New: Extreme credit cards
First, there was just the Black Card to set elite shoppers apart. Now there's a new batch of exclusive cards with sky-high limits, concierge services and other coveted perks.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The "Black Card" is a status icon. Not only does it offer a range of exclusive privileges, but it looks cool when you pull it out of your wallet. And the titanium it's made out of makes a nice clinking sound when it taps on the counter at the register.
The mere mention of American Express' (Charts, Fortune 500) Centurion card, better known as the black card, conveys a status so rarefied that it literally can't be quantified by banalities like credit limits, which of course its cardholders are not subject to.
"The AmEx black card is in its own league," said Robert McKinley, CEO of credit-card tracker CardWeb.com.
But now there's an influx of new high-end cards, offering their own fancy perks and services in an effort to take a bite out of the black card market. Whether they'll steal any of the dark card's thunder remains to be seen.
"The affluent represent a very high-spending and low-risk crowd," McKinley said, adding that their pricey transactions bring in steep processing fees from retailers -- a much more valuable revenue stream than the interest income from middle and lower income cardholders.
"[Other card issuers] want the affluent in their court since it gives them leverage over merchants who are balking at paying high merchant fees," he said.
Membership has its privileges
Although the exact figure is undisclosed, reports estimate that there are upwards of 17,000 black cards - actually made of titanium - currently in circulation.
And plenty more people want one. Consumers with a minimum net worth of $5 million and annual income of $200,000 rated the American Express Centurion the most prestigious credit card according to a recent survey by New York-based Luxury Institute.
But to qualify for the Centurion card, which launched in 1999, you must charge at least $250,000 a year. Then there's a $5,000 initiation fee and an annual fee of $2,500. On the plus side, there's no Annual Percentage Rate, since cardholders are generally required to pay off their balance each month.
Although the Centurion's costs are high, the perks are equally impressive. After all, if you're going to spend this much money you'll probably need some help. To wit: Cardholders are each assigned their own personal concierges who will make reservations, plan events or score sold out concert tickets.
Private shopping services afford exclusive access at top fashion houses. A call ahead to Tiffany will ensure you'll be greeted with a personal assistant wielding champagne and invited to try on the most coveted baubles from the back of the vault.
Centurion cardholders also receive invitations to "once-in-a-lifetime" events such as a round of golf with Tiger Woods at Oakmont days before the US Open, or a Zero-G flight with Buzz Aldrin, the costs of which vary.
Special requests are also fulfilled. One cardholder had a pint-sized Bentley created for his five-year-old son to match his own.
But these many indulgences are probably beside the point for most Black Card holders, who just enjoy its prestige.
One Black cardholder we spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that although he's never bothered to take advantage of any of the Centurion's many benefits, he certainly enjoys the star treatment the card affords him.
Biting into the black card market
In June, Bank of America (Charts, Fortune 500) introduced the 12.24-percent APR Accolades card, which boasts services similar to the Centurion's, for its high net worth clients. The credit limit is $500,000 and there's an annual fee of $295 which is refunded for VIPs. The Accolades also comes with all the premium card features such as travel discounts, a concierge, and privileges like private golf outings with Michael Jordan.
Then earlier this month, Citigroup (Charts, Fortune 500) launched its Chairman American Express card for Smith Barney and Citi Private Bank clients, which offers a personal concierge service, complimentary companion tickets or private jet arrangements and waives foreign currency transaction fees for globetrotting cardholders. There is also 24-hour emergency assistance and medical evacuation and the card's annual fee will only set you back $500.
Merrill Lynch's (Charts, Fortune 500) + card has a low APR of 9.99 percent, no annual fee and a line of credit as high as $250,000. Cardholders also get companion airline tickets and upgrades, airport lounge access, travel accident insurance up to $1,000,000 and concierge service. Reward points can be put towards a 529 college savings plan, trading commissions or even to pay for other purchases. For those that spend in excess of $50,000 a year on their card, additional benefits include free flight hours on Marquis jet and a dedicated assistant to remind you in advance of your loved one's birthday or an upcoming anniversary.
Still, one of the Centurion's greatest rivals is the the Stratus Rewards Visa, also known as the "White Card," which can only be obtained by invitation or via a nomination by another member. After the $1,500 annual fee, you'll get private jet discounts, travel accident insurance up to $1 million, discounts on luxury goods as well as gift bags filled with the stuff "you'd find in the celebrity bags at notable award shows," according to the company.
In the UK, Coutts & Co.'s World card was the charge card of choice before the black card was even born. But it's only available to Coutts clients who have at least $1 million at the private bank where Queen Elizabeth is a client.
Although the card costs about $700 a year, and must be paid off in full at the end of each month, the annual fee will be waived if the cardholder spends in excess of $100,000. Reward points can be redeemed as contributions to one of three select charitable organizations.
Perks include access to airport lounges, travel insurance and medical emergency coverage in addition to private shopping expeditions to top stores in London like Van Cleef and Arpels. Even the card itself is couture - it was designed by London-based fashion designer Ozwald Boateng.
All the better to attract the right kind of attention.