American Express executives discussed the possibility of launching a travel charge card as early as 1946, but it was not until Diners Club launched their card in March 1950 that American Express began to consider seriously the possibility. At the end of 1957, American Express CEO Ralph Reed decided to get into the card business, and by the launch date of October 1, 1958 public interest had become so significant that they issued 250,000 cards prior to the official launch date. The card was launched with an annual fee of , higher than Diners Club, to be seen as a premium product. The first cards were paper, with the account number and cardmember's name typed. It was not until 1959 that American Express began issuing embossed ISO 7810 plastic cards, an industry first. [I:3:T]
In 1966, American Express introduced the Gold Card and in 1984 the Platinum Card, clearly defining different market segments within its own business, a practice that has proliferated across a broad array of industries. The Platinum Card was billed as super-exclusive and had a 0 annual fee (it is currently 0). It was offered by invitation only to American Express customers with at least 2 years of tenure, significant spending, and excellent payment history.
In 1987, American Express introduced the Optima card, their first credit card product. Previously, all American Express cards had to be paid in full each month, but Optima allowed customers to carry a balance (the charge cards also now allow extended payment options on qualifying charges based on credit availability). Although Optima is no longer heavily promoted, Optima and Optima Platinum cards are still available on the American Express website. Today American Express offers a wide range of other credit card products including co-branded cards like the JetBlue Card and the Starwood Preferred Guest Card, as well as other credit cards promoting customer rewards like the Blue from American Express Card and the Blue Cash Rebate Card.
In 1994, the Optima True Grace card was introduced. The card was unique in that it offered a grace period on all purchases whether a balance was carried on the card or not (as opposed to traditional revolving credit cards which charge interest on new purchases if so much as was carried over.) The card was discontinued a few years later; however, the currently-available One from American Express card offers a similar feature called "Interest Protection."
In 1999, American Express introduced the Centurion Card which is often referred to as the "black card," catering to an even more affluent and elite customer segment. The card charged a ,000 annual fee at the time of its introduction (today, it is ,500 with an additional one-time initiation fee of 00) and offered (and continues to offer) a variety of exclusive benefits. There have always been rumors of a super-exclusive card that gives American Express' richest and most powerful customers special perks. It was this rumor that caused Amex to profit from the word-of-mouth and sparked the launch of Centurion.
The company made another addition to its products in 1999 by introducing Blue from American Express, which quickly became a popular card among young adults due to an appealing marketing campaign directed towards a youthful demographic. Based on a successful product for the European market, Blue had no annual fee, a rewards program, and a multi-functional onboard chip. A cashback version, "Blue Cash", quickly followed.
American Express also launched an exclusive agreement with Costco in 1999, replacing their earlier agreement with Discover Card. Under the agreement, American Express cards replaced Discover as the only credit/charge card accepted at the warehouse club in the US, and American Express became the first credit/charge card accepted at Costco's locations outside the US. To introduce Costco members to American Express, a co-branded cashback credit card was also introduced with no annual fee with a valid Costco membership. An added benefit of the agreement is that Costco membership fees can also be paid for with the card. At present, the consumer version of the card offers 3% back on gasoline & dining out, 2% on travel, and 1% on other charges. Business versions of the card offer similar benefits, with the gasoline benefit earning 5% back instead of 3%. The cash back rebate is issued annually as part of the February statement in the form of a rebate check which must be redeemed at a Costco location. The rebate check can be redeemed for cash, merchandise, or any combination thereof. The agreement was highly successful and was renewed in 2004 for an additional 10 years.
As of 2005, the US Centurion card has a 00 annual fee, while other American Express cards range between no annual fee (for Blue the Blue Sky Canadian Credit Card and many other consumer and business cards) and a 0 annual fee (for the Platinum Card.) Annual fees for the Green card start at , while Gold card annual fees start at 0.
In 2005, American Express introduced Clear, advertised as the first credit card with no fees of any kind. It also incorporates the ExpressPay technology premiered with the Blue card. Also in 2005, American Express introduced One, a credit card with a "Savings Accelerator Plan" that contributes 1% of eligible purchases into an FDIC-insured High-Yield Savings Account. Other cards introduced in 2005 included "The Knot" and "The Nest" Credit Cards from American Express, co-branded cards developed with the wedding planning website theknot.com. They have also introduced City Reward Cards that earn INSIDE Rewards points to eat, drink, and play at New York, Chicago and LA hot spots. American Express began phasing out the INSIDE cards in mid-2008, with no new applications being taken as of July 2008.
Also in 2005, American Express introduced ExpressPay, a MasterCard PayPass clone, based on a wireless RFID payment method, that requires a card to simply be waved in front of a special reader and not swiped. This technology replaced the smart chip on the Blue card. Many U.S. merchant and restaurant partners including 7-Eleven, CVS/pharmacy, McDonald's, Regal Entertainment Group, and Ritz Camera, now offer ExpressPay at most or all of their locations. The technology was tested on the ski bus from Salt Lake City to local resorts.
In 2006, the UK division of American Express licensed the Product Red brand and began to issue a Red Card. With each card member purchase the company contributes to good causes through The Global Fund to help African women and children suffering from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
In 2007, American Express again raised the annual fee for their American Platinum charge cards, moving the Personal cards fee to 0 and the Business division to 5. With the increase, customers now receive four complimentary companion coach tickets per calendar year. Additionally, a long-rumored "relationship" fee of ,000 to establish a Centurion card was added. The annual fee of ,500 remains the same, however. In late 2007, they announced their new Plum Card as the latest addition to their card line for small business owners. The card provides a 2% early pay discount or up to two months to defer payment on purchases. However, the 2% discount is only available for billing periods where the cardmember spends at least ,000. The first 10,000 cards began to be issued to members on December 16, 2007.
In late 2008, American Express announced they were discontinuing their "domestic companion airfare" program, which previously offered four complimentary companion coach tickets per year.
Some versions of the card include various features such as damage waiver on cars rented with the card, and accident insurance during travel bought with the card.[I:3:T]