Visual Culture
Pantone’s New Colors Tap into Our Innate Love of Shiny Things
Courtesy of Pantone.

Courtesy of Pantone.

The world is about to get a little more sparkly with the release of Pantone’s Metallic Shimmer colors. The color authority, which defines and standardizes hues (and annually determines the prescient Color of the Year), has announced a collection of iridescent shades, such as “Ice Palace” and “Golden Egg,” that are sure to attract designers like a moth to a flame. Last fall, the company also named metallics as a home trend for 2018, but it’s not just our interiors that have become shinier—metallics have resurfaced on our clothes and on our phones, with silver, gold, and rose gold becoming mainstays of design.
In a press release for the new collection, the vice president of Pantone Color Institute, Laurie Pressman, called metallic finishes “timeless.” Though it may seem like a standard marketing adjective, she’s not wrong. The earliest use of shimmery finishes traces back to prehistory, when the world’s first artists applied the mineral mica to the walls of caves to make them glimmer in the light.
Metallics have had a rich history in art, largely due to gold’s associations with deities. For example, Egyptians used gold leaf to outfit the tomb rooms of pyramids, and artists of the Middle Ages liberally applied it to their religious paintings. Metalworking also flourished in medieval times; the more shimmering a church’s interior, the greater the religious experience.
Depicting metals was also popular in eye-tricking trompe l’oeil paintings, as well as the vanitas still lifes of the Dutch Masters. Many artists have used gold to represent wealth, or, as did with an 18-karat gold toilet, to criticize it.
Shiny things have always tended to attract our attention, but it’s not necessarily the association with luxury or religious ecstasy that causes us to notice them—as the prehistoric cave painters could attest. A 2010 study suggested that it’s actually because of our biological need for water.
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Over two different tests, researchers gave stainless steel, glossy white, and dull-colored plates to infants and toddlers, who are too young to know that platinum jewelry and rose gold Fabergé eggs denote wealth. The small test subjects most often put their mouths on the stainless steel plates; they favored the glossy white second. “Together, the results of these experiments suggest that infants and toddlers have the precocious ability to recognize the optical cues for water as characterized by the gleaming highlights and clear reflections of polished metal,” the study concluded.
In a second study published in 2014, scholars at the University of Houston and Ghent University studied both adults and children, testing their preferences between glossy and matte photos, as well as their association between glossiness and moisture (the final test involved a group that saw the glossy photos as more attractive as they became thirstier).
Both studies demonstrated a simple idea: The more shiny an object or surface, the likelier we are to want it. Whether Pantone’s team knew of these studies when they conceptualized the Metallic Shimmer line is unclear, but they are certainly offering plenty of new colors to lust over—200 altogether that go beyond traditional alloy finishes and delve into the full spectrum of color, such as “Purple Sequin” and “Magnetic Blue.” Looking through their images of the swatches, placed alongside home goods and fashion accessories, you can visualize these colors in your life. Just make sure you don’t listen to your evolutionary instinct and stick the Pantone Color Guide in your mouth.
Jacqui Palumbo is Artsy’s Visual Culture Editor.