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Royalty and snail-slime

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Why is the colour purple associated with royalty? Because at one time the production of purple cloth was so expensive that only the extremely rich could afford to wear it.

The first purple dye was developed more than 3,000 years ago by the Phoenicians. It became known as Tyrian purple, after the Phoenician port of Tyre (now in Lebanon). Unlike many dyes, Tyrian purple does not fade with weathering or sunlight but becomes more intense.

The dye is an organobromine compound derived from mucus produced by two species of Mediterranean sea snail of the family Muricidae — spiny dye-murex (Bolinus brandaris) and banded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus). The murex snails use their slimy secretion to help catch their prey and as an antimicrobial lining on their egg clusters.

Since the snails also secrete the substance when poked, the dye can be collected by “milking” them. However, this process is labour intensive and it is easier to gather the snails and crush them. Because of this, Bolinus brandaris was long ago wiped out on the Mediterranean’s eastern shores. Apparently you need to squelch about 10,000 snails to obtain 1g of pure dye — enough only for the trim of a garment.

According to legend, the murex dye was discovered by Herakles when he noticed that his dog’s mouth was stained purple from chewing sea snails. Herakles later presented a purple-dyed robe to King Phoenix, who decreed that the rulers of Phoenicia should wear the colour as a royal symbol.

Since only the wealthy could afford to use the dye, it became associated with the imperial classes of Rome, Egypt and Persia. As recently as the 16th century, England’s Queen Elizabeth I forbade anyone other than the royal family to wear purple.

It was not until the development of synthetic dyes in the 19th century that the colour purple became available to the unwashed masses.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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