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  1. Wealth
November 1, 2006

In The Black

By Spear's

What does your plastic say about you, asks Matt Crofton

What does your plastic say about you, asks Matt Crofton

Back in the day, a gold card was a status symbol. Now, when any school-leaver can wield a platinum card – the minimum annual income for a Capital One platinum card is £10,000 – colour inflation is big business.

With the passing of the black card (it’s just, like, so 1999), private bankers gather together in a secret London boardroom that has been swept for bugs, to discuss the critical question: what is beyond black?

For, like the masonic committee of industrial dye makers and fabric manufacturers that meets quarterly at Vogue House, to dictate the future colour and feel of fashion, this committee will determine the direction of a massively profitable – but almost invisible – industry.

From humble gold beginnings, through platinum to black, the hue of your credit or charge card speaks volumes. The tiny, but growing, number of big-spending card users is being courted by banks and issuers as never before.

AmEx’s black Centurion, the founding father of ‘premium’ cards, is still regarded by most as the original and the best, but competition from other banks – and colours – is mounting.

A raft of rival black cards are now available from most high street banks: Natwest, Halifax and Lloyds TSB – all have their versions offering varying degrees of service and exclusivity. The more widespread black plastic becomes, however, the less fashionable it is.

Coutts, with a taste for the regal, dishes out the purple World Card to top clients who spend sufficiently. Designed by style-baron Oswald Boateng, the card costs £350 per year, although this is refunded if more than £50,000 is spent on the card in any given year.

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As the card that Queen Elizabeth II uses to buy her daily paper and half-pint of semi-skimmed, few can doubt the credentials of the Mastercard-produced purple number. Morgan Stanley has opted for an altogether more subtle approach. Their i24 card is a rather soothing shade of ivory.

It is, according to a spokeswoman, ‘not about out-dated flashy symbols like the black card’. And then Arbuthnot Latham has answered the critical colour question, with irresistible logic: beyond black is Beyond Black.

Apart from the apparent status, the principle perk of premium cards is the array of additional benefits. Travel insurance, air miles, hotel and airline upgrades all come as standard, and a full-on concierge service is available with most.

American Express pride themselves on the standard of Centurion’s concierge service, with stories of wonderfully trivial tasks being undertaken by the company on behalf of card-holders: handfuls of sand from the Dead Sea being couriered to Hampstead for a child’s school project; arranging walk-on parts in television soaps; designing wedding invitations – all are part of the course at Centurion HQ.

Other cards use concierge services, such as Quintessentially (Arbuthnot Latham) and TenUK (Lloyds TSB) to service the every whim and fancy of their hard-won high-net-worth clients. Quintessentially, though, is turning the tables and has launched its own branded credit card.

The Quintessentially card, offered to selected ‘elite’ members and to key clients of Arbuthnot Latham, offers financial simplicity as an add-on to its concierge service, rather than vice-versa, as provided by the banks.

The benefits of having a personal assistant in your wallet are obvious: everything – from booking last-minute tables at The Wolseley and flights to Zurich, to tracking down Phil Collins’ first drum kit or picking up the children from school – can be arranged with minimum hassle for the client.

The big service providers can, quite apart from getting access to sometimes tricky items and services, also garner decent savings on more everyday products.

Such is their financial muscle that Mastercard and American Express have been able to extract member benefits which other suppliers have only been granted through gritted teeth.

A case in point is airline upgrades. Usually, these upgrades are jealously guarded by the carriers themselves as one of the few, really effective, means of ensuring the loyalty of frequent fliers in the premium cabins. But, as Mastercard’s Isabelle Lodde explains, complimentary flight upgrades and late hotel checkout are two of the privileges cardholders really rate.

What she, and her competitors at American Express are too polite to say is that, with the top two per cent of customers accounting for nearly 18 per cent of spending on credit and charge cards, the combined purchasing power of their concierge services is great enough to induce the cooperation of even the more solvent carriers.

For, behind the glamorous façade of tele-concierges, the reality is that these services operate more like travel agents than butlers, with their well-buttered bread being the booking of hotels, flights and car hire.

In this, however, they are not without their critics. Members of the Clefs d’Or, the association of hotel concierges, are particularly sceptical of the advice proffered by US-based card services.

Clive Smith, concierge at London’s acclaimed Capital Hotel in Basil Street, has, more than once, had to unravel impractical itineraries booked by American card services whose knowledge of the British season appeared to have been culled from P G Wodehouse.

Morgan Stanley sell their i24 card with a more Route One approach: the average annual spend on a premium credit card is £28,854. ‘Purchasing this amount on the i24 Card would give cardholders £288 cashback, in addition to substantial savings on foreign exchange fees, so they would automatically recoup the annual fee of £275,’ says their enthusiastic spokeswoman.

As the market floods with premium cards – Mastercard’s Signia range and Visa’s Signature are positioned as direct rivals to AmEx’s Centurion, but are available to an ever wider demographic – the hunt for something to top current services is afoot with a vengeance.

The private banking cabal seems to have agreed to disagree on the colour of money, but there is little doubt that a host of new uber-products are on their way.

Rumours are circulating, once again, about a new American Express card aimed at HNW individuals. Just as in the 1980s, when there was wild talk of a mystical black card that only a very few individuals had access to, whispers are now circulating of a new AmEx white card…

The rumours of the 80s were based on a sliver of truth: AmEx did produce a black card for its key clients, but it could only be used as ID for cashing cheques. Such was the intensity of superstar speculation about the black credit card, though, that the manager of one colourful singer/pianist is said to have berated them for excluding his recently knighted client from membership.

‘The rumours weren’t true,’ says AmEx director, Doug Smith. ‘But we decided to capitalise on the idea anyway.’

We will have to wait and see whether white card rumours produce the same result. What is guaranteed, however, is that both major and niche card providers will always try to target the top spenders with ever-more exclusive cards and packages – and there’s a rainbow of colours to choose from.

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