“Purple” Naturally Comes from Snails – It’s Still Made That Way in Mexico!

Do you know that the color purple originally comes from snails? And in Mexico, the color purple is still produced in that manner today and used in the country’s traditional textile industry.

For centuries, in countries and societies all around the world, the color purple has been related to royalty, power, and wealth. That was because of the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it. A dye that is naturally found only in snails!

In Europe, traditionally only the Royals wore the color purple. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I forbade anyone except close members of the royal family to wear it. Purple was associated with wealth and power because it was so expensive to produce. The purple dye was obtained from snails that lived in the Mediterranean Sea; they were caught and killed to extract the fluid from their bodies.

Anatomy of a snail. In Europe, snails were caught and killed to extract the purple dye from their bodies.

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they were impressed by the wide use of the color purple in the fabrics of the indigenous people. The indigenous American people obtained the dye from snails in the Pacific, but, they did not kill the snails as the Europeans did. They extracted the dye with yarn and returned the snails to the sea. The people allowed the snails to rest during their reproductive cycles to conserve the species. This is a natural way.

In Europe, snails were killed to obtain their purple dye. In the Americas, indigenous people extracted the liquid dye with yarn and returned the snails to the sea to conserve the species.

Purple dye was extracted in this traditional, natural way in Mexico until 1980, when a foreign-owned company started to harvest and exploit the snails, greatly reducing their numbers. It was then decreed that foreigners are forbidden to kill snails, and only Mexican people can produce the dye that is derived from them.

In Mexico, the color purple continues to be obtained in the traditional, natural way by extracting it from snails without killing them. The color is used in textiles and traditional clothes.

In 1856, William Henry Perkin, a young college student at the Royal College of Chemistry in London, England, discovered a way to make synthetic purple. The color was then mass produced and commercialized around the world.



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