Most people hold a set of plastic rectangles representing credit and debit cards. But the wealthy aren't most people. These elite spenders often pack spending hardware that's made, quite literally, of stronger stuff.
When in Rome
The most exclusive card on the market derives from an urban legend. Back in the bad old days of the 1980s, rumors started to swirl about a no-limit "black card" issued by American Express (AXP) to only a hand-picked group of its most financially endowed clients.
That card was a figment of someone's imagination. But in the right hands, hot rumor can be turned into free publicity.
So it was with AmEx, which in 1999 created a black-hued charge card, named the Centurion. Ever since, it's been considered by many to be the most desired purchase facilitator available on the market.
Centurion is built of titanium -- all the better to feel the strength of its buying power, apparently. Adding considerably to the snob appeal, obtaining the card is by invitation only. Only an estimated 17,000 people are Centurion holders (compared to 107 million AmEx-branded credit cards in circulation at the end of 2013).
The privileges include 24/7 personalized concierge service, free access to certain airport lounges and a host of other goodies. Holders have to pay an "initiation" fee of $7,500 and an annual fee of $2,500. And that's only the beginning -- in order to keep Centurion, a minimum of $250,000 must be spent on it every year.
Visa's Heavy Metal
Perhaps you prefer your sky's-the-limit card to be made of a more traditional material. In that case Visa's (V) Black Card is built of stainless steel, like an old car or a broadsword.
Like AmEx's faithful Roman soldier, Black Card membership will buy you round-the-clock concierge assistance, travel discounts and rewards and airport lounge access. For globetrotters, one major enticement is that foreign transaction fees are waived when it's used for purchases abroad.
Visa charges an annual fee of $495 for the privilege, and potential holders apply for a Black Card, much like users of the more traditional plastic variety.
Financial-services giant JPMorgan Chase (JPM) forges its exclusive credit card partially with an uncommon metal, palladium. It's so proud of this, it's even named the card after the material.
One element that sets JPMorgan Chase's card apart is its "smart chip." This feature is standard for payment cards in countries all over the world -- except for the U.S. This gives it a competitive edge among the well-to-do; no matter how fancy a card, it's limited if it can't be read by payment systems commonly in use abroad.
Swiping in Style
Most card issuers and many financial institutions have their own versions of high-end cards, which share certain similarities. Black is the color tinting both MasterCard's (MA) upper-crust World Elite and the high-end card issued by Coutts, an old British banking house that counts the royal family among its clientele. But neither has the cachet and wow factor of a sleek piece of unusual metal.
In the rarefied world of high rollers, it's not only what you buy, it's the impression you leave as you pick up the check. For that, it's hard to beat those fancy metal cards.
Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Express, MasterCard and Visa, and it owns shares of JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard and Visa.