Serendipity in Colours
Published on 15 Sep 2021

The colour purple was exclusive to the royals and nobles in both the East and the West and it was all because the production of purple dye was time-consuming and laborious, making the yield low and supply scarce. The price of natural purple dye could be more than the equivalent amount of gold. Having a purple cloth was endearing at the time. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, with the advancement of modern chemistry, that an inexpensive chemical purple dye was accidentally discovered, allowing this noble and vibrant colour to finally be worn by the public.

In 1856, at the age of 18, William Perkin was an assistant of the Royal College of Chemistry (now part of Imperial College London). He was working on synthesizing a compound, quinine, a natural substance that could cure malaria. Quinine was as valuable as the purple dye because of its scarce supply. He failed in his experiments of making quinine, and all that was left in his beaker was a brown sludge. As he disappointedly cleaned his beaker with alcohol, he found that something dissolved in the alcohol and a bright purple solution appeared, which accidentally produced a chemically synthesized purple dye.

Sir Perkin named this synthetic dye “mauve”. Mauve was unlike any existing dyes at the time: it is bright and vibrant, stable and washable without fading. Sir Perkin applied for a patent for this accidental discovery and opened a factory to manufacture the dye, since then led to the widespread use of the artificial dye and made the colour purple available to the world.