Native American Carmine Color

The third-most valuable export from Mexico to Spain, after gold and silver was Cochinille [“cactus blood” in Nahuatl]

It is one of the most expensive pigments in the world; made from an insect [nocheztli in Nahuatl] that grows on a cactus, it has been cultivated to create paints for codices and murals, to dye cloth and feathers, and even as medicine in Puebla and  Oaxaca as early as 2000 BCE. It was used as a tribute paid to the Aztec empire. Known as, carmine,  crimson and scarlet. It takes nearly 70,000 cochineal bugs to make a single pound of red pigment. Its cultivation was restricted to Spanish-controlled Mexico

The Musicians (1595) by Caravaggio

Baroque painters used cochineal red in works, such as The Musicians (1595) by Caravaggio (Credit: Alamy)

All of Europe wanted this pigment, but they did not know what it was, they were looking for a berry that grew on bushes. It produced 30 times more dye per ounce than Armenian red, it was the brightest and most saturated red they had ever seen.

Some of the iconic redcoats of the British military were dyed with cochineal — the fact that they somewhat masked blood stains was a bonus.

One way to get cochineal was to steal it.

 Pirates and privateers stalked Spanish treasure galleons.

The largest haul on record was that of the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s, and Walter Ralegh, who brought home three Spanish ships in 1597 carrying twenty-seven tons of cochineal. The queen took her customary 10 percent, and England had years’ worth of dye for its cloth industry.

“The Jewish Bride,” Rembrandt. 1666. (Photo: Wikiart)

The Jewish Bride (Dutch: Het Joodse bruidje) is a painting by Rembrandt, painted around 1666.

Carmine made a beautiful, deep crimson that was used by nearly all of the great 15th and 16th-century painters. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velázquez are just some of the painters that used carmine to obtain a rich red hue. []


Sometimes listed as carmine or E120, cochineal is the only natural red food coloring authorized by the FDA. It is added to jams, shrimp, candies, beverages, ice cream, sausages, juice, yogurt, cakes and icings, cookies, maraschino cherries, pie fillings, and other foods, as well as some pills, ointments, cough drops, rouge, and lipstick.
But when the FDA banned Red Dye No. 2 in 1976, many food and cosmetics producers returned to cochineal, which is neither a toxin nor a carcinogen.

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