When we think of the once-mythical American Express black card, we tend to conjure images of the most fabulously wealthy people in the world plunking one down on the counter to pay for items that cost more than most Americans earn in a year – or possibly even in a decade. The American Express "black" card is actually called the American Express Centurion card (not to be confused with the more recent Visa Black Card) and that image is not a terribly far cry from reality.
The Centurion card is "once-mythical" because prior to 1999 it really was just a myth. Doug Smith, director of American Express Europe, told Snopes.com that "there had been rumors going around that we had this ultra-exclusive black card for elite customers. It wasn't true, but we decided to capitalize on the idea anyway." And thus the Centurion card was born.
How to get one
You will not find an application for this card online, although the terms and conditions may be viewed here. Rather, American Express will extend an invitation to customers who meet certain criteria. American Express will not confirm the requirements, but it is generally believed that successful applicants already have and use other American Express cards, and have been active cardholders for at least one year. Also, the applicant must have significant assets and charge at least $250,000 per year.
While the American Express Centurion card is rumored to have lofty annual spend requirements, the American Express Green Card charge card with a low annual fee is a solid first step to begin your journey to a Centurion card invitation.
What it costs
If you are one of the chosen few who receive an invitation to apply, you'll have to pay a one-time initiation fee of $7,500 plus an annual fee of $2,500. There is no interest rate because it's not a credit card. Rather, it's a charge card and the balance must be paid in full each month.
What you get
The Centurion offers special services and benefits to its members. American Express is secretive about most of the details, except to say they include "rare" travel, food and entertainment experiences. That may mean a coveted ticket to New York's fashion week or a private box at the Superbowl. Benefits also include a luxury car rental service, with preferred pricing on exotic high-end vehicles like Lamborghinis, Bentleys and even Formula One racing cars. Without a doubt, hotel and airline travel upgrades are standard, as is access to private airport lounges worldwide. But many cardholders are likely to be the kind of people who typically travel by private jet, so these "perks" may not be seen as such.
The real value of membership may be in the form of personal services offered by the concierge, such as reminder calls prior to anniversaries and birthdays, personal shoppers, or tickets to sold-out events.
Wild tales of the power of this card and the service it offers are common. Snopes relates several, including one of an American Express employee who traveled by motorcycle to retrieve a handful of sand from the shores of the Dead Sea for the school project of a cardholder's child in London. Presumably, most cardholders should not expect that level of service. Indeed, cardholders in China are already complaining that the service is lacking and does not warrant the hefty annual fee.
The American Express Centurion Card, or "Black Card" Infographic:
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