Pigment Pourpre

March 17, 2010

In front of the port of Essaouira, Morocco, lies the Isle of Mogador. My guidebook says it is a special place, of ‘scientific interest’. Hardly anybody is allowed on. I walked along the beach and admired the hazy silhouette of the island and its Portuguese fort.

The beach is sandy, beautiful, but without any shells. The island is famous for the production of the Roman purple, used for the clothes of only the Very Important, the Emperors. Before Roman times the pigment (or was it a dye?) was already discovered by the Persians and Phoenicians. The purple is made from seasnail shells. Where are they?

In a rather posh shop in the souk of Essaouira I bought a little of the ‘pourpre’. Or so I thought – as it is green.

The green shell has an enormous staining power. Just a few particles in water could colour the paper a vibrant, reddish purple. And my hands too.

Victoria Finlay made many discoveries in her quest for violet, described in her book Colour-Travels through the Paintbox. She notes about a purple dyer who goes out to find the snails, uses them to colour a string of cotton, and saves them by throwing them back in the sea, for another time to use. Too valuable to crush up. The green powder, is it the sadly crushed shells, a precipitated lac, maybe pretending to be the Emperors Purple, or something different all together?

What did I take with me for a souvenir…