Who needs Hudson if they have a black card?

Jasmine Birtles reports on Britain's most exclusive plastic

Even in these times of economic uncertainty, conspicuous consumption is alive and kicking. Black credit cards - pieces of plastic that put gold and platinum rivals firmly in the shade - have established themselves as the only cards worth carrying among those willing and able to afford them.

Even in these times of economic uncertainty, conspicuous consumption is alive and kicking. Black credit cards - pieces of plastic that put gold and platinum rivals firmly in the shade - have established themselves as the only cards worth carrying among those willing and able to afford them.

The appeal of such products is not as limited as it might appear. Some 326,000 people in Britain now earn more than £100,000 a year - a figure that has doubled during the past four years.

American Express was the first provider to enter the market, launching its Centurion charge card in May 1999. To qualify, cardholders must earn a minimum of £100,000 per annum, and be willing to cough up £650 a year in charges.

In June last year, NatWest became the first high- street bank to offer a black card, and Halifax followed suit in the autumn. Nat-West's card is aimed at people with an annual income of at least £70,000 and costs £250 a year, while the Halifax insists on at least £75,000 and charges £175.

So what on earth would possess someone to pay that kind of money for a credit card? Well, the attraction for users is a package of exclusive extras, including the chance to earn additional Air Miles; worldwide access to executive airport lounges; and a 24-hour, multilingual "personal assistance" service, to help busy rich people organise their lives.

American Express says more than 90 per cent of Centurion cardholders make use of its concierge service. "This service can get you anything so long as it's legal," says Jacquie Goozee of American Express. Concierge benefits break down into three categories: travel, financial and lifestyle. The travel services could include anything from booking flights to ordering a luxury yacht, while each cardholder has a concierge manager appointed to them to offer financial advice and services such as stockbroking. Members have no spending limit - they can simply spend as much as they have proved they can afford.

But it is in the lifestyle category that the black card service starts to enter the realms of the ridiculous. For example, three years ago Amex staff were dispatched to queue up for signed Harry Potter books. Amex also arranged for a brass band to play outside a London flat on Valentine's Day.

NatWest black card holders have access to a 24-hour 365-days-a-year, multilingual personal assistance service, which means that a phone call can get them help in arranging anything from dinner in Prague to a round of golf in the Cayman Islands. The card also has a 56-day interest-free period, and charges an annual percentage rate (APR) of 12.9, which is pretty standard when compared to typical high- street credit cards. However, the minimum credit limit is £15,000, which is certainly not standard.

The Halifax card - called the Carbon Card - also has a 24-hour assistance centre that can book flights, give you access to airport VIP lounges, make reservations at hotels and restaurants, and organise car hire and tickets for theatres and sporting events worldwide. It has the lowest APR at 10.3, up to 59 days' interest-free credit and a minimum credit limit of £15,000.

It may seem unlikely, but many of those who have a black card do so because it represents value for money. "The fact that you get a 24-hour service, seven days a week is outstanding," says retired company director Geoffrey Warde of NatWest's £250-a-year black card service. "I wanted two tickets to see Dawn French in My Brilliant Divorce recently but it was totally sold out. Finally, I called the black card service and they managed to get a cancellation. We had two really good seats on the night we wanted. The charge was a measly £1.50."

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