Tyrian purple

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Tyrian purple (Greek, πορφύρα, porphyra, Latin: purpura), also known as royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye, is a purple-red dye, which is extracted from sea snails, and which was first produced by the ancient Phoenicians. This dye was greatly prized in antiquity because it did not fade, rather it became brighter and more intense with weathering and sunlight.

Tyrian purple was expensive: the 4th-century-BC historian Theopompus reported, "Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon" in Asia Minor.[1] The expense rendered purple-dyed textiles status symbols, and early sumptuary laws dictated and forbade their use. The production of shellfish purple was tightly controlled in Byzantium and subsidized by the imperial court, which restricted its use for the coloring of silks for imperial use,[2] so that a child born to a reigning emperor was porphyrogenitos, "born in the purple", although this may also have to do with the fact that the Imperial birthing apartment was walled in Porphyry.

The dye substance consists of a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several medium-sized predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean. These are the marine gastropods Murex brandaris the spiny dye-murex, (currently known as Bolinus brandaris (Linnaeus, 1758)), the banded dye-murex Hexaplex trunculus, and the rock-shell Stramonita haemastoma.[3][4] [4]

In Biblical Hebrew, the dye extracted from the Murex brandaris is known as argaman (ארגמן). Another dye extracted from a related sea snail, Hexaplex trunculus, produced an indigo colour called tekhelet (תְּכֵלֶת‎), used in garments worn for ritual purposes[5].

Many other species worldwide within the family Muricidae, for example Plicopurpura pansa (Gould, 1853), from the tropical eastern Pacific, and Plicopurpura patula (Linnaeus, 1758) from the Caribbean zone of the western Atlantic, can also produce a similar substance (which turns into an enduring purple dye when exposed to sunlight) and this ability has sometimes also been historically exploited by local inhabitants in the areas where these snails occur. (Some other predatory gastropods, such as some wentletraps in the family Epitoniidae, seem to also produce a similar substance, although this has not been studied or exploited commercially.) The dog whelk Nucella lapillus, from the North Atlantic, can also be used to produce red-purple and violet dyes.[6]

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