For this episode of Colour Story we explore the legend of Tyrian Purple.

Before synthetic dyes were invented, colour pigments were derived from natural elements and organic materials. However, purple hues do not occur in nature as commonly as other colours.

One legend has it that around 1500 BC, in the Phoenecian city of Tyre, a local deity was walking on the beach with his mistress and her dog. The dog decided to play with a mollusk that had washed ashore and when it returned to its masters, the dog’s mouth was stained purple. They discovered that the snail’s mucus turns purple when exposed to air and the city would go on to develop an entire industry centred around its namesake colour–Tyrian Purple.

Not only was the pigment prized as an item of luxury trade, it was believed to improve and become brighter as it aged. Unfortunately, for a particular sea snail species (Murex brandaris), this meant crushing thousands of them to produce even just a small amount.

Since this colour was expensive and complex to produce, items coloured with it became associated with power and wealth. Finding enough snails to dye an entire robe meant that such garments were reserved for imperial silks and cloths. The tradition of purple clothing primarily worn by the royal court, or those who were exceptionally wealthy, continued with the Greeks and Romans for the nearly 3000 years. This might explain why purple is considered a prestigious and noble colour.

It wasn’t until 1856, during the Industrial Revolution, when a teenaged scientist accidentally discovered how to create a synthetic purple dye. He filed for a patent and worked relentlessly to make the colour accessible to ordinary civilians, far and wide.