The History of Purple, From Pliny to Prince

Purple Prince
The new, Prince-inspired Pantone color

Recently, Pantone released a new shade of purple in honor of the late singer and songwriter Prince. It’s a “Purple Rain”-inspired plum called “Love Symbol #2,” a tribute to his custom-made Yamaha purple piano. From Pliny the Elder’s “purple tears” until now, the color purple has had a curious history.

Achieving purple was difficult before synthetic dyes. Plant and berry dyes, while yielding beautiful tones of many colors, quickly faded or changed color when they were used for reds and purples. So dyers in ancient western Asia and Europe turned to animal sources: bugs, mostly.

By the nineteenth century, Phoenician purple was legend.

They may have discovered it by accident. Even in the nineteenth century, herders crossing certain salty marshes noticed that their animals’ legs turned as red as blood. Upon further inspection, the coloring came from the red bugs they trod on: varieties of cochineal, kermes, and lac. From Poland to Cambodia, these tiny insects produced a range of shades in the red-violet gamut and became a lucrative international trade item. But the result was just that—in the range of red to purple. Perhaps as a result, people often confused the names for the two colors.

But for real purple, the bugs just didn’t do. There was something else, hiding in the mud of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean that made a much better shade. Its Latin name is murex, and it’s a kind of mollusk. And two kinds of them excrete a color that the ancients called “Phoenician purple.” But excretion is not a beautiful word. So Pliny described them as “purple tears.”

By the nineteenth century, Phoenician purple was legend. European industrial dyers wondered if murex snails still existed, and if they did, how they could obtain some. This led archeologists like Boblaye, Rondelet and Lenormant to search for the precious, rare mollusk. They began in the Adriatic, where they found several small “deposits” of murex brandaris near ancient Greek ruins like Cerigo and Gythium: ruins containing ancient dyeing factories.

Then they found something else. Beneath the medieval Château de Saint Louis, along the cliffs of the ancient Phoenician coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, was another sort of crying murex. In contrast to the sparsely populated murex brandaris along the Greek ruins, murex trunculus lived in a huge colony. The archeologists measured it at 100 meters long, six to eight meters deep, and so wide that it was impossible to measure.

But synthetic dyes were already taking hold by the late nineteenth century. Synthetic purple was a much easier and cheaper way to get purple than harvesting snails from the seabed and waiting for…well…when the snails cry….

Which brings us back to Prince and Pantone. For at least a generation, Prince has been synonymous with purple. Throughout history, the rarity of the color associated it with royalty. And Prince was certainly a leader in the world of music—inventing styles, composing music, writing songs for himself and for others. He was richly prolific. Love Symbol #2 is a thoughtful tribute to an artist who excelled. Looking back into the history of the color itself makes it even more so.


JSTOR Citations

The Insect Dyes of Western and West-Central Asia

By: R. A. Donkin

Anthropos, Bd. 72, H. 5./6. (1977), pp. 847-880

Anthropos Institut

LETTRE SUR LA POURPRE PHÉNICIENNE A M. Alex. BERTRAND Directeur de la REVUE ARCHÉOLOGIQUE

By: F. de Saulcy

Revue Archéologique, Nouvelle Série, Vol. 9 (Janvier à Juin 1864), pp. 216-218

Presses Universitaires de France

“An Assyrian Chemist's Vade-Mecum.” 

By: R. Campbell Thompson

The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 4 (Oct., 1934), pp. 771-785

Cambridge University Press

Cynthia Green

Cynthia Green holds an M.A. in History from Emory University. She has written for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and the Circuit des Remparts Angoulême, among others, and is a regular contributor to Mode & Tendances Magazine.

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