The world is full of colours — wherever we see, whatever we have, has a colour. Everything from choosing your favourite dress, shoes, bag, to the colours of the food in our dinner plate, life is full of beautiful colours.

Colours bring beauty in life. We tend to love things that have our favourite colour in them. Don’t you have your favourite-coloured pencil? Not just that, many of us choose our favourite colour first while eating M&Ms. It is no wander that colours make our life bright and without them, our life or the world becomes dull.

Apart from the common colours that you all know about, there are many other colours so precious that they are not easily seen in the things around us and are beyond the reach of common people.

While there are various museums, laboratories and libraries having the pigments and information related to them around the world, the Forbes Pigment Collection, located in the library of Harvard Art Museum, contains almost every pigment one could think of, including the rarest materials.

Forbes pigment collection is a vault of more than 2,500 pigments from across the world; it is named after Edward Waldo Forbes, an historian and influential museum director of Fogg Art Museum from 1910-44. He was the son of Bell Telephone Company co-founder William Hathaway Forbes and, on his mother’s side, the grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Forbes is considered the father of art conservation in the US. It was widely through his extensive study of pigments that he was able to determine the authenticity and quality of paintings made centuries ago.

Luckily, we are living a modern era where colours — whether for art, fabric dyes, for foods or for anything else — are easily available to us and we don’t have to struggle to get them. But in the good old days, when there were limited resources available and less awareness, getting a colour pigment meant a lot of toil on a personal level. Due to which, some colours became the possession of the rich and affluent only.

We are going to explore some of the crazy stories behind a few common colours today, which were hard to get in the ancient times.

Lapis lazuli/deep blue

Lapis lazuli, or lapis for short, is a deep-blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone; the stone is regarded as valuable since ancient times for its intense colour. The colour blue has always been a prominent colour, but has remained rare.

It is the oldest of gems, going back some 7000 years or more. The mineral’s importance is not just as a gem, but also as a pigment, ultramarine, produced by crushing it.

Therefore, in the old days, ultramarine blue was considered a marker of social status. It was mined in north-eastern Afghanistan in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was then brought down from the mountains on the backs of donkeys and transported by ship to its final destination. It became incredibly expensive — even costlier than gold.

The ultramarine market finally crashed in 1826, when a chemist discovered a synthetic version, making the brilliant blue colour much more widely available.

Purple, the colour of the royals!

Yes, purple is considered the colour of the royals, and its reputation comes down to a simple case of supply and demand. For centuries, the purple dye trade was done in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (modern day Lebanon). The Phoenicians’ “Tyrian purple” came from a species of sea snail now known as Bolinus brandaris. The snail was too rare and it’s worth weight in gold.

To harvest it, dye-makers had to crack open the snail’s shell, extract a purple-producing mucus and expose it to sunlight for a precise amount of time. It took as many as 250,000 molluscs to yield just one ounce of usable dye, but the result was a vibrant and long-lasting shade of purple. Clothes made from the dye were exorbitantly expensive. For instance, a pound of purple wool cost more than most people earned in a year. Therefore, it naturally became affordable and available to the rich and powerful only.

Mummy brown

History is full of sad and shocking details of the lengths people went to in order to obtain different rare colour pigments. And just like the way the purple dye was achieved, the story behind the colour mummy brown is also disturbing.

As the name suggests, the pigment was retrieved from actual mummies. In the medieval era, ceremonial embalmed bodies of deceased animals and humans were dug up and shipped to European chemists (apothecaries). These chemists then proceeded to grind them into powders for the artists (painters), as well as for the use in medicines designed to cure all manners of illnesses. But thanks to the modern-day synthetic colours, there is no such practice done today.

Beetles used to make red

The colour red is considered the most powerful colour in the colour chart. It has different meanings in different cultures. The ancient world was crazy for all red hues. In order to get the brighter and the more vibrant colour, they spent enormous amount of money to get their desired colour.

There were various ways of achieving it. One different type of red, called sinopia, came from the city of Sinop, Turkey. This ochre had an exquisite quality and was obtained from the caves of Limnos, Greece and Cappadocia (today Turkey). Then there was one shade that was achieved from the crushed-up cochineal insect. As this dye was from Spain, it made the country an economic superpower and became one of the New World’s primary exports, when the red craze descended on Europe.

Apart from that, for many years, the most common red in Europe came from the Ottoman Empire, where the ‘Turkey red’ process used the root of the rubia plant.

Pigments with toxic effects

Not all pigments are achieved through a grisly way of crushing or grinding, some pigments have toxic effects as well. Using toxic pigments has roots dating back to the ancient world, where cinnabar — a red pigment made from mercury — was used in cosmetics. During the Roman era and the British Empire, women used lead white as a kind of foundation, covering their faces with it (the lead would eventually discolour their skin, cause their hair to fall out and discolour their teeth.

Cadmium yellow

Have you ever noticed the bright yellow colour in your Lego bricks? This yellow colour is called cadmium yellow; it was famous for being very bright.

So what is cadmium? The simple answer to the question is, it is cadmium sulphide (a heavy metal), that is also very toxic in nature. It was introduced in the mid-19th century. Lego used the cadmium pigment in its building blocks until the 1970s (when the synthetic version was introduced). The pigment was popular in many other yellow-coloured children’s toys including Barbies and My little pony dolls.

Emerald green

This artificial pigment is a chemical compound made from copper acetoarsenite; developed at the beginning of the 19th century by Russ and Sattler, Schweinfurt, Germany. This emerald green crystalline (sand-like) powder was made commercially available in 1814.

In the past, this pigment was extensively used by artists in several of their projects. Due to its highly toxic nature, it has been used as a rodenticide and insecticide and at the same time as a pigment.

Published in Dawn, Young World, October 23rd, 2021

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