Having found lists of obscure/obsolete color names and rounded out the alphabet with a few simply-charming-to-me colors, each day, I’ll introduce a color and a swatch I’ve painted and then write about whatever comes to mind as I muse about the day’s color. Fair warning, my mind is a non-linear traveler, so who knows where my contemplations will take us.
Z is for…
Zaffre – a deep, intense blue color
The first recorded use in English of zaffre as a color name was sometime in the 1550s, but its history is far older.
The word zaffre also refers to impure cobalt oxide, which was used to color glass blue, with extensive use in the Victorian age.
However, the first known example of cobalt glass dates around 2000 BCE and was found in Mesopotamia. About five centuries later, it appears in Egyptian pottery and then makes it to the Aegean area.
Besides coloring glass, it was used as an artist’s pigment in more modern times, However, as such, it was found to lose its color over time and is no longer used.
I love cobalt glass and keep a number of bottles lined up on the windowsills in my studio, where they can catch the light and delight me.
Years ago, I saw my first bottle tree, hung with cobalt bottles. I think perhaps I had first heard of them through Eudora Welty’s story Livvie:
“She knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house – by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.”
The tradition of bottle trees originated in the Congo in the 9th century. It was believed that roaming spirits, usually considered evil, could be captured in a bottle. So empty glass bottles were placed outside of living spaces, and spirits, attracted to them would become caught and destroyed when the morning light hit them.
The practice of making bottle trees made it to America with the enslaved peoples of Africa and became widespread in the plantation regions of the South.
Bottles used in the trees can be any color, but cobalt blue is always the color of choice in the hoodoo folk-magic tradition.
These days bottle trees have been adopted as folk art, and as also seen as garden decorations, often with bottles simply placed on a pre-made metal frame.
As a flower essence practitioner and aromatherapist, smaller cobalt bottles are my go-to. Using glass bottles to store medicine dates back to the 1600s, and became widely popular in the 1700s. Glass was less reactive than ceramics, and colored glass helped protect its contents from light. Blue was the color of choice. When color became more widely used, a system of color coding developed. Blue bottles were assigned to store poison, although later, this changed to green.
I have a cobalt blue glass hand, on which I normally keep a poison ring – in tribute to the time when blue glass meant poison. But today, I’ve slipped on a sapphire ring, which looks perfectly zaffre, don’t you think?
I’ll end with a quote from Van Gogh:
“Cobalt is a divine color and there is nothing as fine for putting an atmosphere round things.”
What about you? Have a favorite color of glass? Ever seen a bottle tree? Are you feeling blue now that we’ve reached the end of the alphabet? Do tell – you know I’d love to hear.