Each December, surrounded by wonderlands of white paper snowflakes, bright red winterberries, and forests of green conifers reclaiming their ancestral territory from inside the nation’s living rooms and hotel lobbies, children and adults delight to see the true harbinger of the holidays: aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate.
Aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate settles over store windows like dazzling frost. It flashes like hot, molten gold across the nail plates of young women. It sparkles like pure precision-cut starlight on an ornament of a North American brown bear driving a car towing a camper van. Indeed, in Clement Clarke Moore’s seminal Christmas Eve poem, the eyes of Saint Nicholas himself are said to twinkle like aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate (I’m paraphrasing). In homes and malls and schools and synagogues and banks and hospitals and fire stations and hardware stores and breweries and car dealerships, and every kind of office — and outside those places, too — it shines. It glitters. It is glitter.
What is glitter? The simplest answer is one that will leave you slightly unsatisfied, but at least with your confidence in comprehending basic physical properties intact. Glitter is made from glitter. Big glitter begets smaller glitter; smaller glitter gets everywhere, all glitter is impossible to remove; now never ask this question again.
Ah, but if you, like an impertinent child seeking a logistical timetable of Santa Claus’ nocturnal intercontinental journey, demand a more detailed definition — a word of warning: The path to enlightenment is littered with trade secrets, vapors, aluminum ingots, C.I.A. levels of obfuscation, the invisible regions of the visible spectrum, a unit of measurement expressed as “10-6 m” and also New Jersey.
Humans, even humans who don’t like glitter, like glitter. We are drawn to shiny things in the same wild way our ancestors were overcome by a compulsion to forage for honey. A theory that has found favor among research psychologists (supported, in part, by a study that monitored babies’ enthusiasm for licking plates with glossy finishes) is that our attraction to sparkle is derived from an innate need to seek out fresh water.
CreditChris Maggio for The New York Times
Glitter as a touchable product — or more correctly, an assemblage of touchable products (“glitter” is a mass noun; specifically, it is a granular aggregate, like “rice”) — is an invention so recent it’s barely defined. The Oxford English Dictionary principally concerns itself with explaining glitter as an intangible type of sparkly light. Until the invention in the 20th century of the modern craft substance, one could either observe something’s glitter (the glitter of glass), or hold something that glittered (like, say, ground up glass). Tinsel, which has existed for centuries, does not become glitter when cut into small pieces. It becomes “bits of tinsel.” The tiny, shiny, decorative particles of glitter we are familiar with today are popularly believed to have originated on a farm in New Jersey in the 1930s, when a German immigrant invented a machine to cut scrap material into extremely small pieces. (Curiously, he did not begin filing patents for machines that cut foil into what he called “slivers” until 1961.) The specific events that led to the initial dispersal of glitter are nebulous; in true glitter fashion, all of a sudden, it was simply everywhere.
A December 1942 article in The Times — possibly the first mention in this newspaper of the stuff — advised New York City residents that pitchers of evergreen boughs, placed in their windows for the winter holidays, would offer “additional scintillation” if “sprinkled with dime-store ‘glitter’ or mica.” The pitchers were to replace Christmas candles, which the wartime Army had banned after sunset — along with neon signs in Times Square and the light from the Statue of Liberty’s torch — after determining that the nighttime glow threw offshore Allied vessels into silhouette, transforming them into floating U-boat targets.
Most of the glitter that adorns America’s name brand products is made in one of two places: The first is in New Jersey, but the second, however, is also in New Jersey. The first, the rumored farm site of glitter’s invention, refused to answer any of my questions. “We are a very private company,” a representative said via email. The second is Glitterex.
Glitterex was founded in 1963. Babu Shetty, 69, joined the company as president and C.E.O. in 1999, though he had been working to develop some of its glitter products since the 1970s, when he came to the U.S. from Mumbai to earn an advanced degree. His Ph.D. is in polymer science and engineering. He jokes that he fell into the plastic business because it was recommended to Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate.”
He also did not want me to visit his glitter factory. The jovial Mr. Shetty told me over the phone that people have no idea of the scientific knowledge required to produce glitter, that Glitterex’s glitter-making technology is some of the most advanced in the world, that people don’t believe how complicated it is, that he would not allow me to see glitter being made, that he would not allow me to hear glitter being made, that I could not even be in the same wing of the building as the room in which glitter was being made under any circumstance, that even Glitterex’s clients are not permitted to see their glitter being made, that he would not reveal the identities of Glitterex’s clients (which include some of the largest multinational corporations in the world; eventually, one did consent to be named: thank you, Revlon, Inc.), and that, fine, I was welcome to come down to Glitterex headquarters to learn more about what I could not learn about in person.
The glitter factory is located in a beige business park, a short walk from the office of a company that makes sidewalks for airports and a nut plant. Inside the Glitterex vestibule, a glass display case burst with glitter-suffused products that I agreed to not describe, even vaguely. Aside from the display, there were scant other hints of the building’s glorious purpose.
That is, until one entered the bottling warehouse itself, which looked like an industrial manufacturing plant colonized by pixies. The concrete floor was finely coated with what appeared to be crushed moonbeams. The forklift winked with shiny crimson flecks. The metal coils of the conveyor belt shone with a rainbow crust. And yet, the space gave the impression of being tidy and well-swept, not unlike a Dust Bowl kitchen if the prairie topsoil had been Technicolor. Near the entrance, metal shelves taller than a man were laden with over one thousand jumbo jars of glitter samples arranged by formulation, color, and size: emerald hearts, pewter diamonds, and what appeared to be samples of the night sky collected from over the Atlantic Ocean. There were neon sparkles so pink you have only seen them in dreams, and rainbow hues that were simultaneously lilac and mint and all the colors of a fire. On one shelf, hundreds of jars of iridescent white fairly glowed. The prettiest shade was slightly violet.
My guides through the glitter kingdom were Lauren Dyer, a Glitterex manager, and Jeet Shetty, who works alongside his father. The biggest seller, they told me, is always silver. They unscrewed several jars so I could compare different silvers side-by-side: sparkly silver and silver that flashed with the power of a thousand suns.
I met the elder Mr. Shetty in a conference room in the front of the office, where, beneath a glittering silhouette-style wall hanging of the pre-9/11 New York City skyline, he breezed through several advanced textbooks’ worth of chemical engineering in an attempt to tell me what glitter was.
“This polyester film” he began, picking up a strip of clear material, about five inches wide, “people might know as mylar. It’s the same polymer as used in a water bottle, so F.D.A.-approved. If you cut this you’d get a clear glitter.” The bulk of Glitterex glitter is made from plastic, though some varieties come from other sources, like aluminum. Clear glitter looks like tiny pieces of a dead jellyfish. “Then,” he said, “we go into the next iteration of a substrate, where the clear film is metalized.” He picked up a shining silver strip of material. “Potato chips bags start with the same polyester film; it’s metalized with aluminum.”
Metalization, he explained, is the process by which aluminum is deposited on both sides of the film. This made sense in theory, but how could aluminum could go from being not on the film to being on the film without at least some Scotch tape? “They evaporate aluminum and deposit it on it,” said Mr. Shetty. This made sense in theory, but how could aluminum be evaporated? “It’s a very, very thin layer. They put it in a vacuum chamber, then evaporate the aluminum,” said Mr. Shetty. “With heat,” his son added. “What are they evaporating out of it?” I asked. “Aluminum,” said Mr. Shetty.
I have no idea how humans figured out how to do that, or why it occurred to them to even try, but it sounds expensive.
The primary functions of glitter are, of course, aesthetic; glitter exists so that glitter can be put on things that do not have glitter on them: Popsicle sticks, stuffed animals’ irises; Newt Gingrich. In 2011, the then-presidential candidate was the first prominent target of a “glitter bomb” protest when a 24-year-old activist named Nick Espinosa doused him with rainbow sparkles at a book signing event. It was not Mr. Espinosa’s first time employing mass quantities to make a point; a year prior he had dumped 2,000 pennies in front of a Republican gubernatorial candidate to protest the lowering of Minnesota’s minimum wage. It may also not have been, strictly speaking, a true glitter-bombing — news outlets at the time ran a photo of Mr. Espinosa holding up a bag of shiny party confetti — but the concept stuck.
There are a couple ways to achieve a rainbow effect on individual glitter particles, so useful for politics. Holographic glitter is made by embossing a fine pattern onto film, so that the surface reflects different colors of light in different directions — there is nothing intrinsically rainbow-colored about the glitter itself. Contrast this with more subtle iridescent glitter, which reveals various luminous colors depending on the angle at which it is viewed, and is made from a multilayered clear film, composed of polymers with different refractive indexes.
How many layers is multi?
“Two hundred and thirty three,” said Mr. Shetty, and grinned as he waved an almost invisible sheet of plastic. “It gets very technical,” he warned. “You know, the visible spectrum, and all.”
I nodded, indicating I followed.
“Each layer is half the wavelength of light,” he said.
“WHAT?” I wailed.
If you want to make something a cool color, it is almost always imperative that the color you select is one that human brains can process. The colors of the visible spectrum, arranged in order from longest to shortest wavelength, are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. How do we perceive them? Something about cones in our eyeballs. What do the cones detect? Light waves in lengths between about 400 and 700 nanometers. How long is a nanometer? The width of a human hair is the size of about 80,000 to 100,000 of them. What is the perfect thing to say to shatter my fragile sanity? “Each layer is over 230 nanometers,” said Mr. Shetty.
Because red has the longest wavelength, the layers of red iridescent film are the thickest; violet iridescent layers are the thinnest. Mr. Shetty began tilting the clear film backward. “That’s the red,” he said, as it flashed red. He continued tilting. “At some point it’ll go to green,” he said, just as the film flashed green, then blue, then violet. He picked up another clear sheet and began to tilt it. This one skipped red and green, starting with a blue flash and then moving to violet, before appearing clear again. “What happens below violet is UV,” he said. “You don’t see it.”
“So an animal would see something there that I can’t see?” I asked.
“If it can see in the ultraviolet range, yes,” he said.
The difference in thickness of the iridescent film strips was imperceptible by touch.
There are other more obvious size differences, of course. Craft glitter is the thickest and least technologically advanced. (To remove it, Mr. Shetty recommends soap and water or fabric softener sheets, to combat the plastic’s static cling.) The finest cosmetic glitter is used in products designed for lips.
It’s impossible to recreate the light-catching effect of glitter without using tiny particles of something, which means that if an object looks glittery upon close inspection (a credit card design; an N.F.L. helmet; a jet ski paint job), there are good odds that it contains glitter. Researchers and zookeepers sometimes mix glitter with animal feed to track animals (polar bears; elephants; domestic cats) via sparkly feces. Plywood manufacturers insert hidden layers of colored glitter in their products to prevent counterfeiting. Because glitter is difficult to remove completely from an area into which it has been introduced, and because individual varieties can be distinguished under a microscope, it can serve as useful crime scene evidence; years ago the F.B.I. contacted Glitterex to catalog samples of its products. The average American, said Mr. Shetty, sees glitter every day. Most of it is hexagonal.
The tiniest glitter Glitterex makes is 50 by 75 microns (a micron is one thousandth of a millimeter). The minimum order size the company will fill is enough to supply sparkle to “half a million bottles” of nail polish by Mr. Shetty’s estimation (10 pounds). Prices vary depending on particle size, the formulations and combinations of polymers involved, but at the upper end — which is to say: the smaller end — a 10-pound plastic bag of glitter costs about $1,000. The company offers over 10,000 varieties.
This was all very forthright, but it did not explain the air of oppressive secrecy that seems to permeate the glitter industry. Did Glitterex worry I would describe its equipment so accurately that readers might construct their own machines to manufacture their own glitter in bulk quantities? Mr. Shetty said that, trade secrets aside, confidentiality is a top-down requirement from clients. Companies do not want others in their industry to know what glitters are in their products, to prevent competitors from making identical formulations.
When I asked Ms. Dyer if she could tell me which industry served as Glitterex’s biggest market, her answer was instant: “No, I absolutely know that I can’t.”
I was taken aback. “But you know what it is?”
“Oh, God, yes,” she said, and laughed. “And you would never guess it. Let’s just leave it at that.” I asked if she could tell me why she couldn’t tell me. “Because they don’t want anyone to know that it’s glitter.”
“If I looked at it, I wouldn’t know it was glitter?”
“No, not really.”
“Would I be able to see the glitter?”
“Oh, you’d be able to see something. But it’s — yeah, I can’t.”
I asked if she would tell me off the record. She would not. I asked if she would tell me off the record after this piece was published. She would not. I told her I couldn’t die without knowing. She guided me to the automotive grade pigments.
For people who love glitter, there is wonderful news: all the modern plastic glitter that has ever been created is still right here with us. According to Dr. Victoria Miller, a materials science and engineering professor at North Carolina State University, the plastic film from which most glitter is made takes about 1,000 years to completely biodegrade on Earth.
Because each particle is less than five millimeters long, plastic glitter falls under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s definition of microplastic — a category of material that has lately become a focus of environmental advocacy. (In 2015, for instance, President Obama signed an act banning plastic microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics.) While the research is conclusive that the world’s oceans are a cold stew of man-made microplastics, the effect of their presence is not fully understood. NOAA’s “Ocean Facts” webpage warns that these particles pose “a potential threat to aquatic life,” but states that “not a lot is known about microplastics and their impacts yet.” A more fundamental problem, said Dr. Miller, is that, like all plastics, “glitter is a petroleum product. It comes directly from fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are a very finite resource and we’re using them to make completely disposable things.” (There are natural sources of glittery effects, too, like mica, a substance used in many cosmetics. It is mainly harvested from India, frequently in illegal mines, by children.)
In short, Dr. Miller was adamant that glitter is “not good” for the environment, but she did not advocate a ban. “I think we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” she said.
So: what is glitter?
A manipulation of humans’ inherent desire for fresh water. An intangible light effect made physical. Mostly plastic, and often from New Jersey. Disposable by design but, it turns out, not literally disposable. A way to make long winter nights slightly brighter, despite the offshore presence of Germans. An object in which the inside of a potato chip bag meets the aurora borealis.
I asked Jeet and Babu to answer the question.
“I would say they’re small decorative particles,” said Jeet. “But that’s not really correct because there are other small decorative particles.”
His father’s answer was simpler: “Since we’re a glitter manufacturer, anything we do is now called ‘glitter.’”
So that’s what it is.
Note: The photographer used a lens filter to create a starburst effect on these images.