Metallic credit cards are nothing new, with the American Express Platinum taking pride of place in many a Wall Street banker's embossed wallet after it launched in 1984.
For a long time the status of a Platinum card far outweighed its actual weight however, as the card was made of plastic until recently, where it also comes with a hefty £575 annual fee in exchange for a host of benefits. Before that, one of the first truly metal cards was the once-mythical American Express Centurion, which was launched in 2008 on an invitation-only basis.
From the City trader street cred of dropping a metal card on the table with a satisfying thud at the end of a meal, to the exclusive benefits and its utility as a handy implement (we heard it comes in useful for everything from cutting up lines, to cutting up cake) the metal card has firmly become a trend amongst UK challenger banks and fintech companies looking to set themselves apart from the traditional banks and grab more precious market share.
Where did this phenomenon come from?
Sarah Kocianski, head of research at UK financial services consultancy 11:FS told Techworld: "Firstly, as brands launch premium services, they want to ensure that customers feel they are getting a premium product end-to-end. In the US, metal cards are associated with prestige and luxury brands, so it's likely the idea originally came from there.
"Secondly, the first bank to do this in the UK was N26, which knew it was entering a crowded market and was looking for a way to differentiate itself. That leads to the third factor, that once one brand has done something, the others seem to feel obliged to follow. So if N26 has a metal card, then Monzo feels it needs one as well – with my understanding that Monzo's very vocal community explicitly asked for a metal card," she added.
Who has released a metal card?
The uber-popular UK challenger bank Monzo has long had a visually arresting card of its own, with its signature coral pink cards spotted tapping into Oyster card readers across London for years now. Taking this one step further, the challenger bank is planning to launch metal cards for its Plus customers later this year, but did not want to comment for this story.
Ben Smith, lead delivery manager at HM Passport Office and a self-identified 'fintech enthusiast' attended a Monzo event for Plus members earlier this year, where he got his hands on a prototype of the metal card.
"The card felt weighty and had a pleasantly tactile white matte finish with polished metal accents," he described to Techworld over email. "They felt premium and unusual in that they were the first metal cards I'd seen that didn't just have a polished metal finish."
Another popular UK fintech provider, Revolut, launched its own Metal card in August 2018. Marketed as "an exclusive, first-class experience that includes a contactless metal card, earning up to 1% cashback, a dedicated concierge service, and way more," for £12.99 a month, the card itself is 18g of reinforced steel.
The metal card came as a slight upgrade on Revolut's premium subscription service, which was launched all the way back in March 2017.
"Customers were obsessed with our premium cards," Chad West, director of marketing and communications at Revolut told Techworld. "Our customers love design and nice things so that is where the logic came from."
He said the idea for a metal Revolut card was "completely customer-led" and that the company "saw a great uptick" after launch.
Curve – which allows customers to combine multiple accounts into a single physical card – soon followed suit, launching a metal card in January this year.
Curve Metal is "an exquisitely crafted work of art from the physical product to its exclusive benefits and rewards," its website breathlessly asserts. It comes with similar perks to Revolut: 1% instant cashback, zero-fee currency exchange and lounge access. The card itself is available in blue steel (so hot right now), rose gold and red and the premium membership is £14.99 per month.
Jon Cumberlege, head of operations at Curve told Techworld that its CEO, Shachar Bialick, "had a vision for a metal card from day one". So, following some market research and "our own feeling" the fintech launched a subscription service complete with a metal card and a bunch of perks.
He added that "there seems to be a few trends in the payment cards market as they become more of a luxury item," and that metal cards are a natural result of that trend.
The German challenger bank N26 was also early to the metal card trend, launching its premium account in the UK in December 2018.
The contactless stainless steel Mastercard comes in three colours and ships with perks like free currency withdrawals abroad, travel insurance and lounge access for £14.90 a month.
In fact, the bundle of benefits offered by each of these providers closely reflect those of the card issuer Mastercard, through its World Elite programme.
Then there is Apple, which made waves when it announced its first physical credit card in March this year.
In typical Apple fashion the design was pushed to the forefront, with Jennifer Bailey, vice president of Apple Pay, announcing "the most beautifully designed card ever," at its launch event.
The laser-etched titanium card is backed by Goldman Sachs and linked to your Apple Pay account, which allows for purchases when that service isn't available. The card is minimal in design, with no card number, expiration date, or CVV code to muck it up.
Why all the fuss?
Metal cards certainly seem to be a male status symbol, as something James Bond, or at least someone who styles themselves on James Bond, would carry in his wallet.
Can someone please explain to me what is it about men and metal cards? Genuinely do not understand.— Nina Mohanty (@ninamohanty) August 3, 2019
"The cards themselves will definitely appeal to those groups for whom visible status symbols are important, although that will have to be balanced with the fact that these groups almost certainly are also heavy tech users who are moving towards cashless lives, and are more interested in paying via their phone or wearable device," Kocianski from 11:FS said.
Max Tatton-Brown, a former journalist and now managing director of Augur Communications, puts it more pointedly. "Metal cards are macho bullshit," he told Techworld. "As a marketer, I'd probably say that card design is something that has been used by banks to get people's attention and semi communicate a premium nature for years.
"Outside the anachronistic, backward card culture of North America, it flies in the face of a more enlightened direction for contactless payments through devices. I want to carry as few cards as possible," he added.
This macho characterisation is something Chad West at Revolut disputes however. "I don't think there is data to back up that male stereotype. We don't see it that way and I have plenty of female friends and colleagues that have metal cards," he said.
He added that the target demographic for the metal card is "people living an international life," and that the perks and price point reflect that.
Cumberlege at Curve also stated: "The challenge for every brand is to be gender neutral and that is our desire. The fact that it is metal shouldn't mean it is gender biased but perception is what matters. [Curve Metal] was certainly not designed to be targeted at men."
Kocianski from 11:FS added: "There are a combination of factors at play here which are driving this perception: the early adopters of most fintechs tended to skew heavily towards men, and I don't believe that has been corrected yet, which means men are much more likely to be users of the metal cards. Additionally men typically earn more, so they are more likely to be in a position to be able to afford a premium account.
"That said, I do think using technology or payment products as status symbols is more likely to be a male trait, and these companies know that at the moment they appeal to men more than women simply by looking at their current customers."
Metal credit cards didn't exist when Patrick Bateman was roaming around New York in the 80s, but if his obsession with business cards was anything to go by he would certainly have been interested in getting his hands on one.
Whether that is a good or bad thing for this new tranche of challenger banks and fintech companies is up for debate, but the trend shows little sign of slowing down, especially as it gives these firms a direct route into a subscription model that would help prop up their bottom line.
The real test will be if the established banks providers look to follow suit, and how exclusive a premium metal card can be in a world where every bank offers one.