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A Brief History of Starbucks' Limited-Edition Gift Cards

From solid gold to Swarovski crystal-encrusted.

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Since 2001, Starbucks has secretly or publicly distributed branded plastic or metal cards for its employees, for refunds, or for gift giving. The cards have come a long way in the past 14 years. While a Starbucks cup is an undeniable symbol of wealth and status — celebrities are often snapped by paparazzi clutching a venti latte in one hand and a $5,000 handbag in the other — for the truly well-to-do Starbucks addict, only a limited-run gift card will do. Though not quite as rare as the elusive McDonald's Gold Card, collecting Starbucks' limited-run gift cards has become something of a sport in the past few years.

Since 2012, Starbucks has released fancy stainless steel, gilded, or crystal-bedazzled gift cards at the beginning of the holiday season, often priced well into the hundreds of dollars. The newest edition is a just-released blue Swarovski-encrusted number that, shockingly enough, is still available for purchase the old-fashioned way, via Starbucks' website. If history is any indication, it will soon appear on eBay — priced well above its current retail rate.

How, exactly, does the coffee company get away with charging premium prices for gift cards themselves — a simple payment-delivery system that practically every other store gives away for free? It may have something to do with the fact that there's an enthusiastic market of collectors who consider gathering each and every Starbucks card a hobby. Are Starbucks cards the new baseball cards? Or are they status symbols in a market where even a humble cup of coffee can be elevated into a small luxury?

Here now, a timeline of the coffee giant's ridiculously opulent limited-edition gift card offerings: