Image: Credit card © Burke, Triolo Productions, BrandX, Getty Images

What if what was in your wallet really did make you a better person -- or at least perceived as one?

The closest thing to such a notion may be the American Express Centurion Card, also known as the Black Card.

Released in 1999, AmEx has created an aura of mystery and power around this rectangle of sturdy titanium.

Although American Express is decidedly discreet about the details of membership, this is what we do know:

  • The Black Card has no credit limit.
  • Cards are issued by invitation only.
  • One of the criteria considered for an invitation is annual credit card charges. Those interviewed for this story say the threshold for invitation has been lowered from $1 million to $250,000 in recent years.

What is clear is that the one-time $5,000 initiation fee and annual $2,500 membership do come with unique perks, including airline and hotel upgrades, and a personalized concierge service that helps with travel and restaurant reservations as well as shopping procurement -- benefits many holders say are the Black Card's true value.

But this hard-to-get credit card, with its unusual color and hefty metal weight, does more than ensure access to airport lounges. As a symbol of wealth and power, it is known to provoke awe in those who covet it.

We interviewed some Black Card holders, as well as those who have been in the card's presence, about the privileges only membership can buy.

Want great service? Mention the card

Social-media entrepreneur and media consultant Peter Shankman says that while the concierge service has saved him in many personal and professional pickles, he flashed the titanium just once in an effort to get VIP service. It worked.

Shankman was in desperate need of a new suit and was browsing in an Armani store wearing his usual uniform of T-shirt and jeans. "No one paid me any attention. It was right out of 'Pretty Woman,'" Shankman says. "Finally, I said loudly: 'Never mind! I'll take my Black Card and go to Prada!' Within a minute, eight sales guys were there ready to help me."

Broke, but he won't give up his Black Card

Not all stories are so entertaining. Aylin Unal says a longtime friend finally qualified for a Black Card after coveting one for years. He has made a point of showing it off frequently.

"Even if he charges $3, he makes sure to put the card in front of everybody," Unal says. "He carries everything on a money clip, and the card is always on the outside."

In recent years, the friend has found himself in six figures of business and consumer debt and had his electricity turned off a few times for nonpayment, Unal says. Nonetheless, he has thwarted his accountant's and attorney's advice to declare bankruptcy, because doing so would mean he would lose the Centurion.

Unal asked her friend why he continues to pay the pricey annual fee when he does not take advantage of the card's travel perks. "He said it was worth it for him to get good treatment at the valet or a bar," she says. "It's really sad that at this point in his life he doesn't think better of himself."

Make the wait staff fawn over you

Other cardholders' friends get a kick out of the over-the-top service the card can prompt. Donna Wheeler has a friend who owns a Centurion, but only because the friend's husband works for American Express, not because she's a high roller. Wheeler says the power of the card is evident in restaurants, where the wait service may be mediocre until the card is handed over with the bill.