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For centuries, the color purple has been associated with kings, emperors, and popes. Yet the process of extracting that regal hue, known as Tyrian purple (also referred to as royal purple or imperial purple), couldn’t have been any less lofty.
Tyrian purple may have been used by the ancient Phoenicians as early as the 16th century B.C. Although the exact production method has been lost, Tyrian purple was created by removing the mucous glands of several species of Murex sea snails, drying them, and boiling them. After being exposed to visible light, the sea snail’s excretions went from colorless to purple.
Although the process was extremely labor-intensive (not to mention smelly), the results were unparalleled and undoubtedly contributed to its exalted status. Unlike most textile dyes, Tyrian purple resisted fading and kept its intense pigment, even with frequent wear. In the ancient world, it was used for robes, sails, paintings, jewelry, burial shrouds, furniture, and more.
No wonder Tyrian purple was so expensive. According to a Roman edict from 301 A.D, it was worth more than three times its weight in gold. Tens of thousands of snails were needed to produce even a few grams of dye, enough for a small piece of fabric.
The prestige of purple:
- According to legend, Tyrian purple was discovered by a canine companion of the hero Heracles (Hercules). The dog happened upon it by gnawing on snails on the beach.
- The right to wear purple was a highly coveted status symbol in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. The Roman historian Suetonius recounts a particularly memorable incident in which King Ptolemy of Mauretania wore purple during a visit to the Roman Emperor Caligula, who viewed this as an act of aggression and had Ptolemy executed. By the fourth century AD, only Roman emperors (and their Byzantine successors) were allowed to wear purple under Roman sumptuary laws.
- The process of extracting and processing the dye was lost during the 15th century when Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the then-center of Tyrian purple production, was captured by Ottoman forces. The process had been kept secret for centuries and was not written down. Subsequently, the Catholic Church switched from Tyrian purple to red for its cardinals. Red dye was much less expensive and could be made simply by crushing insects.
- It wasn’t until 1856 that an accessible alternative to Tyrian purple was found. A young British chemist named William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered an artificial residue with a similar hue while searching for a cure for malaria. Perkin named it “mauveine,” got rich from his discovery, and finally made purple available to the masses.
- Mohammed Ghassen Nouira, a Tunisian consulting manager, has spent over 16 years investigating the ancient process of creating Tyrian purple, with his results recognized as uncannily close to the original. However, Murex sea snails are under threat from the impacts of climate change and pollution.