Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Purple has long been the colour of royalty. It is a rich luxurious colour, but surprisingly difficult to find in nature. It’s hard to imagine in our world of synthetic dyes and pixels, but in ancient times purple dye was very exclusive and incredibly rare.

Queen Elizabeth I actually forbade anyone outside the royal family from wearing it, not that most people could ever afford it.

Purple dye originated from a small mollusk that was only found in the Tyre region of the Mediterranean Sea.  The Phoenician trading city of Tyre, which is now Lebanon, became the home of the royal purple. It took 9,000 Mollusks to create 1 gram of purple and only the wealthiest royals could afford it. The exact process for making the dye has been lost to history, but we do know that the snails were collected in large vats and decomposed, producing a horrific stench. The Tyian purple may have been smelly to make, but the purple silk was literally worth its weight in gold.  The dye was incredibly durable and faded into a more vibrant shade making it a particularly attractive for fine garments. The rulers of Rome, Egypt, and Persia were all dressed in fabrics of the exclusive colour and the colour became associated with wealth and even divinity.

A synthetic purple dye was accidentally created in 1856 while trying to create a synthetic anti-malaria drug. He may not have made what he was looking for, but English chemist William Henry Perkin stumbled onto a formula that would make him a fortune. He made purple affordable to the masses and everyone could don the special colour.

Today, it’s easy for us to generate a wide spectrum of colours. It’s hard to imagine a time when colour could be such a status symbol. Next time you throw on a splash of purple think of of all the emperors that wore it before you and stand a little taller.


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