Crushed Bugs & Ground Stone: The World of Pigments

Click here to listen to the segment over at [KMUW]

Given the infinite access we’re afforded to color, it’s hard to imagine the importance its been given throughout history and the passion that has gone into its hunt.

In the pursuit of vivid color, each region of the world tapped its own resources. In the Middle East, the semi-precious stone Lapis lazuli yielded a bright blue pigment, and in China, the deep red-orange pigment vermilion was derived from a common ore of mercury. The emerald greens that seduced the Victorian era into an unfortunate love affair made their wallpaper, curtains, candles, clothing, and even food toxic, as they were dyed with a pigment derived from arsenic.

But other pigments come from less likely sources. The Phoenicians were known for their trade of Tyrian Purple, made from the mucus scraped from snails. The Spanish conquest brought back to Europe a pigment called Carmine, a red dye made from the crushed beetles found on the cacti of Central America. These little bugs gave their lives for the icon red we see on Catholic cardinals, English Redcoats, and more recently in the Strawberry Frappuccino of Starbucks.

The synthetic pigments we know today owe themselves in part to a chance discovery by William Henry Perkin, the 18-year-old who discovered a purple dye that began a storm of imitation in the late 1800s. Suddenly, purple was no longer strictly a color of royalty. With innovation, the colors of the world began to quickly change. And today, with a click of the mouse, we can leisurely browse the entire coveted spectrum.