The practice of heraldry arose in medieval Europe as a family insignia worn by combatants to identify themselves and distinguish themselves from their enemies. The term "coat of arms" comes from the original practice of knights wearing their family insignia on a garment over their armor in battle or in tournaments, although the design was later also displayed on banners and especially shields, which became the central element in what is commonly called a "family crest." The elements that make up the design on the shield are heavily symbolic, and combine to tell a story or represent the qualities of the family or individual that bears the insignia.

Colors and Other Tinctures

In heraldry, what we consider the colors in a coat of arms are called "tinctures" and are of three types: a set of literal colors, plus two metals and several stylized depictions of furs.There are guidelines that dictate the applying and arranging of these tinctures, but the basic rule is that a color cannot be laid against another color, or a metal against a metal. Some authorities say a fur can be laid against either a color or a metal. Others say that furs should be treated as metals.

The Metals

Gold, because of its natural association with wealth, represents generosity in heraldry. A metal that never tarnishes, it can also symbolize an elevation of mind. It is often depicted in heraldic art by the color yellow. Silver, meanwhile, conveys the meanings of peace and sincerity, and artists would often use white instead of actual silver, which tarnishes. Gold and silver, when used with certain emblems in heraldic designs, also served to distinguish social standings. For example, a gold spur represented knighthood, while a silver spur indicated a person of the rank of esquire.

The Furs

The two most common furs in heraldry are ermine, represented by elongated black spots on a white ground, and vair, an interlocking pattern of blue and white bell-shaped figures. They are not so strongly symbolic as the metals or colors, but came into heraldic design because they were actually worn by the feudal elites for whom the practice of heraldry was created. Rare and costly ermine shows up most frequently in the arms of royals and high nobles. Vair's alternating pattern represents a patchwork of the back and belly furs of a kind of squirrel, a common cloak lining in medieval times.

The Colors

There are five basic, classic colors in heraldic design. Black, when used in heraldry, signifies constancy, or less commonly, grief. Blue symbolizes loyalty and truth. Red expresses military bravery and magnanimity, and sometimes also martyrdom. Green represent hope and joy, and sometimes loyalty in love. Purple, being the color of royalty, signifies royal blood and sovereignty, as well as justice. Other colors are used less commonly. Tawney, which is either a tannish or orange shade, is said to represent worthy ambition. Sanguine, a dark, blood-red shade, can connote one who is deliberate in battle, yet victorious.

Combinations

Another word used to denote color in heraldry is "proper." It means that an element included in a coat of arms -- an animal or object, for example -- should be colored as it appears in actuality. In these cases the colors usually carry no symbolism, but they can -- a rose or a cross might be colored to reflect a certain meaning. When the various tinctures and other elements of a coat of arms come together, they express a specific message. A shield divided evenly between silver and red, to give a simple example, would represent one who is ready for either the benefits of peace or the necessity of war.