Although it may be difficult to imagine a universe in which George Clooney needs a little help charming women, that’s the case in Up in the Air, the 2009 movie in which he plays a frequent-flying HR consultant in charge of executing mass layoffs. In a Dallas hotel bar, he flirts with a comely business traveler played by Vera Farmiga, needling her over her preferred rental-car loyalty program; soon, the two are comparing mileage goals and flinging their respective stacks of bonus-rewards credit cards down next to their drinks. Eventually, Clooney seals the deal with a rare American Airlines ConciergeKey card, rendered in matte graphite among all the shiny plastic. Farmiga picks it up, complimenting its weightiness. “This is pretty fucking sexy,” she marvels. They retire to his hotel room.
During the 2000s, a metal credit card could have that effect on a person. In 2004, American Express swapped plastic for titanium in its invite-only, unlimited-spending Centurion Card, and one of the most successful credit-card marketing gambits in banking history was born—or, perhaps more accurately, was finally realized. After its plastic introduction in 1999, the Centurion Card—or the Black Card, in popular parlance—became a status symbol known far outside its rarefied clientele, largely thanks to countless namechecks in rap hits by artists including Lil Kim, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West. Within just a few years, the card’s legend had grown to such mythic proportions—aided by the fact that almost no one had ever seen one in person—that it was somehow widely believed to be made of metal already.
In the time since, metal credit cards have become not only a reality, but a mundanity. Once limited to products like the Centurion that require proof of high net worth and a history of lavish spending, the cards are now available to pretty much anyone with passable credit. Even Venmo, the cash-swapping app, is enticing people to use their balance like a bank account with a metal debit card in pink or black. As a marketing play, the cards are brilliant. But they’re also an object lesson in the life cycle of the consumer status symbol. When everyone’s special, no one is.
Metal credit cards may have begun as markers of extreme wealth, but they were spawned by something far more pedestrian: consumer-loyalty programs. Frequent-flier miles are the most famous of these programs, but they’re everywhere now—hotels, clothing brands, electronics retailers, fast-food chains. They’re especially popular at the top of the glutted credit-card market, where people with good credit and a relatively high income need to be tempted to open and use new cards, even though doing so tends to be expensive and annoying. Promises of free plane tickets, iPhones, and points-accrual multipliers on dining and gas purchases can be enticing perks, but after a while, all the benefits of opening a new card can start to sound the same. Credit-card companies have tried to come up with different strategies to stand out, especially because these usual perks tend not to be part of the everyday user experience; you might cash in for a free plane ticket or an iPhone upgrade once every year or two, but those eventualities are hardly a constant reminder to pluck that card out of your wallet over all the others.
Enter metal. Many people in the credit-card industry point to 2016 as the year that metal cards went wild, thanks to the launch of the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. The card was itself an upgrade from an existing—merely Preferred—product, and it came with a hefty $450 annual fee at the time of launch in addition to its promises of fast-accruing, easily redeemable points. The shopping public couldn’t get enough of it, according to Nick Ewen, the director of content at the travel-rewards website The Points Guy. So many people applied (Ewen among them) that Chase ran out of metal and had to mail temporary plastic cards. Ewen said that although he believed much of the card’s appeal was in the big bonus-points offer for new accounts and the company’s well-liked rewards program, the metal card wasn’t exactly unrelated to its success. “At the time, it was still enough of a novelty that when you would go and pay for something with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you would get comments from the waiter or the cashier,” he told me. Elizabeth Crosta, a vice president of communications at American Express, told me that this is referred to in the industry as the plunk factor—a heavier card is more satisfying to plunk down on the table after dinner. It lands with more authority.
That kind of response to a card launch turned heads, Ewen said, and it didn’t take long before most issuers’ fanciest publicly available cards were metal. And then their next-fanciest. American Express, which had long kept metal cards for Centurion high rollers, began issuing less exclusive metal Platinum Cards in early 2017; in 2018, its Gold Cards also made the switch, with a limited-edition rose-gold option for early adoptees. For a long time, the credit-card industry looked at nonfunctional tweaks to the card itself—a college or sports-team logo, for example—primarily as a way to market mid-tier products to people with mediocre credit. When the Chase card became a massive hit, it was suddenly clear that affluent people, too, are delighted by the prospect of a special little card.
Unlike team-logo cards, though, metal cards aren’t meant to signal fandom or allegiance—they’re meant to signal status, and not just of the airline variety. Keeping meticulous track of points balances and bonus offers can pay real dividends when it’s time to redeem those rewards, but a card needs more than that to entice people whose hobbies don’t typically involve spreadsheets. When cleverly branded, credit cards have always made for status symbols so potent that they easily tip over into the absurd, or even parodic—the costume designer Lizzy Gardiner wore a dress made out of gold American Express cards to the 1995 Academy Awards. Lots of people are willing to shell out for things that project wealth and discernment to others. This is the principle on which the entire high-end-fashion industry is based, and metal cards are maybe most accurately described not as a financial tool, but as a luxury accessory.
In the fashion industry, the trendiest pieces—those that mark their owners most clearly as stylish and well connected—have a familiar trajectory. Eventually, a brand starts pumping out more and more of a once-rare item to capitalize on frenzied demand. Other designers riff on the things that made the design so successful in the first place. Less expensive brands and counterfeiters flood the market with knockoffs and fakes. Before you know it, the look is everywhere, and it doesn’t have much sociocultural meaning at all anymore. Those in the know are on to the next thing. Ewen said that he’s sick of metal credit cards: They’re now so ubiquitous that they’re not a reliable indicator of the most rewards-intense cards, they can’t be cut up when you get a replacement card, and carrying several of them at once can, in his experience, set off airport metal detectors. Not great for a frequent flier.
But it seems like metal cards aren’t so much falling out of favor as becoming the new normal, and credit cards, as physical objects, are likely to become more like luxury accessories, not less. Most recently, the credit industry has embraced a tactic beloved by the fashion industry: the drop, in which a small amount of limited-edition (and therefore special, if not always inherently so) items are made available to the lucky few who are able to snap them up. Earlier this year, American Express cut up one of Delta’s decommissioned Boeing 747s and used the metal to fabricate a series of cards available only to clients with the company’s highest-tier Delta rewards card, which costs $550 a year. The cards, which bore the image of the retired plane, were supposed to be available for sign-up for about seven weeks. They were gone much faster.