Egyptians used nail color to signify social order, with shades of red at the top. Queen Nefertiti, the wife of the king Akhenaton, colored her fingernails and toenails ruby red; Cleopatra favored crimson. Women of lower rank who colored their nails were permitted only pale colors.
The Chinese used a colored lacquer, made from gum arabic, egg whites, gelatin and beeswax. They used mashed rose, orchid and impatiens petals combined with alum. This mixture applied to nails for a few hours, leaves a color ranging from pink to red. In the Chou Dynasty of 600 BC, Chinese royalty used gold and silver to enhance their nails. A 15th century Ming manuscript cites red and black as the colors chosen by royalty for centuries previous.
The Incas decorated their fingernails with pictures of eagles. It is unclear how the practice of coloring nails progressed following these beginnings. Portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries include shiny nails.
By the turn of the 19th century, nails were tinted with scented red oils, and polished or buffed with a chamois cloth, rather than simply painted. English and US 19th century cookbooks had directions for making nail paints. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women pursued a polished, rather than painted, look by massaging tinted powders and creams into their nails, then buffing them shiny. One such polishing product sold around this time was Graf's Hyglo nail polish paste. Some women during this period painted their nails with clear, glossy varnish applied with a camel-hair brush. When automobile paint was created around 1920, it inspired the introduction of colored nail enamels.