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Titanium and diamond studs: the loopy world of high-end credit cards

The Amex 'black card' is no longer alone. But are these prestige products worth it even for those who can afford them?

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

When I was quite a lot younger, I was seriously impressed by a friend’s bank card. It wasn’t the fact that she had one at all, nor the amount of cash she took out: it was that her card was personalised with a photo. These days, I’m less swayed by what cards look like but more interested in what they give back — in benefits, credit limits and banking advice.

Let’s start at the top. What’s the card of choice for the serious high roller? The answer is probably American Express’s Centurion, a.k.a. ‘the black card’. I say card of choice, but in reality this card chooses you: it’s ‘invitation only’, and there are only around 17,000 in issue. Its status goes beyond exclusive to semi-mythical: it doesn’t even feature on Amex’s website.

So who has one? The contents of the new Mrs Clooney’s purse remain secret, but we know James Bond packs a Centurion: he was seen wielding it in Casino Royale (2006) as he checked into a resort in the Bahamas. And rapper Kanye West — surely every bling-seeker’s role model — has this to say in his track ‘Last Call’: ‘Oh my god, is that a black card?/ I turned around and replied, ‘Why yes/ But I prefer the term “African American Express’’.’


It’s not all about celebrity: one Chinese antiques collector received 422 million Amex points when he bought a $36 million ceramic cup at Sotheby’s on his card. And of course all sorts of business moguls feature discreetly on this most sought-after blacklist.

Since AmEx are so secretive about it, however, the benefits offered are partly a matter of rumour. We do know this entrée to the Bond lifestyle extracts a $2,500 annual fee in addition to $5,000 for joining — and that it includes a concierge service, invitations to exclusive events, airline upgrades and other perks.

And if the Amex black card invite doesn’t come your way, there are hundreds of competitors vying for your business, offering everything from wealth management advice to private jet discounts. The Coutts World Silk Card (strictly speaking a charge card rather than a credit card) also brings ‘preferential offerings’ from travel brands such as Abercrombie & Kent and Relais & Chateaux. Visa’s black card (‘the ultimate buying tool’) has cashback rewards plus concierge and airport lounges. HSBC premier members can enjoy the ‘Priority Pass’ system in more than 600 international airports.

For some customers, access to cash matters much more than incidental benefits. Some cards offer personalised financial advice in addition to preferential mortgages and loans. Premier cards offered by Barclays and HSBC have the simpler benefit of allowing customers to withdraw £750 a day, as opposed to the normal £300.

For others, let’s be honest, the look of the card is as important as the perks. Amex Centurion and Visa black may look similar at first glance, but the latter is made of mere stainless steel and carbon graphite, while the former is titanium. The JPMorgan Palladium Card is actually what it says, and if you happen to live in Dubai (where this kind of thing really does matter) the Dubai First Royale card is studded with diamonds. Bring it on, Sheikh Sugardaddy.

But I digress. Of course all these cards come with conditions, in many cases including a minimum salary as well as a minimum amount of savings held in the issuer bank. Do they justify their fees? And isn’t the idea of lusting after an ‘exclusive’ credit card just a teensy bit sick-making? Well, maybe. But if you’re a frequent, high-stress traveller and the kind of person who would need to pay a PA or a ‘lifestyle management’ service such as Quintessentially to sort out lots of stuff for you anyway, then those perks can be genuinely useful. And how much is it worth, in the first-class lounge, to be able to whisper, ‘Yo, Kanye, snap!’?

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