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What is Tyrian Purple?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2014
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Tyrian purple is a purple dye which was historically extracted from shellfish in the genus Murex, which inhabits the shallow waters of the Mediterranean. This dye became a status symbol in the ancient world, since it was difficult and time-consuming to obtain, and it came to be used as a symbol of royalty because only royalty could afford it. Today, a variety of synthetic dyes are used instead, and in fact the formula and process for making Tyrian purple has been lost, although some people have attempted to replicate this historic dye.

The Phoenicians are believed to have been the first to make Tyrian purple, in the city of Tyre, for which this dye is named. The first references to it date to around 1600 BCE, and by 400 BCE, the dye was “fetching its weight in silver,” according to contemporary historians. Legend has it that the dye was developed by accident, when a dog bit into a shellfish and released the dye, stimulating interest in using the dye to color textiles and cosmetics.

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This shade of purple is also sometimes called royal purple or imperial purple. When you think of these colors, you probably think of a rich, deep purple with a lot of blue in it. Tyrian purple was actually much closer to magenta in color, with the raw dye looking like “clotted blood,” according to Pliny the Elder, who wrote about the process of manufacturing this dye. This dye was colorfast, an unusual trait for dyes of the time, and non-fading.

To make Tyrian purple, people had to harvest thousands of shellfish and allow them to partially decompose before extracting a mucus secretion produced by the mollusks. This secretion was further processed in a series of steps which are not known today, although the locale of processing seems to have had an effect on the color of the dye, with people processing in shade or sun for specific colors, suggesting that it was sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, at least in the early stages.

This dye has not been successfully replicated, although people have come up with a range of colors which might approximate Tyrian purple. Evidence shows that the Phoenicians produced everything from a crimson red to an indigo blue using Murex secretions, suggesting that a variety of processing techniques were probably used. While we may not be able to reproduce Tyrian purple, the color's fame certainly lives on.

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sherlock87
Post 6

@starrynight- I would love to know how they made Tyrian dye, like really see and know the process. At the same time, it makes me sad to think of the thousands of tiny shellfish that died to make even one cloth for a rich person. It seems a little barbaric to me.

However, maybe with our modern knowledge we could do it without actively killing them, either by harvesting the shellfish after they die, or otherwise figuring out what the purple pigment in the dye is and how to find it elsewhere in nature.

widget2010
Post 5

@tlcJPC- I think that is probably true, and more modern paintings often depict Jesus in purple robes.

However, you say that Jesus said he was king of the Jews- in the Biblical stories He never once claims to be king of the Jews. Instead, when asked by Pilate and others, Jesus' response is to say "You say that I am," or "You believe that I am." Even in the book of John, he claims to be the Way, but not the King.

This is sort of off topic from the fabric dyeing topic of the article, but I just felt the need to clarify that.

tlcJPC
Post 4

Many people think that when the Bible records the color robe they put on Jesus on the cross that it is the color crimson as we know it today. That is, they think that it is a very red color.

However, history shows that what was referred to as crimson in Jesus’ time is not what we think of as crimson today. The color of the robe put on Jesus just before his death was actually a deep purple color, much like Tyrian.

The whole reason that this robe was put on Him was to mock Him because He said He was the King of the Jews. Therefore, they made fun of Him by putting a royal colored robe on Him.

JessiC
Post 3

I adore Tyrian purple! It is one of my absolute favorite colors, surpassed only by crimson. However, while red has always been a favorite of mine, purple has not. I know precisely when my love affair with purple began.

I was attending a tour of the Biltmore House near Asheville, NC. This is a historic mansion that has been opened to the public. It is absolutely humongous, and completely gorgeous from top to bottom. However, I was incredibly struck by this one particular room.

It was an odd shape – round, I think – but the colors are what got me. It was Tyrian purple combined with a soft, buttery yellow color. All of the furniture and trim was an antique cream white. It is still the most gorgeous room I’ve ever seen.

Ever since, I have had a whole appreciation of that color purple. One day, I want to mimic the key points of that room in my own master bedroom.

starrynight
Post 2

@JaneAir - I'm a big fan of purple too. Although our modern processes for making purple dye are great, I can't help but hope one day we can recreate the Tyrian purple process. I think it would be so neat to be able to have something dyed with real Tyrian purple dye!

JaneAir
Post 1

Wow! The process of making Tyrian purple dye sounds time consuming and labor intensive. I can see why the only people that could afford it were royalty!

I'm glad we've come up more affordable purple dyes in this modern age. I love purple and I wear it all the time. I've actually been told I must have been royalty in a past life because I love purple so much!

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