WSJ Historically Speaking: A History of Colors and Their Owners


In 2009, a graduate student working in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, brilliantly blue pigment while experimenting with manganese oxide and other materials. Dubbed “YInMn blue” after its chemical makeup, the pigment quickly spurred a research paper and a patent application. And soon the gorgeous new color will be available to all of us: Crayola recently announced that it would introduce a blue crayon “inspired” by YInMn and kicked off a contest to name it.

Modern commerce tends to share colors far and wide, but it has not always been this way. Rare colors such as blue were once so expensive that they could be enjoyed only by the very rich and powerful.

Our Paleolithic paint box seems to have contained only five colors. They came from nature’s bounty: Charcoal or burned bones made black pigment, clay ocher made red, yellow and brown, and limestone or crushed shells produced white. Anyone could make them.

The trouble began around 4000 B.C. with the discovery of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious blue stone, in northern Afghanistan. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians went wild for the color—especially since it was so difficult to obtain. Cleopatra, it’s said, used it for eye shadow.

Around 1500 B.C., the Phoenicians of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, discovered how to make purple dye from the Mediterranean Murex, a sea snail. The snails were caught and boiled for days by the thousands, producing an awful smell. The resulting purple soon supplanted blue as the most desired (and expensive) of all colors.

Among the Greeks and Romans, purple became the ultimate symbol of power and dignity. Laws reserved a complete robe of the finest kind of purple, blatta, as an imperial privilege. Breaking the rule was high treason, and from the fourth century A.D., emperors held the making of that purple as a monopoly. They set an example that later egomaniacs were only too happy to follow. As late as the 16th century, an aristocrat at the court of King Henry VIII could be charged with high treason for wearing the king’s purple.

The powers that be in the West haven’t been the only ones to try to own colors or restrict them to a tiny minority. Around A.D. 603, a Japanese prince developed the “12 Level Cap and Rank System,” which determined rank by merit, with purple the highest and black the lowest. In China, yellow, a color associated with the sun and the symbolic color of Huangdi, a mythological emperor of ancient times, became the emblem of the imperial throne during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907).

By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), court regulations included the exact shade of yellow that each member of the royal family could use, from bright yellow for the emperor and empress to golden yellow for certain princes.

The ability of elites, in any society, to keep a color to themselves was largely upended by the Industrial Revolution. The rise of mass production broke the link between social rank and scarcity.

Since the 20th century, corporations rather than monarchies have tried to keep a particular color for themselves. Shoemaker Christian Louboutin has tried to register and/or keep exclusive rights to its famed red soles in many countries—with varying success. This year, Switzerland dealt the company a setback.

Still, it seems that the desire to be the only one to possess a color never dies. In 2016, Surrey NanoSystems, a British company, confirmed that it had given the British artist Anish Kapoor an exclusive license to use its proprietary Vantablack S-VIS, an extremely intense black, in artworks. The move has some artists fuming—but the Romans would have understood.

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