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You've arrived! True tales of the mysterious Black Card

The American Express card for uber rich has magnetic appeal

By Emma Johnson

What if what was in your wallet really did make you a better person -- or at least perceived as one?

You've arrived! True Black Card talesThe closest thing to such a notion may be the American Express Centurion Card, also known as the Black Card. Released in 1999, AmEx has successfully created an aura of mystery and power around this rectangle made of sturdy titanium.

While American Express is decidedly discrete about the details of membership, this is what we do know: the Black Card has no credit limit, cards are issued by invitation only and one of the criteria considered for an invitation is annual credit card charges -- those interviewed for the story claim that the threshold for invitation has been lowered from $1 million to $250,000 in recent years.

What is clear is that the one-time $5,000 initiation fee and annual $2,500 membership does come with unique perks, including airline and hotel upgrades, and a personalized concierge service that helps with travel and restaurant reservations as well as shopping procurement -- benefits many holders say are the Black Card's true value.

But this hard-to-get credit card, with its unusual black appearance and hefty metal weight, does more than ensure access to airport lounges. Evoking allure of wealth and power, it is known to curry favor and fawning by those who covet it. We interviewed some Black Card holders, as well as those who have been in its presence, about the privileges that only membership can buy.

Want great service? Mention the card
Social media entrepreneur and media consultant Peter Shankman says that while the concierge service has saved him in many personal and professional pickles, he flashed the titanium just once in an effort to evoke VIP service. It worked. Shankman was in desperate need of a new suit and was browsing in an Armani store wearing his usual uniform of T-shirt and jeans. "No one paid me any attention. It was right out of 'Pretty Woman,'" he says. "Finally, I said loudly, 'Never mind! I'll take my Black Card and go to Prada!' Within a minute, eight sales guys were there ready to help me."

I like to use it to impress the ladies, and they certainly are very inquisitive about it. I think that it shows that you are not only responsible with your money, but that you have arrived financially in your life and in your career.

-- John Mahdessian
Owner, Madame Paulette

Broke, but won't give up his Black Card
Not all stories are so entertaining. Aylin Unal says a longtime friend finally qualified for a Black Card after coveting one for years. He immediately made a point of showing it off frequently. "Even if he charges $3, he makes sure to put the card in front of everybody," Unal says. "He carries everything on a money clip and the card is always on the outside." In recent years, the friend found himself in six-figures of business and consumer debt and had his electricity turned off a few times for nonpayment, Unal says. Nonetheless, he thwarts his accountant and attorney's advice to declare bankruptcy since doing so would mean he would lose the Centurion.

Unal asked her friend why he continues to pay the pricey annual fee since he does not take advantage of the card's travel perks. "He said it was worth it for him to get good treatment at the valet or a bar," she says. "It's really sad that at this point in his life he doesn't think better of himself."

Make the wait staff fawn over you
Other cardholders' friends get a kick out of the over-the-top service the card can elicit. Donna Wheeler's friend owns a Centurion, but only because her husband works for American Express, not because she's a high roller. Wheeler says the power of the card is evident in restaurants, where the wait staff may be mediocre until the card is handed over with the bill. "Then they are fawning over us, saying, 'Oh, I hope you had a good visit!' We just look at each other across the table and crack up laughing," she says.  

Charm works really well to get upgrades, but in these cases I got the perks before I demonstrated my charm.

-- Edward Ip
Owner, IUG Business Solutions

When charm fails, flash the card
Edward Ip, owner of IT consulting firm IUG Business Solutions, is another cardholder who prefers to be discreet. "The people the card attracts are not the people you want to attract," he says. "Your close friends know who you are and what you do so they're not surprised or shocked to see it." That said, "It is a great way to get the bartender's attention."

Ip says that his card can be credited with the bottle of champagne that was once sent to his table the first time he visited the famed New York restaurant 21 Club, as well as an upgrade at a Beverly Hills hotel. "Charm works really well to get upgrades, but in these cases I got the perks before I demonstrated my charm," Ip says.

Personal life goal: Black Card invitation
John Mahdessian, owner of Madame Paulette, a high-end fabric cleaning service in New York, has had the card since 1999. He says that he sought out the card by intentionally charging $1 million on his AmEx that year with the sole aim to be invited. Mahdessian says that the card exudes the type of status that he aims for. "I'm the most eligible bachelor with a spotless reputation," says the 44-year-old New Yorker. "I like to use it to impress the ladies, and they certainly are very inquisitive about it. I think that it shows that you are not only responsible with your money, but that you have arrived financially in your life and in your career."

The Black Card as a pickup tool
Not all ladies are automatically impressed by the Black Card. Liz Grimes encountered one while waitressing while in college. She waited on a couple in their 20s who came in for lunch. They were low-key and friendly and after chatting with Grimes for a while, the guy handed over his Black Card to pay the bill. Grimes and her colleagues were impressed. "We were all wondering how someone so young could have possibly gotten their hands on one of these. Was it his parents? Maybe his job?" she recalls. Imagine her surprise when she picked up the signed receipt to find a $30 tip on a $30 bill -- and a phone number, smiley face and note which read, "Call me."

"My friends insisted that I call him for the pure fact that he paid with the Black Card," Grimes says. She refused. "Just because this guy obviously had money I was not going to sacrifice my morals and get involved in this situation." 

Or, as John Mahdessian says: "Just because you charge $1 million doesn't mean you have $1 million." 

See related: More credit cardholders can count on concierges, Black, white, titanium: Are elite credit cards worth it?, Prank uses Obama in attempt to obtain Centurion bling

Published: July 29, 2010



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