Bromine, an element discovered in 1826 by Antoine-Jerome Balard and found in a dye extracted from Mediterranean snails, produces the vibrant purples and blues favored by the kings and emperors of antiquity.
People have always wanted to look great in clothing, but this was difficult to accomplish in ancient times. Almost all dyes then were plant based, which meant that colored fabrics would eventually fade. There were, in fact, only three dyes known in antiquity to be extremely permanent and intense. These were Tyrian purple (Argaman in the language of the Bible), royal blue (Tekhelet), and scarlet (Tola’at Shani). While scarlet was derived from an insect, both purple and blue were extracted from a snail, and the bromine atom plays a fascinating role in the creation of these colors.
Back then, Tyrian purple adorned the clothing of priests and kings, and was adored by the multitudes for its intensity and permanence. If you had even a stripe of purple on your garment, you would certainly be noticed in an otherwise drab sea of brownish, greenish, yellowish wraps. In ancient Rome, emperors were said to “take the purple upon themselves” as they dressed in royal togas dyed completely purple, and the historian Pliny cites “the mad lust for purple” at that time. But by the middle of the 4th century, if you weren’t the caesar or one of his cadre, you could be put to death for wearing any purple at all. Thankfully, things changed and the fashion industry was born, all because a little snail in the Mediterranean had the ability to take bromine from the sea and bind it to indigo, forming dibromoindigo–Tyrian purple.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society