Vantablack: how to commoditise a colour

Only a century or two ago, before industrialised ways of working brought down the price of practically everything, the colour of a material could have a dramatic impact on its price, because some dyes and pigments were much more costly to manufacture than others.

There are of course more specialist areas where colour and cost are closely linked. Jewellery is an obvious one, but also artists’ materials. High quality oil paints vary hugely in price (the Winsor and Newton store lists 37ml tubes of artists’ oils from £30.25 to £7.75). In printing houses, if a specification requires a spot colour (the most accurate reproduction possible) it incurs a one-off cost, but the cost isn’t more depending on what the spot colour is.

Now, us regular consumer types don’t have to think about the cost implication when choosing between a purple coat and a yellow one.

Vantablack could be about to change all that.

What is Vantablack?

An artificial substance that absorbs 99.965% of visible light. Or to put it another way, it only reflects 0.035% of all the light you throw at it. It’s made of tiny carbon tubes, and when applied to a square of crumpled tinfoil, it makes the contours disappear, completely.

It’s also many times more expensive by weight than diamonds.

And so far the creators are being very savvy about who can use it.

Such a substance has intriguing properties that many manufacturers would love to get their hands on, but no such luck. Applications so far include the S-110 Evo Venta Black watch, designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor and costs $95,000, and only 10 are being made, plus Lynx Black is the first consumer product to be manufactured with the material.

In our digital lives where so much is shared and so much is knowable. We’re used to visual assets like imagery and colour being freely available. That Vantablack is so unequivocally ownable is part of what makes it unique. That said, exclusive licensing for Anish Kapoor is perhaps only possible at this point because the coating is so difficult to reproduce. It’s conceivable that another lab could replicate the work and release an alternative onto the market.

Such extreme exclusivity in colour indeed feels alien to us now, but it’s not a new thing. The ultramarine colour that covers the structures of the Majorelle gardens – formerly the residence of Yves Saint Laurent – was trademarked by the French artist after whom the gardens are named – Jacques Majorelle. “Majorelle blue” has gained an almost mystical quality.

Many purveyors of paint offer ultramarines that claim to be suitable alternatives to the famous colour, but decorating forums are awash with people on their own quests to find *that* blue. Only the original, authentic article – authenticity that only exists because of one smart artist’s idea to trademark a colour – will do.

Majorelle blue is related closely to paints created with another substance that was at one time more expensive than gold: lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli was a rare stone found only in modern-day Afghanistan, and was crushed to create a stunning blue pigment. It was so precious that at one point the Catholic Church restricted its use to depicting the blue vestments of the Virgin Mary.

Both the Catholic Church and Jacques Majorelle have imposed their own limitations on the circulation of the same colour hundreds of years apart, and centuries after its first use. From a symbol of a significant figure from a powerful religion, to an inextricable link with one of Marrakesh’s most iconic tourist attractions, and a legendary twentieth century designer.

Surrey Nanosystems appear to be acting with precedent in limiting a colour created with a costly and rare substance – but the creative world around them hasn’t taken it lying down.

Stuart Semple, a British artists and curator based in London and Dorset, made the world’s pinkest pink in response. And he’s made it available to everyone except Anish Kapoor.

“*Note: By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make it’s way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.”

He’s also created – and released – a very black black, a very yellow yellow, a very green green and the world’s glitteriest glitter.

Vantablack stays tightly under wraps. Even before it’s anywhere near accessible, it’s already driven conversation, controversy, innovation and – given its only, exclusive, luxury application so far – desire and aspiration by the bucketload.

When we consider the Vantablack colour alongside Majorelle blue, Prince purple and even custom paint jobs on very expensive cars, it seems to be the next logical step in a trend. By making a colour unattainable, or joining it inextricably with a certain object or person, a creator increases that colour’s desirability.

Vantablack dye now carries significance, layers of meaning and cultural clout that Simon Semple’s freely available alternatives may struggle to match. Many out there will settle for a different really really matte black. But because of Vantablack’s exclusive beginnings, we predict that a growing cohort of wealthy purists will wait for as long as it takes for their opportunity to be part of the same club as a world-famous sculptor and a $95,000 watch – preparing to rub that association off on their clothes, their car or their living room.

That sounds to us like very savvy brand positioning indeed.

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