National Geographic : 1999 Jul
SHADES OF ROYALTY Legend attributes the discov ery of purple to the Phoeni cian god Melkarth, whose dog bit into a seashell that turned his mouth a rich purple. Extracted from the shellfish Murex brandaris,M. trunculus, and Purpurahaema stoma, one ounce of dye des tined for royal garments required tens of thousands of mollusks. Although Tyrian purple is no longer made, dyeing with shellfish is still done in Oaxaca, Mexico (right). Each winter Purpura mollusks are plucked from rocks. Collectors dye yarn on the spot with a secretion from the mollusks. Cloth dyed this way was once paid as tribute to Aztec rulers. Production of the natural colorant carmine continues in THE QUEST FOR COLOR the Canary Islands, where host cactuses, Opuntia, are "seeded" with cochineal insects (facing page). The insects encase themselves in webbing and feed on the cactuses. Harvested before they lay eggs (above), the insects are dried and crushed to extract the colorant. So in demand was cochineal that vast fortunes were made by Spanish conquerors, who held a monopoly until the late 18th century, when the French and the English penetrated secrets of the process and produced cochineal for themselves.