Debunking The Myths About Platinum
by Martin Green
Platinum has always been a bit of a mythical metal, especially in the world of watchmaking.
Only the most expensive, and often also the most complicated, watches are fitted with platinum cases crafted from this white metal. Because of their price tags, they have remained rare. And because platinum watches are rare, they retain that same price tag.
Many watch brands position their platinum models as the nec plus ultra, reserved for only the finest watches.
Or so the story goes.
Many arguments are used to justify the steep price tags that come with platinum watches, and it is not uncommon that these are significantly more expensive than the same model offered in 18-karat gold.
While platinum does indeed have some unique qualities, marketing has given birth to some myths regarding this material that may sound great, but are not always completely true.
Platinum is rare
Everything is relative, and platinum is only relatively rare.
How relatively? For this, I refer to the recent article Here’s Why: Stainless Steel Is The Most Precious Metal by my esteemed colleague Joshua Munchow, who points out that 150 tons of platinum are produced yearly, the vast majority of which is used in vehicle emissions control devices, aka catalytic converters. That 150 tons is less than 10 percent (7.4 percent) of the production of gold.
About 25 percent of the annual platinum production finds its way into jewelry, where it is an especially popular material for rings. Yet even if this percentage of the yearly platinum production were to be used for crafting watches, and we use the high estimate of around 90 grams per case that Joshua established, 412,500 platinum watch cases per year could still be made.
Marketing has turned it into a chicken-and-egg story: platinum is rare so it is supposed to be expensive, and this pricing strategy keeps demand at bay. The only exception to this rule might have been the Trésor Magique, which Swatch launched in 1993. It featured a platinum case fitted with a blue crocodile strap (don’t worry, the traditional plastic strap was included as well) and was part of a limited edition of no less than 12,999 pieces, making it a very expensive Swatch but a very affordable and “common” platinum watch.
Platinum is expensive
The premium most watch brands charge for their platinum-encased watches in relation to their gold-encased watches gives the impression that platinum is far more costly than other metals. It is more rule than exception that a platinum watch is priced 30 to 50 percent higher than the same watch in 18-karat gold.
Take, for example, the IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar, which costs €43.700 in 18-karat red gold, while the watch in platinum, with the same movement, will set you back €59,900.
Although the prices of precious metals always fluctuate, platinum and gold are currently almost at the same price level. Of course, you have to take into account that these prices are based on weight, and as platinum is denser than gold you get less of the metal.
However, this is not nearly enough to justify the high premiums you have to pay when you want your watch in a platinum case instead of a gold one.
That is because the expense for platinum is found in something else: while gold is relatively easy to work with, platinum isn’t.
Here the properties of the metal’s hardness and malleability come into play. Platinum is very difficult to form, yet once it is in the desired shape it will hold it much better than 18-karat gold. This is one of the reasons why many jewelers prefer to set diamonds in platinum prongs.
But because it is so difficult to work with, it has its own set of requirements for the craftspeople and the machines.
Platinum is not very resonant
Platinum is often used as a case for minute repeaters. The many myths surrounding platinum go well with the high price tags that naturally accompany minute repeaters. However, the choice of platinum serves more as an extra justification for that price tag and adding additional status to the watch rather then platinum making the minute repeater sound good.
If it was sound that brands were concerned with, they would opt for either titanium or stainless steel – more “common” metals, but ones that carry sound much better.
There are exceptions like the Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Mysterious Double Tourbillon with a case crafted in titanium and François-Paul Journe’s Sonnerie Souveraine, which is encased in stainless steel simply because it sounds better.
So why consider buying a platinum watch?
All the arguments invented by marketing departments as to why you should buy a platinum watch have unfortunately overridden the true reasons why a platinum watch comes with a unique appeal of its own.
In fact, I would dare say that wearing a platinum watch is an experience. Its luster is much softer than that of stainless steel, and it even displays a subtle difference compared to white gold. It is also a very understated material, which for some clients can be an extra appeal while others think it is complete lunacy in relation to its premium price.
Here platinum’s dense structure also comes into play. Especially with larger watches, or those on a platinum bracelet, you can feel the extra weight when you put it on.
While it is just that – extra weight – it does provide a rather rich feeling when wearing such a watch. In comparison to 18-karat gold, platinum is much more durable and loses very little weight when frequently worn.
Platinum bracelets also remain much tighter for longer compared to gold counterparts, and when they need to be polished there is very little loss of material.
This is, however, not something everybody can do as it takes a skilled craftsperson to polish platinum to perfection.
These all quite subtle reasons might not be enough for everybody to justify its premium price, but they are for the owners of platinum watches as well as the brands that sell them.
Platinum continues to maintain its exclusivity, despite the fact that said exclusivity is mainly artificially created by the industry itself.
Quick Facts Swatch Trésor Magique
Case: 36.7 x 11 mm, platinum
Movement: automatic ETA 2840, 21,600 vph / 3 Hz frequency
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Limitation: 12,999 pieces
Price: $1,618 (1993)
Quick Facts IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar
Case: 43 x 15.7 mm, platinum
Movement: IWC manufacture Caliber 89360, 68-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes, small seconds; flyback chronograph, perpetual calendar with date, day, month, year indicator, moon phase
Limitation: 100 pieces
You might also enjoy: Here’s Why: Stainless Steel Is The Most Precious Metal.
Also published on Medium.