Musings on Emerald – the 2013 Pantone Color of the Year

Few things are as subjective as color. It has been several months since Pantone released their “Color of the Year” for 2013 – Emerald. Still, I don’t see that bluish green swath of color relating much to the hue that pops into my head when I hear the word “emerald”. I imagine a cut gem with pure, grassy green facets sparkling in the light. Although emeralds from across the globe are said to range from green with a slight yellowish tint to green with a slightly bluish sparkle, the finest emeralds – according to the website – come from Colombia.

“Colombian emeralds differ from emeralds from other deposits in that they have an especially fine, shining emerald green unimpaired by any kind of bluish tint.”

Colombian Emeralds_ 276 ct crystal and 19 ct faceted_(a)

Colombian emeralds – 276 carat crystal and 19 carat faceted. Photo courtesy of Note the bluish sparkle in the lower right corner of the cut gemstone. This, I think, is as close as it gets.

My point exactly. But this doesn’t mean that my image of “emerald” is any more correct than Pantone’s. By looking at photos of emeralds, it seems the similarities may be greater in its raw, unpolished state. To my highly biased eye, the Pantone variety is both too artificial and – for lack of a better word – a little too “pasty” to jive with even the bluest of the reflected facets in a cut emerald. I realize, of course, the difficulty in replicating the color of light in a pigment. But even more so, I acknowledge that we all see things differently. This color is now touted as “Emerald” – because Pantone said so. (Pantone Inc., by its own definition is ”the authority on color, provider of color systems and leading technology for accurate communication of color”.) I’m sorry, Pantone – but I disagree. The actual Pantone color 17-5641 may rest comfortably on its its own merits, but I will not drink the KoolAid. I cannot possibly refer to it as “emerald” without smirking! Not counting the possible validation provided by the occasional, faceted, bluish sparkle – it’s just too blue for me!

My opinion is very much my own – just like everyone else has their own. A long time ago, during an NCS class at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm, our instructor Olle Svensson handed out unlabeled fandecks and asked everyone to pick out “salmon pink” and “dusk blue”. Not surprisingly, there were as many examples of each as there were students in the class. The point of this exercise was, as you probably figured out, to prove the point of how subjectively humans see color. In this particular way it was was a very noteworthy learning experience for me. I learned to be highly sceptical about the practice of naming colors, as we all associate and view colors immensely differently.

I sometimes fill in as color consultant at a local paint store. In a day of dealing with poetically named paint colors, I often come across clients that can’t disassociate themselves from these ficticious names. Many latch on to them, as if they are truly what they say they are – rocky coast gray, raincoat yellow, raspberry red, etc. When they do, they no longer see the actual paint swatch. Instead, because of that name, what they see is what they imagine that color to be, regardless of the hue actually beaming back at them from the named sample. I find this fascinating, and of course somewhat gratifying, because it keeps the demand up for those of us who can distance our minds from deceptive labeling, and attack color choices head-on.


This painting by Olle Baertling explores some “un-natural” colors, juxtaposed with reds. Photo courtesy of

But, back to my opinion of the Pantone 17-5641 “Emerald” feeling artificial. Before 1856, all dyes we used had natural origins. That year, everything changed. William H. Perkins’ accidental discovery of “mauvine” or Mauve (the first marketed synthetic color) changed the world of color, dyes and paint as we know it. Since then, with the aid of chemistry, we have been able to access colors that natural pigments had never been able to come even close to. In 2003, I visited an art exhibit by the Swedish painter Olle Baertling. In the paintings on display, he explored “unnatural colors”, i.e those that aren’t obtainable with natural pigments, and that don’t occur much in nature. The closest natural representation that I can think of to some of the colors he used, are the irridescent, metallic sheen of “structural” colors seen in feathers, butterfly wings, insects, etc.

The metallic sheen produced by the structural colors of peacock feathers.

The metallic sheen produced by the structural colors of peacock feathers.

The interesting thing about structural color is that its metallic luminescence is caused by layers of transparent cells at a nanometric scale, that refract the underlying color as light, beaming back from a variety of angles. This is why we get this constantly changing iridescence that in effect is impossible to pin down as *one* color – we often perceive it as a range of colors – often bluish greens. Because structural color is manifested in its inherent physical surface geometries rather than as a separately applied layer of pigment, it holds up extremely well – it does not fade, dematerialize, or in other ways stray from its original shine. Amazingly, the only recorded change in a 2011 discovery of 47 million year-old beetle fossils, was a slight reddening of the original color! Time will tell how the fields of science, energy and design will use this relatively recent discovery.

Keeping Olle Baertling and his exploration of “unnatural colors” in mind, I spent a couple of days looking around town for evidence of use of the Color of the Year, or close to it. Sure enough – they are out there. I was truly intrigued to see where and how they popped up. My conclusion is that the likes of the Color of the Year of 2013 are the ones we use when we want to be sure to be noticed and stand out – a kind of narcissistic call to attention.

Street signs show up from far away, with their "un-natural" color. Even if smothered by nearby foliage, it is easily found.

Street signs show up from far away, with their “un-natural” color. Even if smothered by nearby foliage, it is easily found.

Hugging the edge of a busy street in the midst of the clutter of a college campus, this bar is sure to deliver its message from a distance.

Hugging the edge of a busy street in the midst of the clutter of a college campus, this bar is sure to deliver its message from a distance.

Not the most common of vehicular colors. I bet the owner of this truck hardly ever looses it in the parking lot.

Not the most common of vehicular colors. I bet the owner of this truck hardly ever looses it in the parking lot.

I can just hear it: "We're in the obnoxious green house..." Seriously - even careening full tilt boogie down the busy street along this Portland hippie house, it would be really hard to miss! I almost wonder if it glows in the dark...

I can just hear it: “We’re in the obnoxious green house…” Seriously – even careening full speed down the busy thoroughfare past this Portland hippie house, it would be really hard to miss! I almost suspect it glows in the dark…

London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

Photo courtesy of

Most noticeable of all is the ubiquitous green traffic light. It’s almost a dead ringer – even more so with the refracted light glowing through the green lens, as opposed to a pigment. If I were to have been given the honor, I would have called Pantone 17-5641 “Go Green” instead of “Emerald”, but that’s just me.

This weekend, we and the good citizens of the Emerald Island celebrate S:t Patrick’s Day. Perhaps we should leave it up to Irish or Colombian experts to figure out exactly what color “Emerald” is. All I know is, that if I saw a leprechaun the color of the Pantone chip, I would think we were invaded by little green men from Mars.


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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11 Responses to Musings on Emerald – the 2013 Pantone Color of the Year

  1. Great post Anna, just shared it on the PPC FB page!
    Thanks again for your help last weekend, hope you had fun!

  2. Ricki Grady says:

    And another voice is heard from. When it comes to being opinionated, nothing offers more fertile ground than color. I enjoyed this essay very much.

  3. Pingback: sprig to twig » Blog Archive » March blooms

  4. Long before I actually saw the Pantone chip or heard it referred to as “emerald” I had been told the color of the year was green, I suspect because everyone knows green is my favorite color. Imagine my surprise when I actually saw the color…not green at all! At least not to my eye.

    Enjoyed this post!

  5. You have written a very interesting post, with an unexpected point of view, Anna! It’s good to think outside the box! WEll done!

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks, Isabel! Haha – sometimes I wonder how one gets one of those cushy color-naming jobs… Anyway, I just read or heard something about how age and gender affects how we see color differently at different stages in our lives. Wish I could remember where – it would be worth posting!

  6. Pingback: Wednesday Vignette – birds of a feather converse together | Flutter & Hum

  7. Pingback: Exquisite Creatures, exquisite world | The Creative Flux

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