'Black' cards? Frankly, they're just so last year

Melanie Bien on the latest piece of plastic for the well-heeled
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The Independent Online

While the world may now be full of "rate tarts" - people who hunt around for the cheapest credit card, before switching to another when the 0 per cent introductory offer comes to an end - there are plenty of others who don't care what the interest rate is so long as the colour is right.

These people are fickle, though, and the must-have colour for your credit card is constantly changing. There was a time when gold cards symbolised wealth, prestige and influence. But then platinum replaced flashy gold, signifying a more sophisticated, wealthier owner. Yet even these are 10-a-penny now, requiring an income of no more than £10,000 a year (for the Capital One platinum card), and are unlikely to cause gasps of awe when you pick up the bill in a restaurant.

The one colour that still manages to hold people in thrall is black. A black card gives the impression you are seriously loaded. The more exclusive cards, such as Centurion from American Express, are avail- able by invitation only to existing Amex customers who have "shown the highest level of commitment". There is also the small matter of the annual charge: £650.

Even the less exclusive black cards, such as the one from NatWest, don't come cheap, at £250 a year. You must also have an annual income of at least £70,000 and be over the age of 25 to apply. But you do get plenty of benefits, in the form of a more generous credit limit, a personal assistant service and bespoke travel arrangements.

However, there is now a feeling in some quarters that even black has had its day. Hence the launch of the "beyond black" card from Quintessentially, the self-styled "highly acclaimed international private-members concierge club", and private bank Arbuthnot Latham.

Although the card is actually black in colour, the "beyond black" tag refers to the service the "member" will receive (there are no "customers" here). The implication is that this will be far more comprehensive than anything offered by rival providers. Quintessentially's 6,000 members, which include Prince Charles, Jemima Khan, Gwyneth Paltrow and P Diddy, can take advantage of around 8,500 benefits, such as travel advice and privileged access to the trendiest clubs and bars.

They will be invited to apply for the card when it is launched in September. There is no annual fee, but given that members already pay £650 a year to belong to Quintessentially, it could be argued that they are paying enough already. Credit limits will be assessed individually, so one can only imagine how much some of these well-heeled individuals will be able to spend on their plastic.

"The key concept is simplicity: with one card, our members can have all the lifestyle services they require from an experienced team, plus first-class service in investment and banking," says Aaron Simpson of Quintessentially.

With an annual percentage rate (APR) of 16.5 for purchases and 22 per cent on cash withdrawals, the card is far from cheap, but Arbuthnot Latham believes the members are not the types to look for the lowest rate. One could also argue that they will be more than able to clear their balance at the end of the month.

With Centurion celebrating its fifth year in the UK with a fashion show in aid of the Terrence Higgins Trust next month, and a new card designed by Alexander McQueen, the popularity of exclusive cards shows no signs of diminishing. Centurion works slightly differently to other black products in that it is a charge card rather than a credit card, so members must clear their balance at the end of each month. But it gives members access to people who will do everything for you, from booking hotels to telling you what it's fashionable to wear.

Such concierge services may appeal to some people, but if you don't use them regularly, there is little point in having a black card, especially given the cost.

However, you can enjoy some of the trappings of a black card at a fraction of the price with Royal Bank of Scotland's new Royalties Premier Account. For £15 a month you get a current account with extras such as a lifestyle manager, personal travel adviser and home emergency service. There is also worldwide family annual travel insurance - a very useful and cost-effective add-on.

HSBC also offers a concierge service: The Extra Mile. This is available to Premier Account customers and is free. But you must earn £75,000 a year, have savings of more than £30,000 or a mortgage of more than £150,000 to qualify.

Contacts: American Express, www.amex.co.uk; Arbuthnot Latham, www.arbuthnot.co.uk; NatWest, www.natwest.co.uk; Quintessentially, 0870 850 8585 or www.quintessentially.com

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