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.
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.