American Express Co. is quietly courting the rich and famous in the United Kingdom with a charge card the company says gives the "ultimate in personal service."
Only a few thousand customers have accepted the offer to plunk down an annual fee of 550 pounds -- the equivalent of $880 -- for the Centurion card. With it they can reserve private jets, get into booked restaurants and sold-out shows, and shop at exclusive stores after business hours.
The card carries a conventional magnetic stripe for data encoding, but in keeping with a national smart card movement in the United Kingdom it also has a microprocessor chip for holding additional information and service capabilities.
The Centurion card, which is black and carries the American Express logo image of an ancient Roman officer, is even more exclusive than the company's $300 Platinum card. Perhaps indicative of Centurion's cachet is the fact that no advertising or news releases have accompanied its introduction.
The card has been available in Britain since May, and fewer than 1% of American Express customers qualify for a solicitation, according to Douglas W. Smith, director of public affairs for Europe. Nevertheless, even non-Amex customers have been inquiring about it, he said.
"We are telling them to apply for an Amex card, start spending on it, and chances are you will qualify for the Centurion card," Mr. Smith said. Most Centurion cardmembers have annual incomes of at least $200,000, he said, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or pounds -- even millions -- annually on their cards, Mr. Smith said.
Plans call for Centurion to be introduced in the United States and around the world, Mr. Smith said. He offered no timetable.
The Centurion card comes with a card-reading device, which will prove handy as the smart card capabilities are activated, Mr. Smith said. For the moment, the compact reader serves as a tool to find out, for example, which nightclubs provide special access to Centurion members, and which airports offer special services.
The difference between the Platinum and Centurion cards are "personal things that are one step beyond simply getting reservations and tickets," Mr. Smith said.
Centurion cardholders, typically movie stars, celebrities, and wealthy executives, can turn to the card issuer for consulting services regarding their finances, and travel and entertainment plans. Amex will give advice on where to vacation, make arrangements for a trip, or handle the planning of a large party.
American Express' Platinum was heretofore the pinnacle of posh, and the most expensive in terms of annual fee at 225 pounds, or $300. The concept of a prestige card with extra amenities has been widely copied by banks, which have been marketing their versions of platinum cards for the past several years. With annual fees seldom attached to them, bank platinum cards are perceived more like gold cards used to be. American Express says no bank card measures up to its definition of Platinum -- a brand name it still lays claim to rather than just a color.
"I'm sure our competitors will be looking at the Centurion card," Mr. Smith said. "Part of the thinking behind the name is to remain unique."
MasterCard International and Visa U.S.A. have both introduced higher-end card products within the last two years: World MasterCard and Visa Signature. Visa International then approved Visa Infinite, for the wealthiest 1% to 5% of consumers.
James B. Shanahan, a partner at Business Dynamics Consulting Inc. in Newark, Del., said these have not been wildly successful. "Amex now has two card products (Centurion and Platinum) positioned above the highest-end products of the bank card world," he said.
Now that most bank card issuers have slashed interest rates and eliminated annual fees, American Express looks like it is bucking a trend.
"An industry can't sustain itself if all it does is reduce prices," Mr. Shanahan said. He praised Amex for "going the other way" and adding value to its products. "Amex understands value better than any other company," he said. "It still charges an annual fee, and it still has premium pricing for merchants."