Dye makers have been in search of materials that would produce rich, vibrant colors throughout history. There was a lot of money to be made! And when a better dye came along, or one that was easier to make, it instantly became all the rage among those who could afford it. Such was the case when Conquistadors brought back cochineal insects, which produce carmine red dye, back from the Aztec empire. Amy Butler Greenfield wrote the book A Perfect Red, and talks about how the Mexican dye took off in Europe.
Dye from the cochineal bug was ten times as potent as St John’s Blood and produced 30 times more dye per ounce than Armenian red, according to Butler. So when European dyers began to experiment with the pigment, they were delighted by its potential. Most importantly, it was the brightest and most saturated red they had ever seen. By the middle of the 16th Century it was being used across Europe, and by the 1570s it had become one of the most profitable trades in Europe – growing from a meagre “50,000 pounds of cochineal in 1557 to over 150,000 pounds in 1574,” writes Butler.