Thursday, 8 January 2015

08/01/15 - Glitter

There are some things in life that just exist. We don’t think about where they came from, what they’re made of, why they came to exist, or who’s making them. They’re just there. Telegraph poles. Paperclips. Carrier bags. These aren’t particularly thought-provoking items, they’re just things that are, always have been, end ever shall remain.
Glitter. That’s another one. You often happen across it in greeting cards, children’s paintings, or on the cheeks of half-cut party-goers, but what actually is glitter? Why is it even a thing?

Aha – as always, there’s a story behind it. The name itself comes from ‘glitra’, an Old Norse word, although the use of sparkly surfaces for decorative purposes long predates the Viking era. In fact, glittery finishes have been employed in art and cosmetics since prehistoric times. 30,000 years ago, cavemen were decorating their wall paintings with flakes of mica to make them catch the sun in intriguing ways, while there’s evidence to suggest that prehistoric humans were stirring crushed hematite into various pastes to make their skin sparkle.
Around 8,000 years ago, the people of the Americas were turning galena (the mineral form of lead (II) sulphide) into powder to mix with paint, which would make their beads and necklaces shimmer; a couple of thousand years later, the ancient Egyptians found that crushing up the shells of shiny beetles had much the same effect. Ancient Mayan temples have been found to be decorated with paint containing mica dust. It seems that glitter isn’t a modern phenomenon at all – people have been irritated by those little colourful flecks that just won’t wash off your fingers for thousands upon thousands of years.

Modern glitter, however, isn’t made of crushed rocks or beetles. After a spell of experimenting with smashed-up glass, mankind moved on to the modern miracle of plastics…
The father of modern glitter is an American cattle farmer named Henry Ruschmann. Henry was also a machinist, who spotted a hole in the shiny-things market in the wake of World War I when supplies of German glass glitter diminished rather drastically. Having filed a patent for a mechanism of cross-cutting plastic film into fine pieces, he cunningly built an empire on a form of colourful recycling, taking waste plastics and shredding them into tiny bits to be used for novelty purposes. His company, Meadowbrook Inventions Inc., was founded in New Jersey in 1934, and is still a steady manufacturer of glitter today.
The industry has naturally advanced from using whatever waste offcuts may be available. Given that the period 1989-2009 saw global sales of over 10,000,000lbs of glitter, the base materials are now custom-mixed to create all kinds of distinct shapes and colours. Flat multi-layer sheets of plastic are dyed in various shades, then sparkled up with any one of a number of spangly ingredients; titanium oxide, aluminium, iron oxide… these are then cross-cut into fine squares, rectangles, hexagons, circles, or whatever else the market demands. Individual glitter pieces can be anything from 0.25-0.0002 square inches - from quite small, to really quite small.

So it’s a frivolous thing, and not something that the world particularly needs. But it’s always been there, waiting to make things cheerfully sparkle, from fishing lures to nail polish and much more besides. And it’s made some people very rich. The next time you find yourself sprinkling a little sparkle onto some form of colourful handicraft, remind yourself that what you’re doing taps into a deep-seated psychological desire that the human race has been revelling in from the dawn of time – and since a humble cattle farmer worked out how to chop bits of plastic into uniform tiny pieces, you’re also contributing to a surprisingly significant chunk of the global economy. Not so frivolous after all, then.

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