Legend has it that the first
purple dye was discovered by Herakle-Melqart (city god of Tyr) who was walking
along the Levantine shoreline with the nymph Tyrus. His dog found a Murex snail
and devoured it, which left a beautiful
purple color around the dog's mouth. Tyrus saw the color and told Herakle-Melqart
she would not accept his courtship until he brought her a robe of the same color.
So he collected the Murex shells, extracted the dye, and tinted the first garment
Although the earliest purple
dyes were found in Minoan pottery glazes on the island of Crete, circa 1900 B.C.,
Phoenicia and its principal city of Tyr were the first to exploit the Murex's purple dye commercially.
Tyrian texts mention the Murex's dye as early as 1600 B.C., from where it became
Tyr's principal source of income for 100's of years. It is from this geographical
origin that we get the name 'Tyrian
Purple.' It should be noted that by today's standards the ancient purples
(porpora) were more red than
purple, varying from a fiery red, to viola and an almost red-black.
Of all countries, that Phoenicia was to trade the Murex dye with, it was Italy who
would become her most loyal customer. The Phoenicians first traded in Italy with
the Etruscans, a society of artisans particularly skilled in the art of
jewelry fabrication. However, it was with the creation of Imperial Rome
by Romulus in 753 B.C. that the Murex's
purple dye began to be synonymous with power, wealth and position.
Pliny the Elder, author of the world's first Encyclopedia in the 1st century A.D.
wrote: "I find that, from the very first,
purple has been in use at Rome, but that Romulus employed it for the trabea."
The trabea was similar to the toga, and decorated with
purple stripes. There were various kinds of trabea; one was completely
purple and sacred to the gods, another was
purple and white and was the royal robe worn by kings such as Romulus
and later Tullus Hostilius. Pliny continues: "As to the toga praetexta
(a toga bordered with purple,
worn by magistrates and free-born children) and the laticlave vestment
(a purple badge of
the senatorial order), it is a fact well ascertained, that Tullus Hostilius was
the first king who made use of them." From this use as a status symbol
in early Imperial Rome it was a matter of time until
purple assumed another moniker, 'Imperial
Hundreds of years later, with the demise of the Roman Empire and the emergence of
the Byzantine Empire, the usage of 'Imperial
Purple' and 'Tyrian Purple'
had been strictly reserved for nobility and the church. By the fall of Byzantium
in 1453 the Murex shell had all but vanished, and in 1464 the Pope Paul II introduced
the 'Cardinal's Purple,'
authorizing the use of cochineal insect to dye cardinals' and archbishops' robes
instead. The 'Cardinal Purple'
of the cochineal was much closer to what we call
purple than the Murex's 'Tyrian' or 'Imperial' variety, and led to our modern
interpretation of purple
being a mixture of red and blue.
From this point in time onwards
Amethyst, echoing the same
purple coloration, became a regular feature in the ornamentation of
Rome's holy men, worn as rings and amulets as a sign of pious virtue. It is from
these various associations that
Amethyst, with its emblematic colors of the Roman Catholic Church, took
its place amongst diamond, sapphire, ruby and emerald as a 'Cardinal Gem.'