What’s the Deal With Vermilion?

published Nov 5, 2013
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(Image credit: Cyril Hou)

Often called “Chinese Red,” vermilion actually has a long and storied history throughout many cultures of the ancient world. Read on to find out more about this ancient color.

It starts with a mineral, the undisputed champion of cool mineral names: cinnabar. Grinding cinnabar produces the brilliant red powder called vermilion, evidence of which was found as early as 8000 BC in the area that is now Turkey. The word originated from the Latin word vermis (worm) because the red color was similar to another common red dye ground from insects. But soon cinnabar and vermillion (the names were interchangeable until the late 18th century) became the go-to color for the wealthy from Europe to Asia to the Americas.

True vermilion isn’t a uniform shade, it varies from a brilliant orange-red to a duller, bluer red, depending on the consistency of the cinnabar grounds — the finer the powder, the more brilliant the hue. Because cinnabar is a mercury sulfide, mining and manufacturing vermillion is extremely toxic. For the ancient Romans, most vermillion came from the Almaden mine in northwest Spain. Manned by prisoners who were forced to labor in the dangerous conditions, the average life span of workers here was only three years. Yet, the precious color was still used in everything from frescoes to cosmetics. Triumphant Roman generals even decorated their faces with vermillion in celebration of victory.

In China, the bloody red shade was regarded by Taoists as the color of life and eternity and therefore was often used to make potions meant to rejuvenate and heal, no doubt greatly shortening the lives of the elites who drank them. It was also a key component to perhaps the most legendary vermilion product, Chinese lacquer, which lead to the term, “Chinese Red.”

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, pricey vermilion — almost as expensive as gold leaf — was the ultimate status symbol. As with any commodity, it was susceptible to swindlers who often cut the pricy powder with red lead or brick dust to stretch their supply. In his 14th century book, Il libro dell’Arte, Cennino Cennini even instructs his readers to “always buy vermilion unbroken, and not pounded or ground. The reason? Because it is generally adulterated.”

Because of the expense and danger of producing true vermilion, synthetic alternatives began popping up as early as the 12th Century. Red lead, called minium, was far less labor intensive to produce although not as brilliantly red. In 1817, German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered yellow cadmium which, when mixed with selenium produces the most viable vermilion alternative: red cadmium, still commonly used today.

Ever wondered about the brilliant red dot many Indian women apply to their foreheads? It’s another example of vermilion in action. Called sindoor, the powder is used to make the dot or to draw a line of color in their parted hair. It’s a symbol of fertility that indicates a woman is married. In fact, it’s a part of traditional Indian wedding rituals for the groom to apply sindoor to his new bride for the first time.

So think about that next time you pick a lipstick or a wall color. It was worn by the ancient Romans, centuries of Indian brides and we’re still loving it today: vermilion seems to be here to stay.