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Who made the colour purple?

Who made the colour purple?

Purple is a color that often evokes feelings of royalty, mystery, and creativity. It has a long and rich history in human culture dating back thousands of years. But who exactly invented or created the color purple? The origins of purple are more complex than you might think.

While no single person can claim to have “invented” or “made” the color purple, there are some important historical figures and events that led to the widespread use, development, and popularization of this unique color. In particular, the discovery of certain rare purple dyes and pigments played a key role.

Early History of Purple

Some of the earliest known uses of the color purple date back over 5,000 years to the ancient civilizations of the Phoenicians (1550 BCE – 300 BCE). The Phoenicians were master dye-makers who lived along the Mediterranean coast and traded with many other ancient cultures.

They discovered that certain mollusks in the sea could be used to produce a uniquely vibrant and rich violet-purple colored dye. The Phoenicians called this dye argaman and it became highly prized for its rarity and beauty. Purple cloth dyed with argaman became associated with royalty, prestige, and wealth.

Other ancient cultures also independently discovered natural sources of purple dyes including the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Chinese. These rare dyes were extracted from sea snails and a variety of plants and insects. But because of the great difficulty and expense of producing these purple dyes, only rulers and the upper echelons of society could afford purple clothing and textiles.

The Rediscovery of Purple

After the fall of the Roman empire, the knowledge and techniques for making purple dye were lost in Europe during the Dark Ages (500 CE – 1000 CE). It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that purple dyes and pigments became more widely available again across the continent. This “rediscovery” of purple was an important development in the Renaissance era.

In the 15th century, purple dye began being produced from lichens. Then in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors discovered purple and red dyes in the New World extracted from mollusks off the coasts of Central and South America. These dyes could create a wide spectrum of purples, reddish-purples, and blues.

European dyers struggled to replicate these brilliant purple colors until the 19th century. The colors were eventually widely commercialized, making violet purple fabrics more affordable.

Synthetic Purple Dyes

Purple fabrics remained costly and time-consuming to produce until 1856 when the first synthetic purple dye was created by an 18-year old English chemist named William Henry Perkin. This dye, known as mauve or mauveine, allowed the mass production of affordable purple fabrics. Mauve became immensely fashionable in the late Victorian era.

This breakthrough marked the beginning of the modern synthetic dye industry. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, other chemists went on to develop new patented synthetic purple dyes such as malachite green (1877) and anthraquinone purples (beginning in the 1900s).

These unique dyes allowed practically endless shades of violet, purple, and magenta to be produced for fashion, design, printing, and other industrial uses.

Why is Purple so Rare in Nature?

Reason Explanation
Limited natural sources Purple pigments have historically been derived from rare animal sources like mollusks or plant sources that are challenging to cultivate and extract dye from.
Expensive production The rarity of natural purple dyes made the production process labor-intensive, time-consuming, and expensive throughout history, especially before synthetic dyes.
Tyrian Purple complexity The renowned Tyrian Purple of antiquity, made from crushing Mediterranean mollusks, involved a complex multistep process and variablegredients to achieve the prized vibrant purple-red hues.
Technical challenges Reproducing consistent, lightfast, non-fugitive purple shades presented a steep technical challenge historically. Even mixing blue and red pigments does not easily create a true vibrant purple.

This helps explain why purple fabric commanded such tremendous prestige, value, and mystique across many ancient societies. The rarity and cost of producing natural purple shades imbued the color with cultural significance.

Significance of the Color Purple

Culture Purple Symbolism and Meaning
Ancient Romans Associated with emperorship and the highest elite; reserved for emperors, senators, and nobility.
Ancient Egyptians Symbolized spiritual enlightenment, magic, mystery, and the afterlife. Egyptians were buried in purple shrouds.
Ancient Chinese Reserved for the imperial family; represented spiritual mastery, wisdom, respect.
Ancient Israelites Used in sacred temple rites and for priestly garments as directed in the Torah.
Catholic Church Liturgical color used during Advent and Lent periods; symbolizes penitence and fasting.
New Age Spirituality Associated with the “third eye” psychic energy center of the forehead.
Feminism Adopted as a symbol of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

This table highlights how the color purple has carried important cultural meanings, symbolism, and sacred associations throughout human history. Its rarity in nature imbued it with a sense of mystique.


In summary, no single inventor or culture can claim definitive credit for creating the color purple. The origins of purple traces back thousands of years to civilizations experimenting with natural plant and animal dyes. The rarity and prestige of purple in antiquity arose from the technical challenges of reproducing the captivating hues with organic pigments. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century synthetic dye breakthroughs that vibrant, mass producible purple colors became widely accessible for society at large, changing design, fashion, media, and culture. But the sense of creativity, mystery, and originality evoked by the color still persists today. The history of purple is an enduring testament to human ingenuity, problem-solving, and our innate impulse to decorate ourselves and our world with beauty, meaning, and color.