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Monday, 1 July, 2002, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Credit in the black
Black credit card
Classy! That's a champagne bucket in the background

Black is the new gold if credit card trends are anything to go by. And as for platinum, it's just so common.
When it comes to shopping in the boutiques of Beverley Hills, these days it's not what you're buying so much as how you are buying it.

Cash, of course, is just gauche. But in terms of plastic, the colour of serious money is neither gold, nor platinum, but black.

Centurion card
Amex's Centurion: Gets you lots of upgrades
This week NatWest bank launched a new, black credit card exclusively for its wealthiest customers.

It follows American Express's Centurion charge card - a piece of black plastic with such snob value that you can't just apply for it - far too try hard. Rather, you must wait to be invited.

Later this year, Barclaycard is planning to muscle in on this prized market with its own exclusive black credit card.

Fool's gold?

Not long ago platinum - and before that gold - was the last word in seriously sought-after plastic.

Richard Branson with credit card
In the red: Sir Richard Branson chooses burgundy
Today, a school-leaver could buy into this "exclusive club" without much trouble.

Take Lloyds TSB's Asset brand credit cards. Its gold card is available to anyone earning 12,000 a year, the platinum to those taking home a salary of 15,000.

The difference between these and the bank's standard credit card is marginal - they offer slightly better interest levels and some travel insurance perks.

Status symbol

Nevertheless, it seems everyone wants the cachet of a "premium" card. Last year alone, the issue of platinum cards went up 55%, according to the Association for Payment Clearing Services.

John Major gold card
Black to basics: John Major goes for gold
"Some people go for platinum cards just for the status, but it's worth looking to see what the benefits are with the card," says Paul Lucraft, of Europay, which manages the Mastercard brand.

American Express was one of the first to establish a plastic pecking order, introducing its gold card to the UK in 1980. Its platinum version, designed for "today's busy professional and frequent traveller" came 11 years later.

The company has clearly been rattled by the dilution of these marques, and news of NatWest's new black card provokes a sniffy response.

Better by design?

"Any card issuer can produce a black piece of plastic," says vice president Debra Davies.

Amex special edition
Fashion accessory: Card by Alexander McQueen
"It's a bit like what's been happening with High Street fashion over the last few years. High street partnerships with designers have tried to make haute couture more accessible to a wider audience. But if you can afford it, there's no substitution for the real thing."

The company boasts of a waiting list for its Centurion card, which comes with a lavish range of personal services including 24-hour access to a team of "dedicated experts" who can provide specialist "help and advice in all areas of entertainment, travel and finance".

But even the Centurion card can be topped in the exclusivity stakes by Mastercard's Signia, which is issued in the UK only by Coutts & Co, bankers to the Queen.

Credit where it's undue

It too comes with a 24-hour "concierge service" that will fix just about any task you throw at them, says Paul Lucraft.

Coutt's Signia
Coutt's Signia: Credit for those who don't need it
"Say you've forgotten your wife's birthday and you're thousands of miles away on a business trip. You can call the service and arrange for them to pick out a present, get it wrapped and sent to her door."

But to have one of these in your wallet you'll need to earn at least 20,000 a month, advises Mr Lucraft.

"It's the sort of credit card for people who have the money but don't want to carry it around. It's a credit card for people who don't need credit."

See also:

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