The Semiotics of Rose Gold
The announcement, last week, that, with its new generation of iPhones, Apple would be offering a model that was “rose gold” in color made the news that it was meant to: “The internet has lost its damn mind about the new pink iPhone,” read Buzzfeed’s headline. The phone, with its rubicund sheen, was instantly coveted. “I don’t care at all about whatever they are talking about. gimmie the pink phone,” tweeted Roxane Gay, the feminist author. In other quarters, the color was met with a sense of mystification. Christina Warren, writing at Mashable, wondered whether Apple had opted for the appellation of “rose gold” as a way to avoid using the overtly girly “p” word. “I’m just going to say it: it’s pink,” she wrote.
When employed by jewelers, rather than by extremely savvy marketers of digital devices, the term “rose gold” refers to an alloy of gold to which copper has been added. In appearance, rose gold is warm and flush—what yellow gold would look like if it suddenly suffered an embarrassment. The phone may be new, but rose gold has been around for a while. (Apple itself used rose gold earlier this year, for one of its new watches.) Eighteenth-century jewelers used it in quatre-couleur gold, which consisted of greenish, whitish, and pinkish iterations of the element from which decorative inlays were fashioned.
Since then, the popularity of rose gold has waxed and waned. Most recently, fine jewelers, including Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels, have revived it. Rose gold “is more discreet than yellow or white gold, brings warmth to the creation and marries well with colored stones,” Claire Choisne, the designer for the French jewelry house Boucheron, told Suzy Menkes, of the International Herald Tribune, in an article, from 2012, which noted the color’s increasing popularity.
Flattering to most skin tones—a youthful-seeming blush is highlighted, or perhaps induced, by rose gold—the shade has spread to fashion, accessories, and beauty. This follows an earlier enthusiasm for other metallics: silver, gold, bronze. Diane von Furstenberg offers a rose-gold, crocodile-embossed clutch bag. Alexander Wang has made a rose-gold satchel. For two thousand dollars, you can get a floor-length, fishtail version of Herve Leger’s iconic bandage dress in rose gold, or for twenty-five thousand dollars, from Tiffany, a rose-gold “bone” cuff designed by Elsa Peretti. Birkenstock makes a rose-gold version of its classic Arizona sandal. You can get rose-gold-tinted sunglasses from Michael Kors, rose-gold-colored lip gloss from Wet n Wild, and, if you carefully follow a D.I.Y. tutorial on YouTube, rose-gold colored hair. If you’re getting married, you can have not only a rose-gold wedding ring, but also rose-gold-colored place settings, with napkins, candlesticks, and vases fabricated in the color formerly known as salmon.
Valuable, rare, durable, and impervious to tarnish, gold has always lent itself easily to metaphor. The Ancient Greeks conceived of a primordial prosperity as a golden age. The golden ratio is a mathematical formula of pleasing harmony. We give the name of the Golden Rule to a fundamental ethical precept—treat others as you would have others treat you—common to many systems of belief. Gold has also been the marker and the preserve of the wealthy: throughout history, sumptuary laws have expressly regulated the wearing of gold jewelry and the use of gold thread. Apple first started selling gold-colored iPhones two years ago, in what the company has acknowledged was an attempt—so far successful—to appeal to the burgeoning Chinese market, where gold is a particularly meaningful signifier.
Rose gold, however, has quite a different symbolic valence. Deliberately adulterated, it is gold that has an inclination to be something else. Rose gold is perverse. Unlike yellow gold—but like its cooler cousin, white gold, which is an alloy with nickel or manganese that has also risen and declined in popularity throughout the years—rose gold is subject to the vagaries of fashion. The desire it stimulates is inherently temporary. In rose gold, a substance of enduring value is transformed into a consumer item with the half-life of all things modish. Rose gold is decadent. It is gold for people who already have enough gold gold.
This was true during the last golden age of rose gold, which fell around the beginning of the twentieth century, in Imperial Russia. Carl Fabergé, jeweler to the Czars, put rose gold to spectacular use in many of his most ornate decorative eggs, including the celebrated “Moscow Kremlin” egg—a gold-and-white enamel egg set into a replica of the fifteenth-century Spasskaya Tower, overlooking Red Square. Commissioned by Nicholas II as a gift for his wife, the Empress Alexandra, the egg cost 11,800 rubles—Fabergé’s most expensive commission among many costly ones.
The “Moscow Kremlin” egg commemorated the royal couple’s return to the city, which they had avoided in the aftermath of a riot during the Czar’s coronation, in 1896, when more than a thousand Muscovites were trampled to death. By the time the egg was installed at the Alexander Palace, in 1906, there were stirrings of revolt in the country. Less than a dozen years later, the imperial family would be toppled in the Russian Revolution. The egg was handled with greater care, and it is now on display at the Kremlin Armory Museum.
Rose gold is not always the inevitable elemental precursor to populist revolution. But the burnished, blushing prevalence of the metal can certainly be understood to have cautionary indications for our current moment. It’s a time marked by overheated, precarious global economies; injudicious, unsustainable disparities of wealth; and a metastatic consumer culture, in which a technology company can make fifty billion dollars in a fiscal quarter, largely on the strength of persuading people who already have a phone—that company’s phone—that they need to buy a slightly different version. As Apple knows better than anyone, we live in a rose-gilded age.