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Ultramarine Blue: The Sincerest Imitation

SpecialChem / Sep 1, 2005

As a colour chemist in industry today, where the major impetus is put into pigment development in high-usage areas such as polymers, the crossover into the use of pigments as artist colours is comparatively minimal. However, this was not always the case. Back in 1824, when the French Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale offered a prize of 6,000 francs for an artificial Ultramarine Blue, the major driving force was the exorbitant cost of natural ultramarine, derived from Lapis Lazuli, in oil and tempura artists' paints. It was therefore of interest to me to determine how close the synthetic ultramarine lay to the natural form. After all, the historical pigment has been described by such seminal figures as Cennino, possibly the first true colour man, as "… a colour illustrious, beautiful and most perfect, beyond all other colours; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass." Could the form that we produce today in such quantity to sell all around the globe retain such a chromatic brilliance?

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