Platinum is a dense, malleable precious metal found in objects dating back to at least 700 BC. The metal’s name was derived from a diminutive form of “plata,” the Spanish word for silver. Spanish conquistadors believed the platinum nuggets they found in the Americas might possibly be an immature form of gold, but had no use for the metal in part because of its high melting point.
In Europe during the 18th century, scientists succeeded in melting platinum and established the metal as a new element. At the time, platinum was minimally used in porcelain decoration and laboratory-equipment construction. William Hyde Wollaston and Smithson Tennant developed a simpler method of refining platinum in 1802, creating a more malleable form of the metal.
Besides the major deposits of platinum in Colombia, other mining sites were eventually located in the Ural Mountains of Russia, in Ontario, Canada, and in the Transvaal province of South Africa. Following World War II, new applications for platinum were discovered, particularly in the oil-refining and plastic-manufacturing industries. During the 1960s, platinum-jewelry production boomed in response to a growing Japanese market. Platinum bars and coins began production in the 1980s, spurred in part by the dramatic increase in the value of most precious metals.