In the medieval city of Tyre, in ancient Phoenicia, a purple dye was derived from the mollusks found on its shores. In a legend, Heracles is thought to have given a piece of cloth dyed and stained in this purple color to the King of Phoenix who declared it to be the new Royal color. It became known as Tyrian Imperial purple.
In stark contrast to its elegant end use, the dye was derived from the secretions of the rotting mollusks—with a smell so bad that only certain areas of the coast, far away from civilization, were used.
Just one Roman toga could take up to 10,000 mollusks to dye the robe. As a result, the production of rare and expensive purple dye was funded and controlled by royals, making it exclusive to leaders such as Alexander the Great and Roman Emperors. The penalty for wearing purple could include fines, property seizure and sometimes death. As Theopompus, a 4th century historian said, “Purple dye fetched its weight in silver at Colophon”.
The decline of the Roman Empire brought an end to Tyrian purple dye. Although a pigment similar to purpose was discovered and used in ancient China to decorate the Terracotta Army in 550 BC-AD 220, it was technically not a true purple, but more of a deep indigo blue.
Finally in 1856, while researching a cure for malaria, 18 year old William Perkin accidentally discovered a new way to make purple dye. Called aniline purple, this new purple color source made the color purple accessible to many!
Amethyst, the purple gemstone
A similar historical relationship has existed in the use and ownership of Amethyst, the purple Quartz.
Mythology tells us that Amethyst owes its roots to Dionysus, the Greek God of intoxication. After he became angered, Dionysus decided to take vengeance on the next mortal he encountered. Sadly, it was Amethyst, a beautiful maiden, who came to pay tribute to the Goddess Diana. When he tried to unleash his wrath upon her, Diana turned Amethyst into a quartz statue. At the sight of the beautiful statue, Dionysus wept tears of wine over the quartz, staining the statue purple.
The Greeks appreciated amethyst’s purple color and wore it as an amulet to ward off drunkenness. Greeks also carved elegant goblets out of amethyst and soldiers wore amethyst to protect them in battle.
Throughout history, European families have owned some of the most magnificent amethyst gems in royal jewelry, since the color of purple was already established as an important royal color (no thanks to those rotting mollusks), the appreciation for a purple gemstone was secured.
The British own the Siberian amethyst intaglio brooch engraved with the profile of George IV, and set with 8 large cushion diamonds. Made by goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, the piece was given by Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester to Augusta, the Duchess of Cambridge in 1857.
There is also the remarkable Amethyst Tiara of Queen Mary that was sold after Queen Elizabeth decided not to include it in the Royal Collection. A demi-parure called the “Kent Amethysts” was once owned by Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, HRH The Duchess of Kent and Strathearn. The mystery Tiara of Russia’s Queen Alexandra, a gift from Tsar Alexander III, takes your breath away.
The amethysts represented in so many royal pieces are some of the worlds’ largest and best quality for color and clarity in the world. When Tsar Alexander I became infatuated with Frances Anne, Marchioness of Londonderry, the story tells of him presenting her with fourteen rare, perfect, large Siberian amethysts.
In the world of art we could not create without this color. It is surrounds us everywhere in life… so much of nature, our imagination and emotional passion are represented in the color purple. In Astronomy we have the star Purple Pleione, in Academic dress we robe ourselves for Divinity and we sing to Purple Mountains Majesty. There even is a purple bacterium that is capable of producing a form of energy through photosynthesis. We are constantly impacted by this special color in our lives!
Beautiful painting by Ivailo Nikolov