9 Of The Rarest Colours You Have Never Heard Of

In the digital age, pantone books and computer technology can easily achieve what we yearn for the most; by simply dragging the Hue slider, we can seamlessly attain the colour of our long-dreamt, desired hue.

But let’s rewind to a time where mummies, brazilwood and crushed beetles were the origins of some of the world’s most unusual colours. Edward Forbes, director of Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum from 1909 to 1944, traveled the world with the mission to collect ‘world amassing pigments’ for his Forbes Pigment Collection.

And yes, this includes actual mummy dust!

"People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings . . . and turn that into a pigment."

With more than 2,500 different specimens, the Forbes Pigment Collection is mostly used for scientific analysis, and has been rebuilt to include the modern pigments of contemporary art in the 20th century.

Frankly, finding one specific color of your heart’s desire meant journeying to a single mineral deposit in the only location where it could be found – the remote areas of Afghanistan.

Each one of the specimens has its own backstory and origin, all of which make up Edward Forbes’s dedicated life's work. Let’s have a look at 9 of the rarest and most interesting pigments in the Forbes Pigment Collection curated from Fastcodesign.

Synthetic Ultramarine 

"This was discovered in 1826 as the result of a contest. In a way, it is like discovering how to make gold as artists no longer had to buy natural ultramarine at great cost."

Mummy Brown

"People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings around the bodies and turn that into a pigment. It's a very bizarre kind of pigment, I've got to say, but it was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries."


"A yellow vegetable dye, quercitron is extracted from the black or dark brown bark of the black oak, Quercus velutina, that is native to the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States."


"The lipstick plant—a small tree, Bixa orellana, native to Central and South America—produces annatto, a natural orange dye. Seeds from the plant are contained in a pod surrounded with a bright red pulp. Currently, annatto is used to colour butter, cheese, and cosmetics."

Lapis Lazuli

"People would mine it in Afghanistan and ship it across Europe. It was more expensive than gold, so it would have its own budget line on a commission."

Dragon's Blood

"It has a great name, but it's not from dragons. [The bright red pigment] is from the rattan palm."


"This red dye comes from squashed beetles, and it's used in cosmetics and food."
Cadmium Yellow

"Cadmium yellow was introduced in the mid 19th century. It's a bright yellow that many impressionists used. Cadmium is a heavy metal, and is very toxic. In the early 20th century, cadmium red was introduced. You can find these pigments used in industrial processes. Up until the 1970s, Lego bricks had cadmium pigment in them."

Emerald Green

"This is made from copper acetoarsenite. We had a Van Gogh with a bright green background that was identified as emerald green. Pigments used for artists' purposes can find their way into use in other areas as well. Emerald green was used as an insecticide, and you often see it on older wood that would be put into the ground, like railroad ties."

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