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The first rule of heraldic design is the rule of tincture: metal should not be put on metal, nor colour on colour (Humphrey Llwyd, 1568). This means that Or and argent (gold and silver, which are represented by yellow and white) may not be placed on each other; neither may any of the colours or paints (i.e. azure, gules, purpure, vert and sometimes sable) be placed on another colour. Heraldic furs (i.e. ermine, ermines, erminois, pean, vair, countervair, potent, counterpotent, and sometimes sable) as well as "proper"/"natural" (a charge colored as it normally is in nature) are exceptions to the rule of tincture.


The main duty of a heraldic device is to be easily recognisable. It has been deemed that certain tincture pairs are difficult to distinguish when placed atop or over each other. Specifically, a dark colour is very difficult to distinguish if it is placed on top of another dark colour, and likewise a light metal is very difficult to distinguish on top of the other light metal.

Though this is the practical genesis of the rule, the rule is technical and appearance is not used in determining whether arms conform to the rule. Another reason sometimes given to justify this rule is that it was difficult to paint with enamel (colour) over enamel, or with metal over metal.

The rule of tincture does not apply to furs (so furs are sometimes called "amphibious"), nor to charges coloured "proper" or "natural" (what is supposed to be natural, not heraldic, colouration). The blazoning of a charge "proper" can be used as a type of loophole when its natural colouration is or approaches another heraldic tincture and, if so blazoned, it would violate the rule of tincture. This has occasionally gone so far as to say, for example, a white horse proper -- a "white horse proper" could be placed on an Or field, but "a horse argent" could not, though the two may be identical in appearance. Furs and charges blazoned as proper can be placed on colour, metal, fur, or other charges blazoned as proper.

Simple divisions of the field are considered to be beside each other, not one on top of the other; so the rule of tincture does not apply. In practice, however, fields divided into multiple partitions (with extremely rare exceptions), such as checky or lozengy, use an alternating pattern of metal and colour for adjacent units.

The rule also does not apply to charges placed upon party-coloured (divided) or patterned fields; a field party or patterned of a colour and metal may have a charge of either colour, metal, or party or patterned, placed on it (and there is a small body of precedent that a field party of two colours or two metals may have a charge or charges of either colour, metal, or party or patterned on it; examples of this certainly exist. Likewise, a party-coloured (of colour and metal) charge may be placed on either a colour or metal background. Neither does the rule apply to the tongue, horns, claws, hoofs of beasts (for instance, a lion Or on an azure field could be langued [with his tongue] gules) when of a different tincture than the rest of the animal, or other parts of charges that are "attached" to them -- for instance, a ship sable on an Or field may have argent sails as the sails are considered to be attached on the ship rather than charged on the field.

One important distinction, according to Fox-Davies, is that the rule of tincture also does not apply to crests or supporters, except in such cases as the crest or supporter itself is treated as a field and charged with one or more objects. For instance, a gold collar about the neck of an argent supporter is common, but if eagle wings are used as a crest and charged with a trefoil (such as the coat of arms of Brandenburg), the trefoil must conform to the rule of tincture.

Another apparent violation that is not regarded as such is the "very uncommon" practice of a bordure of the same tincture of the field being blazoned as "embordured"; while well-known in former times this is unusual in the extreme today. How technical the rule is can be seen by the fact that if this were blazoned as Gules... a bordure of the field..., though of identical appearance, it would be considered a blatant violation.

The colours bleu celeste and the U.S. Institute of Heraldry-invented buff have sometimes been treated (with respect to the rule of tincture) as if they are metals, though such a treatment is certainly of debatable propriety.


"Argent a Cross potent between four plain Crosslets Or" violates the rule of tincture by featuring metal on metal
This rule is so closely followed that arms that violate it are called armes fausses (false arms) or armes à enquérir (arms of enquiry); any violation is presumed to be intentional, to the point that one is supposed to inquire how it came to pass.

One of the most famous armes à enquérir (often erroneously said to be the only example) was the arms chosen by Godfrey of Bouillon, and later used by his brother Baldwin of Boulogne when he was made King of Jerusalem, which had five gold crosses on a silver field (traditionally rendered "Argent a Cross potent between four plain Crosslets Or").

This use of metal on metal is seen on the arms of the King of Jerusalem, the Bishop's mitre in the arms of Andorra and the arms of the county of Nord-Trøndelagmarker in Norway (which is based on the arms of St. Olav as described in the sagas of Snorri). It indicates the exceptional holy and special status of this particular coat of arms.

An example of "colour on colour" is the arms of Albaniamarker, with its sable two-headed eagle on a gules field. This is illegal according to the rules of English and French heraldry. However, in German and Eastern European heraldry, sable is usually considered a fur and thus its placement on colour is not considered in violation of the rule.

On the rare occasions this rule has been violated, the offending charge has perhaps most often been a chief, which has led some commentators to question whether the rule should apply to a chief, or even whether a chief should be considered a charge at all, but rather a division of the field. (These violations usually occur in the case of landscape heraldry and augmentation, although French civic heraldry, with its frequent chiefs of France [with either three fleurs-de-lys Or on an azure field or azure, seme-de-lys Or], often violate this rule when the field is of a colour; the arms of Harvard Law Schoolmarker, with its gules chief on an azure field, is another example.) However, this is a radically minorial view.

In French heraldry the term cousu ("sewn") is sometimes in blazon used to get around what would otherwise be a violation of the rule; though this is used generally, occasionally a wrong distinction is drawn between the cousu of colour on colour and the soudé of metal-on-metal, though this has fallen from fashion to a large degree. In Italian heraldry terms such as per inchiesta are used in the blazons of the extremely rare violations of the rule, to acknowledge their exceptionality, or impropriety.[221984]

Marks of cadency (whether bordures, the marks of the English cadency system, or any other mark) (and presumably marks of distinction), can be exceptions to this rule. (An example would be the arms of Anjoumarker: Azure three fleurs-de-lys Or and a bordure gules. Also, in Great Britainmarker, cantons added to indicate baronetcy of Ulster (argent a hand couped gules) ignore this rule; otherwise they could be displayed by no one with a metal field. Augmentations and, in theory, abatements do not have to conform to the rule.

Another violation which is usually not worried about is a green mount on a blue field representing the sky, and any of several methods of depicting the sea, waves or the like are similarly treated. A green trimount also appears in the coat of arms of Hungarymarker (shown at right). In this case the field is gules (red), and by the rule of tincture should therefore have only light colored charges upon it. Instead, there is a trimount vert used in violation of the rule. However, it has been argued by some that the mount vert or trimount issues from the base of the shield rather than being a charge on it, causing the rule not to apply.

Fimbriation, the surrounding of a charge by a thin border, can obviate what would otherwise be a violation of the rule, as in the Union Jack (which, although a flag rather than a shield, was designed using heraldic principles). The "divise," a thin band running underneath the chief in French heraldry, can also obviate a violation, as can the parallel "fillet" in English heraldry.

Image:Albania state emblem.svg|
Emblem of Albania (colour on colour)
Image:Small Coat of Arms of Samogitia.svg|
The historical coat of arms of Samogitia (colour on colour)
Image:Coat of Arms of Hungary.svg|
Coat of arms of Hungary, with a green trimount on a red field
Image:Ze Žerotina.jpg|
Coat of Arms of House of Zierotin (colour on colour)

Modern design principle

The rule of tincture has had an influence reaching far beyond heraldry. It has been applied to the design of flags, so that the flag of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was modified to conform to the rule. Pragmatically, it is a useful rule of thumb for the design of logos, icons and other symbols. Hence almost all license plates and traffic signs, intentionally or unintentionally, follow it.


  1. Fox-Davies, p. 86.
  2. Fox-Davies, p. 87.
  3. Balfour Paul, p. xiv.
  4. Woodcock, p. 7.
  5. Boutell (p. 43), mistakenly, extends the rule to all bordures.


  • Balfour Paul, James. (1893). An Ordinary of Arms Contained in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. William Green and Sons.
  • Boutell, Charles and A. C. Fox-Davies. (2003). English Heraldry. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 076614917X.
  • Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles and Graham Johnston. (1978). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. New York: Bonanza Books. ISBN 0-517-26643-1.
  • Heim, Bruno Bernard. (1994). Or and Argent. Gerrards Cross, UK: Van Duren. ISBN 0-905715-24-1.
  • Llwyd of Denbigh, Humphrey. (c1568). Dosbarth Arfau.
  • Neubecker, Ottfried. (1997). Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning. London: Tiger Books International. ISBN 1-85501-908-6.
  • Spener, Philip Jacob. (1690). Insignium Theoria. Frankfurt. Library of Congress record.
  • Woodcock, Thomas and John Martin Robinson. (1988). The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford: University Press. ISBN 0192116584.

See also

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