After an excellent day of weakfishing on Barnegat Bay and an exceptionable supper of the good, old fashioned, country tavern kind, a social party of anglers sat about on Uncle Jo Parker's broad porch at Forked River, smoking and enjoying the cool, fragrant breath of the cedar swamp, when somehow the chat drifted to the subject of assaying and refining the precious metals. That was just where one of the party, Mr. D.W. Baker, of Newark, was at home, and in the course of an impromptu lecture he told the party more about the topic under discussion, and especially the platinum branch of it, than they ever knew before.
"Our firm," he said, "practically does all the platinum business of this country, and the demand for the material is so great that we never can get more than we want of it. The principal portion, or, in fact, nearly all of it, comes from the famous mines of the Demidoff family, who have the monopoly of the production in Russia. It is all refined and made into sheets of various thicknesses, and into wire of certain commercial sizes, before it comes to us; but we have frequently to cut, roll, and redraw it to new forms and sizes to meet the demands upon us. At one time it was coined in Russia, but it is no longer applied to that use. We have obtained some very good crude platinum ore from South America and have refined it successfully, but the supply from that source is, as yet, very small. I am not aware that it has been found anywhere else than in Colombia, on that continent, but the explorations thus far made into the mineral resources of South America have been very meager, and it is by no means improbable that platinum may yet be discovered there in quantities rivaling the supply of Russia.
"A popular error respecting platinum is that its intrinsic value is the same as that of gold. At one time it did approximate to gold in value, but never quite reached it, and is now worth only $8 to $12 an ounce, according to the work expended upon it in getting it into required forms and the amount of alloy it contains. The alloy used for it is iridium, which hardens it, and the more iridium it contains the more difficult it is to work, and consequently the more expensive. When pure, platinum is as soft as silver, but by the addition of iridium it becomes the hardest of metals. The great difficulty in manipulating platinum is its excessive resistance to heat. A temperature that will make steel run like water and melt down fireclay has absolutely no effect upon it. You may put a piece of platinum wire no thicker than human hair into a blast furnace where ingots of steel are melting down all around it, and the bit of wire will come out as absolutely unchanged as if it had been in an ice box all the time.
"No means has been discovered for accurately determining the melting temperature of platinum, but it must be enormous. And yet, if you put a bit of lead into the crucible with the platinum, both metals will melt down together at the low temperature that fuses the lead, and if you try to melt lead in a platinum crucible, you will find that as soon as the lead melts the platinum with which it comes into contact also melts and your crucible is destroyed.
"A distinguishing characteristic of platinum is its extreme ductility. A wire can be made from it finer than from any other metal. I have a sample in my pocket, the gauge of which is only one two-thousandth of an inch, and it is practicable to make it thinner. It has even been affirmed that platinum wire has been made so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, but that I do not state as of my own knowledge. This wire my son made."
Mr. Baker exhibited the sample spoken of. It looked like a tress of silky hair, and had it not been shown upon a piece of black paper could hardly have been seen. He went on:
"The draw plates, by means of which these fine wires are made, are sapphires and rubies. You may fancy for yourselves how extremely delicate must be the work of making holes of such exceeding smallness to accurate gauge, too, in those very hard stones. I get all my draw plates from an old Swiss lady in New York, who makes them herself to order. But, delicate as is the work of boring the holes, there is something still more delicate in the processes that produce such fine wire as this. That something is the filing of a long point on the wire to enable the poking of the end of it through the draw plate so that it can be caught by the nippers. Imagine yourself filing a long, tapering point on the end of a wire only one eighteen-hundredths of an inch in diameter, in order to get it through a draw plate that will bring it down to one two-thousandths. My son does that without using a magnifying glass. I cannot say positively what uses this very thin wire is put to, but something in surgery, I believe, either for fastening together portions of bone or for operations. A newly invented instrument has been described to me, which, if it does what has been affirmed, is one of the greatest and most wonderful discoveries of modern science.
A very thin platinum wire loop, brought to incandescence by the current from a battery - which, though of great power, is so small that it hangs from the lapel of the operator's coat - is used instead of a knife for excisions and certain amputations. It sears as it cuts, prevents the loss of blood, and is absolutely painless, which is the most astonishing thing about it.
"Our greatest consumers of platinum are the electricians, particularly the incandescent light companies. I supply the platinum wire for both the Edison and the Maxim companies, and the quantity they require so constantly increases that the demand threatens to exceed the supply of the metal. Sheets of platinum are bought by chemists, who have them converted into crucibles and other forms."
The reporter's curiosity was awakened by Mr. Baker's mention of the old lady who made those very fine draw plates, and on his return to the city he hunted her up. Mrs. Francis A. Jeannot, the lady in question, was found in neat apartments in a handsome flat in West Fifty-first street. Age has silvered her hair, but her eyes are still bright, and her movements indicate elasticity and strength. She is a native of Neufchatel, Switzerland, and speaks English with a little difficulty, but whenever the reporter's English was a little hard for her a very pretty girl with brilliant eyes and crinkly jet-black hair, who subsequently proved to be a daughter of Mrs. Jeannot, came to the rescue. With the girl's occasional aid, the old lady's story was as follows:
"I have been in this business for thirty years. I learned it when I was a girl in Switzerland. Very few in this country know anything correctly about it. Numbers of people endeavor to find it out, and they experiment to learn it, especially to do it by machinery, but without success. But, ah, me! It is no longer a business that is anything worth. Thirty years ago many stone draw plates were wanted, for then there was a great deal done in filigree gold jewelry. Then the plates were worth from $2.50 up to as high as $15, according to the magnitude of the stones and the size of the holes I bored in them. Now, however, all that good time is past. Nobody wants filigree gold jewelry any more, and there is so little demand for fine wire of the precious metals that few draw plates are desired. The prices now are no more than from $1.25 up to say $8, but it is very rare that one is required the cost of which is more than $4. And of that a very large part must go to the lapidary to pay for the stone and for his work in cutting it to an even round disk. Then, what I get for the long and hard work of boring the stone by hand is very little. 'By hand?' Oh, yes. That must always be the only good way. The work of the machine is not perfect.
It never produces such good plates as are made by the hand and eye of the trained artisan. 'How are they bored?' Ah, sir, you must excuse me that I do not tell you that. It is simple, but there is just a little of it that is a secret, and that little makes a vast difference between producing work which is good and that which is not. It has cost me no little to learn it, and while it is worth very little just now, perhaps fashion may change, and plates may be wanted to make gold wire again to an extent that may be profitable. I do not wish to tell everybody that which will deprive me of the little advantage my knowledge gives me. 'The stones?' Oh, we of course do not use finely colored ones. They are too valuable. But those that we employ must be genuine sapphires and rubies, sound and without flaws. Here are some. You see they look like only irregular lumps of muddy-tinted broken glass. Here is a finished one."
The old lady exhibited a piece of solid brass about an inch long, three-quarters of an inch in width, and one-sixteenth in thickness. In its center was a small disk of stone with a hole through it, a hole that was very smooth, wide on one side and hardly perceptible on the other. The stone was sunk deep into the brass and bedded firmly in it. She went on:
"You will find, if you try, that you can with difficulty push through that hole a hair from your beard. But, small as it is, it must be perfectly smooth, and of an accurate gauge. I do not any longer myself set the stones in the brass, as I am not so strong as I once was. My son does that for me. But neither he nor my daughter, nor anybody else in this country, I believe, can bore the holes so well as I can even yet. 'How long does a draw plate last?' Ah! Practically forever. Except by clumsy handling or accident, it does not need to be replaced, at least in one lifetime. And there is another reason why I sell so few now. Those who require them are supplied. 'Watch jewels?' Yes, I used to make them, but do so no longer. They can be imported from Europe at the price of $1 a dozen, and at such a figure one could not earn bread in making them here." - Manuf. Gazette.