Europay International, MasterCard's European ally, is raising the ante on gold cards.

After 18 months of development work, Europay announced the launch this month of Signia, a card for the super rich.

The program is sure to be watched by the many MasterCard and Visa bankers who are rethinking their approach to the upper end of the consumer market. Their gold cards are so successful -- with more than 85 million of the two brands issued worldwide and 60 million in the United States -- that they have lost some of their original luster.

Of about 35 million gold MasterCards, 25 million are in the U.S. and 3.3 million in Europe. Visa International's gold total was 51.6 million at yearend 1993. In the United States, gold cards rose 34% in 1993 to 38.5 million.

Carl Pascarella, since becoming president of Visa U.S.A. last September, has said one of his priorities is to "refresh" the Visa Gold product.

Upscale but Accessible

A Europay spokesman said Signia will be offered to the most elite 1% of the consumer market, but because it carries the standard MasterCard symbol, it can be used at 12 million outlets and 171,000 cash machines around the world.

The first issuer is Coutts & Co., the private bank owned by National Westminster Bank, London, and known for its historical ties to the royal family. Banks in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland are expected to follow.

"Signia represents a considerable enhancement in the services our member banks can offer to their prestige-minded, international travelers," said Robin Wilding, the Europay official in charge of the new product. "We are proud to be able to offer the most comprehensive payment card available from Europay today."

Europay does not expect the exclusive Signia cards to have much impact on the number of cards in circulation, said Richard Tischler, spokesman for Europay which is based in Waterloo, Belgium.

Coutts & Co. will offer no more than 6,000 cards in the United Kingdom in the first year, said card executive John Dolton.

Significant Card Growth

Europay has plenty of growth to contend with in Europe's mass markets, some at relatively early stages of development. Credit cards grew by about two million, or 8%, last year, to 25 million. Debit cards including Eurocheque, edc/Maestro, and Cirrus were up by 12 milllion, or 21%, to 69 million.

Total Europay cards recently passed the 100 million mark.

Mr. Tischler called Signia a "super premium" product for which banks will select their best customers, rather than wait for applications to come in. In that sense, Signia more resembles American Express Co.'s high-end Platinum card, which makes up a tiny fraction of that company's 35-million-member card base, or its "cardmembers of distinction" customer-loyalty effort.

"Gold has become somewhat diluted," Mr. Tischler said. "Research by Europay and European banks showed the need for a product that hit the top niche."

Multifeatured Package

The Signia package includes high spending limits, emergency cash and card replacement, travel services and several types of insurance, and access to a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year telephone service.

Europ Assistance, which operates the multinational toll-free service, has a team at a center in Sussex, England, dedicated to Signia. They can draw on the resources of offices and agents in 210 countries to do anything from booking air travel to authorizing a cash advance or arranging for a replacement card, which is guaranteed within 24 hours in Europe and 48 hours elsewhere.

"Card members will have the reassurance of being able to receive help and advice at any time, day or night," said David Curtis Brignell, quality systems manager at Europ.

Coutts & Co. stressed Signia's "pan-European" nature and appeal to cross-border travelers. The annual fee is equivalent to $390, the monthly spending limit is about $47,000, and after 15 days, balances are paid by automatic debit from a bank account. Retail purchases accumulate credits in the Air Miles frequent flyer program.

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