valuing platinum as a precious metal not until the Spanish conquest of the New World during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did news reach Europe of this new metal which the Spanish had derogatorily named platina (meaning little silver) because of its interfering with their gold mining activities!
European scientists were the the first to find interest in this new metal which was “heavier than gold and virtually impossible to corrode with gases or chemicals”. European reference to platinum appears in 1557 in the writings of the Italian humanist Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) as a description of a mysterious metal found in Central American mines between Darién (Panama) and Mexico ("heavier than gold up until now impossible to melt by any of the Spanish arts").
click on scans for a larger image
|Julius Caesar Scaliger|
When in 1751, a Swedish assayer, Scheffer, recognizes platinum as the seventh existing element the metal had already found grace with royalty. King Louis XVI of France declaring it the only metal fit for kings, he commissions his jeweller Marc Etienne Jantey to fashion platinum objects for him. This unsurprisingly hit a nerve with King Carlos III of Spain who refusing to be outdone by his French cousin commissioned French physicist P.F. Chabaneau in order to produce a chalice presented to Pope Pius VI in 1789.
It seems that the British chemist W. H. Wollaston was the first to obtain a sample of pure platinum in the early 1800s. The techniques used by Wollaston in the separation of PGMs are considered to be the basis for modern platinum metallurgy.
During the later eighteenth century, platinum had some industrial uses. It was used to make durable laboratory instruments in Berlin in 1784. In France crucibles for glass production used it, a significant use still today. Platinum also began to impress jewellers and goldsmiths.
It was only after the discovery of new refining techniques in the early 19th century that increased platinum’s availability and commercial use. It was soon being used in gun parts, sophisticated batteries and fuel cells, the production of caustic chemicals and the purification of hydrogen.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, platinum was declared a strategic metal in most countries and to be used only for the manufacture of armaments.
Platinum as a precious metal
Even though almost 80% of platinum is used in rather non-glamorous yet important sectors the remaining 20% is used for the luxury market as a precious metal in an almost pure form (950°%).
According to experts the first use of platinum in a watch case dates from 1822 with a platinum and gold watch made by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Lord Lowther. However it is important to note that 2 years prior to Breguet’s creation, in 1820, Vacheron Constantin had made a platinum lady’s key wind ring watch with a case enhanced with diamonds. Why Vacheron Constantin has not gone down in history as the maker of the first platinum watch strikes me as odd. Could it be the watch created by Vacheron Constantin is considered more jewellery than watch?
|platinum ring watch from 1820|
Without wanting to get into the debate it seems that Vacheron Constantin was certainly one of the first watchmakers to recognize platinum as a metal of excellence and to regularly offer timepieces in this metal in its catalogues.
Even though Vacheron Constantin created its first platinum watch as early as 1820, the one to make the noble metal fashionable was Parisian jeweller cum playboy Louis Cartier who successfully created platinum jewellery for the aristocracy, divas and glitterati of the time.
The roaring 20s saw platinum used as a metal de choix in wristwatches from the great houses. Nevertheless, the Great Depression of 1929 greatly reduced the already low numbers of platinum jewellery and watches and as we saw during the war years its use was prohibited.
In the post war years platinum seemed to have more or less disappeared off the radar as a metal for jewellery and watches; however it enjoyed a revival in Japan in the 1960s after the launch of diamond engagement rings by DeBeers whose success created an immense demand for jewellery and watches in platinum.
Only with the rebirth of the mechanical watch in the late 1980s did the demand for platinum watches really take off. In the footsteps of Japan, the German, Italian and American markets also started ordering pieces in platinum.
Demand was so strong in Japan that for over 40 years it was the biggest market for platinum only to be dethroned in 2000 by China. Today China, Japan and the US represent 85% of platinum consumption (jewellery and timepieces)
On a recent poll on he Hour Lounge an impressive 84% replied that they were willing to pay a premium over gold for a platinum timepiece, the main reasons given were: its unmistakable hue and glow, purity, its heft, resistance over time, scarcity, exclusiveness and generally considered as a magical metal and as one Lounger put it: “there is nothing as satisfactory as platinum”! Even more satisfactory when you know that the platinum making the case of the watch you just blew your investment banker’s bonus on, costs $1400 an ounce in its raw form!!
Vacheron Constantin and Platinum watches
It seems that at first Vacheron Constantin considered platinum to be a metal fit for ladies, since other than platinum chains for pocket watches (1832) and the use of palladium for a spiral in 1862 we had to wait for the early 1920s and the true arrival of the wrist watch to see this noble metal used for men.
An amazing work of art dating from1908: a lady’s octagonal shaped pendant watch, made of amethyst, rock crystal, gold and platinum, set with diamonds and pearls, dial with miniature paintings:
In 1916 the brand created a lady’s “slave” type engraved platinum set with diamonds at the request of the Maharajah of Patiala:
In the heart of the Art Deco era, in 1924 the brand created an amazing rectangular gent’s watch in platinum and 18k inlaid green gold with blue and black enamel decoration. A similar watch was sold in 2005 by Antiquorum at Vacheron Constantin’s Quarter Millennium auction sale and went for a hefty CHF 92,000 (approx $77,400!):
The art deco period was a time of vibrant inspiration as shown by this phenomenal crystal pocket watch with skeleton movement surrounded by platinum:
Platinum timepieces have always existed in Vacheron Constantin’s catalogues in the post war era but for watches made in very small series such as the following which is a small selection:
|Ref 30050||Mercator America||Minute Repeater|
Vacheron Constantin’s Excellence Platine Collection
What has a 46g case, 8g dial and 6g buckle all in platinum? That’s the Patrimony Contemporaine manual wind part of the Platine Excellence collection and the lightest of the group!
As we have seen, the offer of platinum cased timepieces has significantly increased in the past few decades and almost all major houses offer watches cased in this noble metal. So what’s the fuss about Vacheron Constantin’s Excellence Platinum Collection say you?
And my reply will be one that I have been giving since April 2006 when I saw the first two models of the Excellence Platine collection: Vacheron Constantin has taken already beautiful watches and not only dressed them in platinum but most amazingly took the “exclusiveness” one step further and added a platinum dial making these watches some of the severely coolest out there!
The 250th anniversary pieces were a formidable testing ground for Vacheron Constantin and it was then, in 2005, that we saw the very first platinum dialed wristwatch, the 250 piece Jubilé 1755.
Luxury and exclusiveness for the sake of luxury and beauty! That’s the idea the team at Vacheron Constantin wanted to develop when in 2004 they started thinking about creating a piece with a platinum dial. An eight to ten month research and development period followed to come up with the jaw dropping final result. The first difficulty was to find the perfect sand blasting substance and pressure to give the dial the wanted glittery and grainy appearance, the next difficulty resided in the material itself. Vacheron Constantin wanted to use a pure platinum dial with no protective coating as to keep the “raw” metallic aspect. To do so, many tests were undertaken to come up with a dial with the correct tension, able to withstand the different steps of drilling, control and casing without marking!
|Patrimony Contemporaine Manual Wind dial||Malte Chronograph dial|
It takes about three times longer to make a case in platinum than in gold. As platinum is an extremely resistant metal, slower tool speeds and lower pressures are required to minimize friction and tool wear. The metal heats easily and can subsequently deform (rendering a rather inelegant “orange peel” effect) and can be only worked by experienced artisans. To make the case, a platinum sheet is rolled to the required thickness and stamped out to form shaped blanks. These blanks are then machined into final shape by computer controlled lathes using up to 15 different tools to attain the final result. The case needs then to be hand polished: an intricate process that involves eliminating all the machining marks by applying successively finer grades of abrasive paste to obtain the special luster which makes platinum so desirable.
The dial is even more of a headache to make than the case as the tolerances are much lower. Platinum being a soft but abrasive metal it sticks to the cutting tools and makes drilling the holes for the hands or for the applied numerals, with a width of about 0.25mm, a particularly delicate maneuver. In comparison a gold dial takes about five times less time to make!
The visually arresting sheen of the dial needs to be seen to be truly appreciated; the dial’s grainy appearance reflects light in a very original manner giving the watches in the Excellence Platine collection a monochrome post industrial appearance of the highest contemporary effect.
At the launch of the Excellence Platine collection in 2006, two iconic models from Vacheron Constantin’s existing collection were chosen as first pieces: the Patrimony Contemporaine manual wind (limited to 150 pieces) and the Malte Chronograph (limited to 75 pieces). Two watches very typical of Vacheron Constantin’s style and which have become must haves for any horological aficionado.
|Patrimony Contemporaine Manual Wind||Malte Chronograph|
This year Vacheron Constantin is presenting two new pieces in the Excellence Platine collection but this time they are no longer platinum versions of existing models but two distinct evolutions, limited to 50 pieces each.
The first being the new Malte Tourbillon with regulator time display with a new case size (40mm x 50mm) with slightly reworked lugs and a brand new inhouse caliber: 1790R. An amazingly finished tonneau shaped movement with tourbillon, hours/minutes indications and a power reserve display. It is important to note here the caliber 1790R is Vacheron Constantin’s 10th (2450, 2455, 2475, 2460, 2460R31R7, 2460 CR, 2755, 2250, 2750, 1420) inhouse caliber!! It is even more a feat when you consider that this huge step has been made in within simply 2 years time (since the brands 250th anniversary celebrations).
The second is my favorite and what I consider to be the most beautiful perpetual calendar chronograph and certainly one of the most beautiful watches of the past years. If I won the lotto my hard earned cash would first and foremost be spent on this watch!
The new Malte Perpetual Calendar Chronograph has the same case as the Malte Chronograph and is consequently slightly larger than the regular Malte Perpetual Calendar Chronograph (42mm vs. 39); furthermore it does not have the previous model’s cuvette back making it slimmer and has round pushers instead of rectangular ones.
Apart from its fantastic platinum dial and the superb Lemania based hand wind caliber 1141 QP this watch also features one of the most mesmerizing moon phase displays I have set my eyes on: a hand engraved and painted platinum disc with, on either side a smiling moon face and a melancholy moon face.
Like a nitrogen injected super car hurtling down platinum road stopping for no one, the team at Vacheron Constantin took the mad bet on pushing the use of platinum beyond aesthetic and casing elements. For the Only Watch auction held on September 20, 2007 in Monte Carlo a very special and one of a kind Malte Tourbillon was auctioned for €130,000 (approx. US$ 183,000), the proceeds of which went to finance research in muscular dystrophy. In this watch not only were the case, clasp and dial in platinum but also the stitching of the strap (probably making it fit for the Guinness book of records as the most expensive crocodile strap in the world!!) but more amazingly the bridge of the tourbillon cage is also in platinum. This is the very first time a movement component is made of platinum.
This tour de force is even more exceptional when you think of the complexity of working with platinum, this bridge takes five times longer than a regular brass or gold bridge to cut and the painstaking superlative finish consisting of beveling or application of the Geneva waves takes an immense number of manual labor as to get the exact same visual appearance as the rest of the rhodium plated parts but here the platinum bridge receives no special surface treatment: it is in its pure “raw” form! Asked if it was possible to make a movement made completely in platinum the team at Vacheron Constantin answered: “Yes but now that we’ve tried with just one bridge we can tell you how difficult it is and we’re not ready to start again…”!
With the Excellence Platine Collection Vacheron Constantin has succeeded in proving that to be cool you don’t have to be bizarre, to be modern you don’t have to go into the carbon fiber, kevlar chewing gum hype overkill. A potent mix of old world chic and refinement, sleek modern über cool, a smooth post industrial look and flawless execution makes the watches in the Excellence Platine collection some of the most desirable on the market. If need be it is a proof of Vacheron Constantin’s avant garde thinking, design savvy and something which is immediately identifiable as theirs. However, I have the gut feeling that it won’t be too long before we see followers presenting platinum dials in their less than graceful timepieces. But “there can be only one” as Connor MacLeod used to say before chopping away the head of his enemies!
My only wish would be to have a dial free of the PT950 mark (unnecessarily?) reminding us that is made of platinum….don’t you think so?
...Fall in love of the chrono with the moonphase in platinum!!
I DO agree with you : please Mr Vacheron , remove this pt950 mark on the dial. It's useless and spoils the beauty of these watches. What a pity.
Very informative and entertaining. I love the Contemporaine and the Malte Chrono in PT!
Thanks for making my day, Alex.
My favorite is ref 42161 minute repeater... sexy understatement defined!
that bad either
i love the moonphase!!
moon face on all their moonphase watches but don't know if it will happen.
very interesting indeed. I just learn that this Metal has been used for a while in fact !
Now I wait to see a new regular QP. Charm will maybe operate !
perpetual calendar chrono with the same Malte case and dial layout is planned.
was made by VC!
First, thanks for a splendid article. Truly elegant.
So much beauty to see and so much facts !
The curiosity is:
that platinum initially were used by goldsmiths for attaching
This because, it is so strong and so little has to be used,
thus the stones seems as free.
Earlier when gold was used they had to have a lot more material to fasten the stones,
which took some air from the stones !
Then someone came to think of creating jewellery in platinum,
but it has always been a difficult material to work with.
So actually there are two factors that makes it exspensive,
the rareness and the time spent on using it !
As you know I think it's overkill with 950 on the dial.....
But platinum is heavy in two senses
was the real breakthrough for platinum in jewellery.
They matched diamonds with bakelit, plastic, rubies and steel.
To get those different materials really attached, they started using something super strong,
and that was platinum, then the next step wasn't far, making jewellery
in platinum, because of the low profile, the anti, which symbolised Art Deco,
most people believed in the beginning it was steel,
silver or perhaps WG, nobody suspected platinum,
since Art Deco objects often made in big series !
Still don't own any watch in pt,
but been close....
Once again Alex, thanks for a marvellous aricle.
Could be a book ?
I always enjoy the historical context, nicely done!
ps: I've had problems logging in for the past week; it seems the system doesn't like my new password, so I've had to re=request a new pw three times now! Just FYI
new password. However if your new password is AP rules I can undertsand why the system is not accepting it
But then, you should know I'm more diplomatic than THAT!
Hey, I love your smiley table!
I was mostly trying to log in to share with you and your forum some pics and wmv file of a pretty rare and special (though I and some of my friends have some concerns) vintage timepiece.
Anyway, it seems to be working okay now.
photos I had were these
loose the emotional power of the moon face. That Toledo of yours is starting to look like a killer watch
What a terrific article, Alex!
Thanks for all the history and the photos. There are some very beautiful pieces there!
well described, and nothing to add but: congratulations!
The PT 950 mark has to be erased as discussed during the first Lounger dinner.
I would like to put down together the 2 versions of the Malte Perpetual Chronograph (of course, both in platinum!), and I am pretty sure that I will spend a hell of time to decide which one I would take; what do you think of it, Alex? Your feeling?
Please also Deniz to give your feeling as you make an amazing pictured description on your site.
Malte perpetual chronograph but prefer the overall look of the model in the Excellelnce Platine collection
VC really got it right with the Excellence Platinum collection - all those models are AMAZING!
It was only fitting that VC did an EP edition of it Malte Perpetual Calendar Chrono - IMO the nicest watch ever produced, bar none.
Thank you Alex for again providing us incredible shots, which show off much better the true beauty of the watch compared to the traditional photoshoped marketing shots!!!
the nicest watch out there !!!
Alex, Congratulations on writing another great article filled with interesting history and facts. I found the article you wrote about the Royal Chronometer 1907 so complelling that I started seaching for an AD that could reserve one of the first 100 for me (I like the red 12 and the LE). Thanks to you and Julien I was able to locate an AD that had a 1907 allocated to him, and now expect to be the first lucky person in the US to take delivery at the end of this month! I can't wait. Now I find myself reading this article, an article of the most beautiful watch, the new Malte Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, limited to 50 pieces. I am feeling this not too unfamiliar craving....
How many ounces of Platinum is in the Malte Perpetual? X * 14 tons/ounce =______ tons of rock per watch!
Great job Alex. I might get lucky again.
chrono perpetaul but considering that it is much heavier than the Patrimony manual wind which gad 86 grams of platinum I can't even fathom the amounts of rocks that were crushed!!
Please share impressions on the CR 1907 once yoou recieve it :-)
And keep us posted if you ever take the plunge on the perpetual chrono
Your articles have always this kind of mix between history and technical details. Really close, imo, to the image VC wants to have : traditionnal as well as modern. I don't know if it's on purpose or not, but in any case, these articles are full of information I like to read. Thanks again.
I'm definitely a fan of the Moon face, since the very moment you teased with it in a previous post ! I wish I have a wallpaper with this moon face...
always delicate working on an article because you never know if it will interest people.
Great idea on the wall paper, I'll pass it on to VC immediately
This new version of the perpetual calendar chronograph is indeed, well, perfect!!
If I win the lottery I'll get two, one for you and one for me!