The gold standard in credit cards, dulled by being placed in the hands of too many consumers, is giving way to platinum this spring.

Despite continuing legal questions over rights to the platinum trademark, big card issuers such as Citicorp, Banc One Corp., and Providian Bancorp are pitching platinum in direct mail offers.

As they did with gold cards, bank card issuers are trying to capitalize on a premium category that their rival American Express Co. staked out first.

To hold its ground, American Express filed suit last fall claiming trademark infringement against one of the new platinum issuers, First USA Inc. Visa fired back with its own lawsuit claiming that "platinum" is a generic term. Both suits are pending.

As the wrangling continues, the industry has interpreted past court decisions to read that colors can't be owned, said James Accomando, a consultant in Fairfield, Conn.

Just in case, Visa and MasterCard issuers have been careful in naming their premium cards. American Express took exception to the First USA Platinum Card name, saying it has owned the rights to the Platinum Card name since 1984.

Now American Express has to contend with the Citibank Platinum Select Portfolio Visa, the Visa Platinum from Providian, and the Bank1One Platinum Visa card, among others.

MBNA Corp. kicked things off in March 1996 with its Platinum Plus card. First USA followed, then MasterCard International unveiled its "platinum class" product called World MasterCard.

The move toward platinum is gaining so much momentum that almost every issuer soon will have a platinum product in its lineup, said Steven Szekely of Market Intelligence Research and Consulting Co.

Citibank, which this year introduced a Philips Magnavox MasterCard, developed its Citibank Platinum Select Portfolio Visa, which it is now marketing, to meet customers' needs, said Maria Mendler, a spokeswoman.

The no-fee Citibank card offers a $1 million travel accident insurance, instead of gold's $150,000, a free yearend summary, and a $50,000 credit limit, Ms. Mendler said. The rest of its features are similar to the gold card, she said.

Why platinum now?

"The cache of a gold card is getting a little old," explained Laurie Cole, a Providian spokeswoman.

After extensive marketing tests, the bank began offering its top customers the no-fee Visa Platinum in March. New customers are being targeted in May, she said.

To attract some current customers, Providian is supplying a $2,000 check that must be cashed to gain platinum status. "Enjoy the privileges of Platinum," the flier proclaims. "You've earned it." The phrase is underlined for emphasis.

Aside from no fees, increased credit limits, and a few other features, the platinum cards may be successful by appealing to consumers' vanity, but won't be confused with American Express' platinum, said Mr. Accomando.

With a $300 fee, the American Express charge card offers a carload of benefits that truly add up, Mr. Accomando said. But the new platinums are just slightly fancier replacements for gold cards.

"It's just a classic gold card in sheep's clothing," Mr. Accomando said. "It is a nice-looking card-it looks a little more prestigious."

Few new cards have been issued since the gold rush of the 1980s. But now industry followers expect a flood of platinum as a means to appeal to consumers who view themselves as a cut above the madding crowd.

"You are invited to join the select few who have attained platinum status," says a Banc One direct mail offer with a 6.9% introductory rate, a fixed rate of 12.99% after Nov. 1, and a credit line up to $100,000.

But while it becomes ubiquitous, Mr. Szekely said, the industry will likely use more care to prevent "platinum" from slipping into the mass- market connotations now associated with gold cards.

Mr. Accomando agrees, saying the product will prove to be a good move by banks. But he said, the different attitude toward debt in the 1990s versus the 1980s will limit the success of the high-credit product. What the gold card was to the 1980s, he said, "I don't think the platinum will be to the 90s."

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