I have been carrying a piece of black anodised titanium around in my pocket for more than a decade. Why? In 1999, American Express launched a near-mythical object — a black card. Known as Centurion, this was not a credit card you could choose to apply for. Oh no. Rather, the card chose you.
At the time, I was an investment banker with Morgan Stanley. One-upmanship at such an establishment was an art form. It was not cool to be flash. Prominent display of designer logos was considered gauche — apart from a Hermès tie — but that was the uniform. Even IBGLs (Investment Banker Gucci Loafers) were frowned upon, unless you were British. The Americans prefer a tassel on their shoes (proof, if ever you needed it, that money cannot buy taste).
In such environments, the most sought-after items or experiences are ones you cannot buy. Everyone you work with is wealthy enough to buy almost anything they want. So if you had a new mobile phone model first or saw a movie before its release date, that was cool.
Back in those days, Canary Wharf was a gigantic building site. I was not one of the in-crowd. My office, on the fifth floor, was the typical see-through glass cube common to US investment banks. One day, a black box arrived. Special delivery. Heads popped up from the bullpens to see what it was. Inside the elaborate box was a card. It wasn’t plastic, but metal — or “anodised titanium”. This was a different kind of card. It was by invitation only.
I felt like the chosen one. The annual fee, they said, was only a bit more than the Amex Platinum Card. And at the time they were right. It was ?650 — a couple of hundred quid extra. And what’s that to an investment banker? A round of drinks at the next team “decompression session”. Anyway, word gets around. People ask to see this thing. So the first thing you buy with your black anodised titanium credit card is social cachet. Tick.
Over time, the annual fee for the UK card has risen from ?650 to the princely sum of ?2,200 a year. Now, if you’re invited, Amex will ask you for an “initiation fee” of ?2,500. I recognise you might now be thinking that anyone who has one of these cards has more money than sense. You could say the same of people who max out their credit cards and pay eye-watering interest rates. You can’t do that with Centurion, as strictly speaking it’s a charge card, not a credit card (they debit your bank account at the end of each month).
Still, ?2,200 is an obscene sum. The annual membership of most West End clubs will come in cheaper. And it’s not as if this is the only card you’ll ever need. You can attach it to Apple Pay and use it on your iPhone, or the bus, or even (blush) in McDonald’s, but quite a few places don’t accept Amex. So why have one?
Aside from the kudos, there are benefits. Centurion has a 24/7 concierge service. They generally answer the telephone quickly. A dedicated travel team can arrange flights, car hire, hotels or villas. Enrolments into top-end schemes that give you free flight and hotel upgrades, better service, late checkouts, and airport lounge access are all included. All very nice. As is the travel insurance. Which really does pay out.
There was the time I went skiing for the weekend. Even before British Airways became a cattle haulage company, they mislaid my luggage. Amex came to the rescue and told me to buy what I needed. Keep the receipts and make a claim when I got home. I did — and they coughed up. They also did when I slipped in a hotel bathroom and broke my shoulder (I wasn’t even drunk!)
And then there are the points. A whole website dedicated to how you can trade them in for “free” things, from Laurent Perrier 2006 vintage bubbly to all sorts of gizmos and gadgets. OK, it isn’t exactly free — you get one point for every pound you spend on the card. But a bottle of chilled champagne that you know you didn’t pay for (other than with points) tastes better. A flight when you’ve turned left after stepping on to the plane, paid for by points, always feels that much more enjoyable when you suspect the person next to you has paid full whack.
To varying degrees, other top-end credit cards do this stuff too — invitations to exclusive concerts, talked-about restaurants, ticket allocations for hard-to-get-into shows. But like a gym membership, I suspect that the majority of people who pay for such cards don’t use all of these benefits. So how do I justify the soaring expense?
When you go to a shop and there’s a whiff of a black card, it’s like an episode of Mr Benn. Bing! As if by magic the shopkeeper appears. There’s no need to do an Edward in Pretty Woman and tell the shopkeeper that you’re going to be spending “an obscene amount of money in here”. They know. Why? Because there isn’t a spending limit on the Amex Centurion Card.
Even so, there are different tiers of membership. Disappointingly, I’ve never managed to spend more than ?150,000 a year, for which Amex would grant me a dedicated liaison person to deal with my every whim. Nor am I in the Medallion Programme for those who spend over ?250,000 a year — for which largesse they receive exclusive “money cannot buy” invitations.
It hasn’t always been what it’s cracked up to be. Once, I was so cross with poor level of service I wrote to complain. Someone from customer services got back to me and was appallingly rude and offhand. So I complained again.
This time I was invited to Amex’s HQ in Victoria. I met the vice-president of product and marketing for Centurion, who listened to some of my gripes and promised to take them up with management. He also asked me what my favourite restaurant was. I told him that it was Elystan Street.
I was instructed to take myself and the other half for dinner, have whatever we liked, and that Amex would cover the bill. So we did. I’m not swayed by a free dinner, but I am convinced that exceptional customer service is worth paying for — and the VP went above and beyond. That’s the ethos.
So while I bristle at the size of the annual fee, I’ve still got the anodised titanium card in my pocket. So if you’re ever invited to join, should you accept? For those who would seriously consider it, the decision is unlikely to be a financial one. It’s a bit like owning an Aston Martin. If you have to ask how much it costs to fill it up, you probably shouldn’t have one.