#Powercolours: The history of glitter

#Powercolours: The history of glitter

Giovanni Blandino Published on 4/2/2024

Few things bring as much sparkle to everyday life as glitter. Glimmering and glamorous, it’s used everywhere these days – from pop art to interior design.

What lies behind our attraction to shimmering substances – which can be seen throughout history, from the opulent tombs of the ancient Egyptians to the inimitable outfits of Dua Lipa – we can’t tell you. But what we can do is share some fascinating facts and interesting anecdotes about glitter.

Did you know that modern glitter was accidentally created when a high-speed industrial machine jammed? Are you familiar with the complex materials science and physics that lie behind glitter’s beguiling effects? And what does the future hold for glitter now that some types have been banned by the European Union?

Welcome to the scintillating world of glitter!

What is glitter and why does it, erm, glitter?

Let’s clear one thing up straight away: although when applied digitally glitter might be considered a colour, actual glitter is a material. Or, to be more precise, it’s a mixture of different reflective materials.

Usually, glitter is made from pieces of plastic and aluminium of different shapes and sizes, including almost microscopic fragments of material: the smallest particles of glitter can measure just 0.05 millimetres.

Glitter comes in many varieties: from iridescent to metallic, holographic and ultraviolet. The high-tech substrates from which glitter is made have a specific purpose: to reflect light in the most unpredictable way possible so as to create the most striking sparkling effect.

Glitter as a colour

Although glitter is not a colour in the strictest sense of the term, it can in many ways be consider as such. Indeed, it conveys the very same emotions as the most eye-catching shades of colour.

Different finishes can make the most disparate colours sparkle and shine, and Pantone has even standardised metallic colours and inks – although there is not yet a Pantone code for glitter. But in the digital world, it’s much simpler to use glitter as a colour. For example, in graphic design software – both basic and advanced, free and paid – it’s possible to create glittery textures  for backgrounds and text quickly and easily.

The history of glitter: it all started with a (jammed) photo-cutting machine

While there are conflicting accounts of how exactly it came into being, beyond dispute is modern glitter’s incredible backstory and the man who invented it: Henry Ruschmann, a German immigrant to the United States, who was, amongst many things, a machinist and farmer.

Some sources tell of how Ruschmann arrived at the port of New York in 1926 and immediately found work as a machinist. But Ruschmann was a highly skilled toolmaker and inventor in his own right: in the thirties, he patented a high-speed machine for cutting photo films and paper.

However, every so often the machine would jam, spraying tiny fragments of shiny coloured paper all over the floor. One day, the machine operators had an idea: they took the glittery bits of paper home and used them for Christmas decorations. And so glitter was born!

Glitter was initially known as “sliver”

Keen to capitalise on the success of this funny new material, Henry Ruschmann set up the first-ever glitter factory, just after the war. It was located on his New Jersey farm, where a special machine produced about 40 kilograms of glitter a day, which helped to subsidise the costs of running the farm.

Fun fact: Ruschmann originally called his magicmaterialslivers.

Ruschmann’s farm would become the headquarters of the newly incorporated Meadowbrook Inventions – named after the farm – where over the decades new materials of ever smaller sizes and ever wider (and wackier) applications were developed. To this day, Meadowbrook Inventions remains one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of glitter.

Even ancient Egyptians used glitter

The use of sparkling and reflective materials dates back long before modern glitter: humans have always been drawn to shiny materials. Prehistoric peoples used mica powders – a mixture of highly glistening silicon rock – to embellish their cave paintings. The same material, say some scholars, was also used by the Mayans.

Even the ancient Egyptians couldn’t resist the lure of all that glitters: they would crush the shiniest beetles to create a substance similar to what we know as glitter today. In fact, some of the burial garments found in Tutankhamon’s tomb were decorated with sparkling fragments of material to emphasise the wealth of the deceased.

A glittering icon: from glam rock to LGBT protests

Few materials are as iconic in contemporary culture as glitter. And one image stands out above all else: the glittering lightning bolt painted on the face of David Bowie, which adorns the album cover for Aladdin Sane.

Arguably the moment glam rock was born: Marc Bolan and his glittery make-up on Top of the Pops. Image: groovyhistory.com

In fashion and pop culture, glitter – which today seems to have returned for good – has known a number of heydays. In the twenties, flappers wore dresses covered in shimmering sequins, which were a sort of precursor to glitter.

Then came the seventies and glam rock, whose penchant for all things shiny meant it was also known as glitter rock. It all began in 1971 when, Marc Bolan, the lead singer of British band T. Rex, appeared on the stage of Top of The Pops wearing something hitherto unseen: glittery make-up.

The artwork “Double Frog Afternoon” by Chris Martin, 2017 (Anton Kern Gallery). Image: artsy.net

From make-up to fashion, furnishings and art, today glitter is more ubiquitous than ever. Sara Shakeel is a London-based artist with Pakistani roots who is famous for her obsession with glitter, which she uses to create physical and digital collages. In her work, she sprinkles glitter on images of everything from the humdrum to the holy, from toilet rolls to Milan Cathedral. But Sara Shakeel is not the only artist experimenting with glitter. Others like Chris Martin and Alisa Sikelianos-Carter also frequently use it in their work.

Glitter is now so widespread that it’s also become a weapon of protest. Although treated as a fleeting fad, the 2010s saw a spate of glitter bombings, a form of direct action in which LGBT activists threw glitter over celebrities at public events.

British singer Dua Lipa and a selection of her glittery dresses. Image: pinterest.it

While glitter is making inroads into interior design, it’s in the pop world that it reigns supreme. Of the many stars with a passion for glitter, British singer Dua Lipa is arguably the best known for her sparkly outfits and make-up.

What does the future hold for glitter?

The fact that glitter is essentially a substance made of little pieces of plastic is problematic. In fact, microplastics  – defined as bits of plastic smaller than 5 mm – pose a threat to the environment because they easily find their way into ecosystems, where they can remain for centuries. That’s why in October 2023 the European Union introduced a so-called glitter ban: a prohibition on the sale of the most polluting types of glitter.

Fortunately for glitter fans, manufacturers have been quick to adapt: you can now buy different types environmentally friendly glitter, including biodegradable and even edible varieties. Glitter hasn’t lost its sparkle!

How will you use glitter for your next project?