Various shades of purple and turquoise come from a family of molluscs called Murex. The pigment (note, not dye) is secreted by the little sea snail when physically attacked so, in a way, this prized colour shares the same kind of sad love story as the oyster and pearl. However, the sea snail gets to live after their ordeal because killing them is believed to bring bad luck.

Daniela sent me the turquoise pigment from the murex family. One packet contains a purple-blue and the other a turquoise that comes from the sea snail “murex trunculus”.

The “murex brandaris” is the most desired molluscs becuase they produce what is known as ‘royal purple’. This colour has been described by many as not being purple at all but rather as ox blood or by those who are more kind, deep fushia or dark mauve. I think this little unknown bottle of mine contains it but I am not sure.


It is interesting that my favourite colour, Indigo, and the Murex pigments are very similar: they both react to the intensity, or lack of, sunlight. They also both rely on the reaction of oxygen to produce their colour and both need a mordant or oxygen to be removed from the dyeing vat so that the colour will fix to the fabric and not run. The purple-blue that Daniela sent me is from another sea snail and when produced in the shade produces a purple-blue colour and when produced in the sunlight a sky-blue indigo colour (as you can see by Pye’s nose who smelt the dye and then lay in the sun).

My favourite secret about purple is not about it’s colour but rather smell. They say that Cleopatra wore purple, her palace was draped with it and when she sailed or went anywhere, that too was purple. I find myself day dreaming of clear green waters and perfect blue skies with a soft wind blowing this powerful Queen gently along in a purple haze. It is a lovely image.

What killed it for me was that along with the colour, the sea snail secretes a garlic ‘flavour’ with the pigment that for years could not be separated from the colour. Still today on Cleopatra’s cloth you can smell the garlic undertones even though they have lost all their colour.  Where ever Cleopatra went a garlic scent lingered. Not everything royal is wonderful I would say.

5 thoughts on “Murex

  1. Florcita says:

    What a cool post! Hey, I don’ t mind garlic smell… not in breath but in the air…fine.
    What is the difference between dye and pigment? how do you treat them? hmmmm

  2. Severeene says:


    It seems as if I bought the same pigments in Essaouira (Morocco) in 2007. One produces a turquoise color, the other a purple one. The man at the shop told me the first one came from male the other from female molluscs. I was very sceptical about his information that it was real purpura, since I knew this pigment is sold for 2856€ per gram in Germany and at his shop 5gram only cost 2€.
    Then I tried to dye a piece of silk and used a procedure to remove the oxygene from the vat. To my surprise the vat turned from purple to nearly transparent and as I removed the silk, the effect was nearly the same as if you dye with indigo: it first turned into a dull yellow, than to soft green and finally to a very intense, deep purple. As I put the dyed cloth into a solution of vinegar it even turned into a very deep blueish purple.
    So the pigments I bought in Morocco actually seems to be real purple from murex molluscs.

    I wonder if you’ve made the same experience. I also wonder if you could get me some of the pigments, because I’m running short of them and I love this color(s) so extremely!

    Please contact me!

  3. Lauren Bowker says:

    i found this post extremely interesting! i am desperately trying to get hold of the tyrian purple pigments! and have only found them at extreme costs! (im considering paying for a trip to Mstead!) hehe i was wondering if you know around how much i would need in grams to do a small sample? as i can afford to buy a small amount from the website in germany but was unsure if it’l even be worth it!
    any help or advice would be much appreciated!

    i look forward to hearing from anyone who can help!

    thanks again


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