TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)
Endless Thread revisits this episode from 2019 that solved one of the internet’s most compelling mysteries. Inspired by a 2018 New York Times feature about glitter, people obsessed over identifying the mysterious industry buying huge amounts of glitter – information which glitter-makers have refused to divulge. No one had been able to find any answers … until the ET team took the case and dropped a glitter bomb on the whole mystery.
Thanks to SneakyBunny84 for this week's artwork. It's called "Glitter." You can find more of their work on Reddit or Instagram. Also thanks to Dan Benton, Ed Jones, Vanessa Patrick and Jerry Mande for sharing their expertise and helping to shape this episode as we fell down the glitter rabbit hole.
We want to hear from you! Don't hesitate to reach out with reactions to episodes, ideas for future stories, feedback about the show, or just to say hi. There are a few ways to reach us:
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, you know why we’re here, right?
Amory Sivertson: Yes.
Ben: OK. But can we let Frank Ocean sing it for us?
(Frank Ocean sings "glitter")
Ben: Did you catch it? Did you catch the topic of today’s episode?
(Frank Ocean sings "glitter glitter")
Amory: Glitter! Glitter!
Ben: You also noticed that comedian Demetri Martin has something on this same topic…
Demetri Martin (from a standup set): The thing about glitter is if you get it on you, be prepared to have it on you forever. Because glitter doesn’t go away. Glitter is the herpes of craft supplies.
Amory: The herpes of craft supplies is the topic of an INSANELY POPULAR Reddit post from almost a year ago. And a mystery that popped up that hasn’t been solved.
Ben: I mean. It might be solved. Today.
Amory: Don’t get ahead of yourself, glitter boy.
Ben: I will accept this new moniker as a compliment. For today’s episode, I will only answer to Glitter Boy.
Amory: Hoooo boy.
Ben: Hooooo GLITTER boy.
Amory: Today’s episode….
Ben & Amory: THE GREAT GLITTER MYSTERY.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Ben: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
Ben: Okay, I wanna shoutout former Endless Thread Intern Noah Baustin who found this Reddit post and the resulting comment thread.
Amory: Which went deep on glitter.
Ben: Yes. And the person behind that post?
Zach Brooke: My name is Zach Brooke. I am an independent writer. I currently live in Toledo, Ohio. One of my favorite subreddits is the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit. I will say that, you know, the constant murders, disappearances get a little grisly and a little like demoralizing. So I am on the lookout for unusual mysteries, which I think this glitter one definitely fits in that mold.
Amory: Zach had found this article that a lot of people read in The New York Times Magazine that was all about glitter. What is it? How is it? Where is it?
Ben: The answer to the last question is apparently, everywhere, which we will talk more about. The answer of what is it, which we will also discuss further is, briefly, very thin plastic coated in very thin metal. But the biggest question that pops up: who buys it? This article was written by a reporter named Caity Weaver. And well done, Caity, because there's this one intriguing moment in her piece that launched this whole discussion on Reddit with thousands and thousands of comments.
Amory: Caity Weaver is describing getting a tour of a glitter making company in New Jersey called Glitterex, which people at the company were really hesitant to give in the first place. They don’t want to let her see the machines or even be on the manufacturing floor, let alone describe how the machines work. This is odd. But the real mystery moment comes when the company rep won’t tell Caity what industry is the biggest customer of Glitterex. This is how it plays out in the piece:
Ben: Can you tell me which industry serves as Glitterex’s biggest market?
Amory: No, I absolutely know that I can’t.
Ben: But you know what it is?
Amory: Oh, God, yes. And you would never guess it. Let’s just leave it at that.
Ben: Can you tell me why you can’t tell me?
Amory: Because they don’t want anyone to know that it’s glitter.
Ben: She never gets an answer. For some people, that mysterious "no comment" is whatever. But for us, it's CATNIP.
Zach: I was like, "Oh man it's something it's something unusual. It's something bizarre," you know. My first thought was that, yes this was something that if people found out it was glitter there'd be a little mini freak out and the industry would have to do damage control. I'm not calling glitter pink slime, but remember when pink slime happened? Something like that. People would freak out if they knew that something they thought was valuable or that they consume in their bodies was, in part, this metallic or plastic glitter.
Ben: Not gonna lie. Before this story, I never thought glitter was a thing worth thinking about.
Amory: And neither did Zach really.
Zach: I will always think of glitter as something that you use you know in daycare or early education when you're making like little homemade birthday cards for mom, you know.
Amory: But this New York Times story? It raised a lot of questions, especially who this mystery buyer was.
Ben: The comments on Zach’s Reddit post started rolling in with tons of theories. Makeup, for instance. Sure. Greeting cards. Sure. But we’re talking about an industry where the final product isn’t obviously made of glitter. An industry that, according to a company rep at Glitterex, doesn’t really want people to know they’re using glitter. So people on the thread really dig in.
Amory: Maybe, it’s part of a cloaking paint for vehicles used in the US military. Or a food product. Or maybe someone was dumping it into beach sand to make their resort beach sparkle more. All of which were theories floated in the thread.
Ben: And that seems to be as far as anyone has gotten on this story. Theories. Which means... I see that ol’ Endless Thread bat signal in the sky!
Amory: Don’t worry guys, there’s a couple of dorks with a microphone, a recorder, and a knack for diving down rabbit holes and searching out dead ends, at your service. A couple of dorks with a lot of hope!
Ben: Hope and friends in low places. Like the muckraking business. So let’s call one of those muckrakers up.
David Boeri: Hello?
Amory: David Boeri! Good morning!
David: Amory. That's that's a voice that’s becoming very recognizable.
Ben: David Boeri is probably known best for spending many years as WBUR’s senior investigative reporter. He’s covered Whitey Bulger’s gangster reign of terror. The federal trial of the Boston Marathon bomber. But his muck rake was recently traded in for tree trimmers.
David: I have peaches, pears and apples. And I'm having record seasons in all of them.
Amory: He tries to get out, we pull him back in.
Ben: David, I know that you're a very, very serious investigative journalist. But we need you to help us investigate the origins and largest buyers of glitter. Do you think you’re up for it?
David: Polyethylene aluminum.
David: Yeah. Brings me back to my chemistry class and to disco balls in the 1970s.
Amory: Okay, so you're intimately acquainted with glitter it sounds like.
David: Yeah. The one thing I know is it's a very closed industry. So that's interesting!
Ben: Closed industry doesn’t sound good and it matches what we’ve learned about glitter so far. But our buddy David Boeri? He gives good pep talk.
David: If you're an investigative reporter or detective, you are driven by the certainty that almost all things are knowable. You know, one of the great answers to one of the questions I once asked was, "I don't know the answer to that question, but I think I know someone who does."
Ben: To find someone who does, David made a pretty pointed suggestion. Something we had already been talking about.
David: I'd start in the basic gumshoe arena. Tell me again where the factory is and where the headquarters are?
Ben: You're a man after my own heart. A man after my own heart.
Amory: This particular factory, Glitterex, is located in Cranford, New Jersey.
David: If you have a little time on your hands, I want you to figure out what the closest bars are. Because a lot of times employees go out to drink on their way home. When I started out and I wanted information, I started hanging out with cops, state cops and I found out what their watering holes were. And so I started hanging out in the watering holes. And that's how I got into the state police Bulger Task Force.
Amory: This is one of about a million ideas David had. All of them seemed like good, if dicey, ideas.
(montage of David's ideas below)
David: One is you gotta go into the court system and scour the system for cases involving that company or the president of that company… Where did he go to graduate school? What clubs does he belong to?... Think about this, if you work there and you’re in a company uniform, they have laundry services... But then there's the more subtle approach of stealing the garbage, of doing dumpster dives and then opening the bag when you get home to find out what you might see in there...
Ben: Again, all of these ideas are a little dicey. But going to the source of the mystery seemed like the fastest, most direct solution.
Ben: If we get into some kind of trouble, will you pick up the phone if we call?
David: Oh, yeah. And if you call from jail I can put you on to any number of criminal defense attorneys who are my friends.
David: But you know, if you turn over enough rocks, you will find the slugs, the worms and the glitter.
Amory: Meanwhile, we set out to turn over some rocks. In New Jersey. Some New Jersey rocks.
Ben (in car with Amory): God, this is suburbia. Jers suburbs.
Amory (in car): The Jersiest Suburbiest.
Ben (in car): What are we doing? Why am I listening to you? I have a G.P.S. telling me you want to go. Why am I listening to you? You're just like, yeah. It's that building. Go that way. What's happening?
Amory (in car): It looked like the building!
Ben: Glitterex is in this little office park in the middle of a high density but sleepy feeling suburb. And even with all of our prep from David Boeri, Amory and I kind of make a couple of rookie mistakes right off the bat.
Amory: We go there on a Monday. Maybe not the best day for catching people after work at the bar? Unless they really hate their jobs? But we also get there in the middle of a sunny afternoon, which is not a great time to be casing the joint or rifling through trash or whatever.
Ben: So we’re not playing it super cool, like muckraker reporters who are playing the long game. We’re just kind of bumbling in the front door.
(Ben and Amory in Glitterex parking lot)
Ben: Yeah, but we got to try.
Ben: That's what we're here for, right? We're here to be rejected. Are we are we to be rejected?
Amory: Or they will welcome us with open arms and tell us all their secrets. Should we just go in the front door?
Amory: We’re hoping to talk to the woman who was interviewed in that New York Times story or the owner of the company, a guy named Babu. Or his son, Jeet.
Ben: The woman on our list has left for the day. Strike one.
(Ben and Amory in Glitterex lobby)
Amory: Are Babu or Jeet still here?
Receptionist: Yeah. Where are you guys from?
Amory: So I sent an email but did not hear back. We're from a public radio station in Boston. We're hoping to talk to one of them.
Ben: We're doing a story about glitter.
Amory: We’re doing a story about the glitter industry.
Receptionist: Okay, hold on one moment.
Amory: In this front office by the way is a big glass case proudly displaying all of the products that Glitterex’s glitter is in. There’s a Star Wars toy, makeup, some other things. So, maybe the company’s biggest customer isn’t really such a big mystery after all. Somebody comes to the door of the waiting area.
Ben: Hey, how are you?
Jeet: I'm Jeet.
Amory: Hi, Jeet! I’m Amory.
Ben: Ben. Nice to meet you.
Jeet: I'm sorry, we're not interested in doing any interviews or anything like that.
Jeet: Thanks for stopping by. Sorry we didn’t get back to your email.
Amory: That's OK.
Ben: Jeet seems like a nice guy. And he is a Redditor.
Ben: So if you're a Reddit fan, you should listen to the show anyway.
Jeet: Yeah. I'll definitely check out the show.
Amory: Are you familiar with the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit?
Jeet: Yes. I've also read that thread on the Glitterex article.
Ben: Essentially, that's what we're doing. We're trying to answer this question for thousands and thousands of Redditors.
Jeet: I can't give you the answer to that.
Ben: Fair. Can you offer us any advice on how to solve the mystery without your help?
Jeet: Ah. No. (laughter)
Ben: We tried.
Amory: We really tried. Jeet wouldn’t budge. He politely sent us on our way.
Ben: It was a long drive back to Boston. The next day, we continued to search through the thread of comments on Reddit for clues. And we started calling people, trying to knock a few of the crazy theories out. Or maybe catch a lucky break.
Amory: And then, Ben caught a lucky break.
Ben's voicemail for Amory: Oh! I just talked to the guy who has the answers about glitter!
Ben: Here’s why I was so excited. While we were looking through theories and failing to get Glitterex to talk to us, I found another Reddit thread. An older one.
Amory: This was an Ask Me Anything thread. And it was titled, “I’m a glitter manufacturer. AMA!”
Ben: This is the guy behind that post.
Joe: So my name is Joe Coburn. I live in Queens, New York. Currently I own a casting company with my wife. But, previously, there was a family glitter business that my father started in Germany.
Ben: As it turns out, the Coburn family business has a pretty strange and winding story — a story that’s intertwined with the history of glitter and the history of secrecy surrounding the glitter industry.
Glitter was invented by a New Jersey cattle rancher in 1934. He was doing some machining work and found that grinding up trash made some particular kinds of trash sparkle. This guy was really secretive, which might be part of the reason that there are a really limited number of companies making glitter, even today.
Amory: Joe’s family is rooted in the Northeast with connections to The Garden State or, shall we say, the glitter state.
Joe: Obviously, New Jersey is where the hotbed of glitter is. If you didn’t know, now you know.
Amory: His grandfather and his father were both in the business of manufacturing various reflective materials — but not glitter. That is, not until his dad was sent to clean up a failed business they attempted to launch in Germany where he made a fateful discovery.
Joe: At this location were two old glitter machines.
Ben: This was around 1999. Joe’s dad didn’t know where these machines came from. But there they were in this part of Germany, which is, “out in the boondocks”. But, like, translated to German...
Ben: That’s easy to say.
Amory: Yeah, rolls right off the tongue.
Joe: Yeah. And it's kind of like West Virginia. We're talking about single lane road. In many cases, the villages that are nearby, there's more livestock than people.
Ben: Even though Joe’s dad was way out in Mohlsdorf-Teichwolframsdorf, as soon as he put out the word that he had some glitter making machines, people were knocking down his door.
Joe: My father quickly discovered that when he inquired about how much he could sell these machines for, people were offering large sums of money mainly to break the machine down and clone it.
Ben: How much money are we talking?
Joe: We're talking like 120,000 € to 140,000 €, somewhere in there was a price that he asked for and could get almost sight unseen.
Ben: Almost sight unseen. Joe’s dad let perspective buyers view the machines in an old barn, through a window. But he wouldn’t let them get close enough to understand how the machine worked. This is how secretive people are about glitter machines.
Amory: Joe’s dad sells one inscrutable glitter cutting machine for a hefty sum. He disassembles the other one to figure out how it works. And he builds a glitter company in Germany with a fleet of new machines.
Ben: Of the handful of companies making glitter, Joe describes his own family's business as the black sheep of the group. Because it’s a secretive industry and selling those secrets pisses people off. But Joe says it was worth it. Because, even though most people might not think a lot about glitter, it’s a widely used product. And even though the industry’s more competitive now, you can still make good money. You used to make bank!
Joe: My father compared the margins to cocaine! He just said that it's something that you're selling something by the gram for a lot of money. And the price has gone down with competition. Something that we sell now we were selling for three or four times the amount per kilogram. And customers are not buying one kilogram. Customers are buying tons of glitter over the course of years. So we’re talking about lots and lots of weight and lots and lots of money!
Amory: In 2011, Joe’s dad died. And he and his brother stepped up to run the company. Since then, Joe’s gone back to working in the entertainment industry. He says he just wasn’t into spending time in the boondocks of Germany. But he knows a lot about the business. And when we asked him about the Glitterex mystery, he had an answer.
Amory: How sure are you, would you say?
Joe: I'm like 99.9% sure.
Joe: I'm confident.
Amory: Confident Joe ... in a minute.
Ben: We’re talking to Joe Coburn, who used to work at his family’s glitter company. He understands the industry. Glitter is in his DNA. And he is very confident about which industry is Glitterex’s biggest client.
Joe: In my mind it's automotive paint.
Ben: Has your family's company ever sold the glitter to the automotive paint industry?
Ben: Oooh mysterious! It's a one-word answer, "yes." Okay. Alright.
Joe: This could be vehicle paint for planes or boats or whatever, but in my mind it has to be glitter that sits in a liquid medium [because it] requires a lot more glitter. These glitter particles are so thin and the desired effect is not to have particles spread out where you see just paint and then just glitter. The idea is that you see nothing but glitter. If there is space in between then the effect is not as brilliant. There's a reason that cars in the sun look really nice.
Ben: This we can work with.
Amory: Time to call some car paint companies!
John Thomas: We’re pretty big. We like to consider ourselves the best with color.
Ben: This is John Thomas (no relation to Rob Thomas).
John: And I manage an automotive OEM, which is original equipment manufacturing, color styling lab in Cleveland, Ohio for PPG industries.
Amory: Basically, all sorts of car companies, from Audi to Volkswagen, hire paint companies like PPG to make paint for their cars. It’s a long process. And John is responsible for choosing color options sometimes five or six years in advance of a new car coming out.
Ben: You're like an oracle!
Amory: You know what we want before we do!
John: Wow, I have never never been called an oracle or even like an oracle.
Ben: Are you gonna tell us that Blue Velvet is gonna be out but Ocean Spray is gonna be in in 2025, or something like that?
John: No because that might be revealing too much.
Ben: Ohhhh! A little SECRECY from the automotive paint industry. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction.
Amory: But John says they don’t use glitter in their paint, per se. They use something called “effect pigments.”
John: Yeah effect pigments, that is definitely what we're talking about here. In the industry, these are all effect pigments.
Ben: Effect pigments, glitter, turns out it’s mostly semantics. Effect pigments are basically highly engineered glitter in powder or flake form that add depth and complexity to whatever paint they’re in. John is pretty excited about a new pigment made from glass.
John: Super interesting, super clean. It's a great flake!
Ben: It’s a great flake!
John: It’s a great flake. Then there’s very very very expensive flakes. They’re engineered to duplicate how color comes off of butterfly wings or insects.
Ben: John, I think they should they should start a new Netflix show called The Great American Flaking Show.
John: Hey, I’m always willing to flake out.
Ben: The Great American Flake-Off.
Amory: John, I'm wondering though, the pigments and the other types of things that you're talking about, do you source those materials from a glitter company?
John: No, I don't believe that glitter would be a primary offering from those companies. I don’t know of us ever using Glitterex.
Amory: Foiled again. So we gotta tick through some other theories.
Ben: Lightning round on industries that use glitter but are not the top customer of Glitterex.
Ben: Makeup’s a no. Greeting cards, no.
Amory: Strip clubs (also mentioned by glitter conspiracy theorists)? There’s just not enough complicated societal sexual feelings in the world to make it rain for glitter!
Ben: Dumping glitter into resort beach sand to make your Instagram posts sparkle? Humanity is pretty good at dumping trash into the ocean in terrible ways, but we’re not doing this with glitter on purpose. A lot of it ends up in the ocean accidentally. Food stuff? Nope.
Amory: Currency? Eeeh. Passports? Nah. Pepper spray? To help identify people who’ve been pepper sprayed? We checked. Nope.
Ben: One of the more popular shadowy theories is that glitter is used by the military. As a cloaking agent or paint for vehicles.
Richard Aboulafia: Sounds a little odd to me.
Amory: The “me” in this case is Richard Aboulafia. Works in Washington at the Teal Group doing aviation technology analysis.
Richard: It's been over 30 years of that.
Ben: Richard says that glitter would reflect light, which is not a great way of cloaking yourself. It would attract attention not avoid it. And, in fact, he says this is why some planes have used reflective materials as decoys for evasive maneuvering. That stuff is called chaff and it’s reflective. But even chaff is not really glitter.
Ben: So you're not convinced that your daughter's packet of glitter is somehow involved in tens of millions of dollars of military equipment, maybe hundreds of millions?
Richard: Not so much because I think the last I bought my daughter some purple glitter — that's her favorite color — it cost a couple of bucks and the science of radar absorbing materials is extremely exacting! It's a strange world but it really flies in the face of everything I know about radar absorbing materials and the rather rigorous science that's gone into its development, its production, and its upkeep. It's a really closely held secret. On the other hand, who knows? There are stranger things out there, right?
Ben: Damnit Richard. But also, thank you, Richard.
Amory: And here is where we hit another dead end. It’s none of these wacky things. We think it’s paint but results from our paint experts are fundamentally inconclusive. We need another authority.
Ben: Joe Coburn, from the Coburn family glitter business — RJA Plastics — did say he would put us in touch with the current business owner, his younger brother, Alex. It was hard to get Alex on the line from ... ah …
Alex Coburn: Mohlsdorf-Teichwolframsdorf.
Ben: But we did.
Amory: And we asked him about his mysterious fleet of glitter making machines.
Alex: We currently have 22 machines.
Ben: Do you name any of them?
Alex: We do have one machine that has a name.
Alex: Yeah. And that's the “The Devil.” It's one of our oldest machines and it's been repurposed to cut one certain material that I can't say too much about. But it's the loudest machine and maybe the most complex machine we have.
Amory: So much mystery you're creating here, Alex!
Ben: So much mystery! The Devil cuts a material you can’t tell us about. Is it cutting souls?
Alex: No but it definitely hurts the souls of the operators. (laughter)
Amory: We asked Alex why he wouldn’t tell us what the devil machine cuts. He said it was a single customer product and he just couldn’t say. Another mystery. But back to out mystery: did Alex know anyone at Glitterex?
Alex: I don't know anyone personally at Glitterex. I feel that they may be the most secretive [glitter company], only because I rarely hear anything about them.
Ben: Even worse, Alex told us he was skeptical of the car paint theory. In part because the paint or pigment industry was getting better and better at making cheaper products. Glitter? Too expensive. And, in fact, he described glitter as an industry that was insular in part because it was in trouble. More and more competition from China and Taiwan, perhaps thanks to the machine that his dad sold decades ago.
Amory: Other than the growing competition, we asked Alex about his industry’s greatest challenge.
Alex: I think the biggest is that it's made of plastic. People are recognizing that the glitter falls onto the ground and could end up in an ocean. Glitter stays around.
Ben: Until, from various industry pressures, it doesn’t, which is why Alex’s family company is getting into biodegradable glitter — to get away from plastics.
Amory: It still struck us as weird that glitter as an industry is so secretive. Is that just how business works?
Ben: Maybe there was another clue in the economics of glitter.
Greg Stoller: My name is Greg Stoller. I'm a senior lecturer at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.
Ben: First question: what’s up with the secretive nature of the glitter industry?
Amory: Is there a term for a strategy like this?
Greg: It's called good business.
Ben: Greg also made a prediction: that it’s totally possible the answer to our fundamental question is boring. Dude, we are in way too deep for this kind of gut punch.
Greg: I don't want to cast aspersions at the glitter industry, but my guess is that it's not a state secret in terms of what they're doing. If they're repeatedly dodging a question, or if every company in the same industry is equally dodging the same question that brings, that raises my radar to say something is not right here.
Amory: Ho ho! Maybe Greg’s coming around to our conspiracy theorist point of view.
Ben: One of us! One of us!
Amory: We were really screwed. 100 experts had killed theories and given us 100 more. The one company [Glitterex], at least the one we knew had the answer, wouldn’t give it to us. And Glitterex’s biggest customer? Still a mystery.
Ben: Until our producer, Josh, got the goods.
Amory: I'm sitting across from Josh yesterday. He's on the phone with someone. I don't know who it is. All of a sudden, his fists go up in the air triumphantly. And he's like, “Yes!” And he's pointing to the phone like he's talking to someone on the phone who has really good news.
Josh Swartz: They had very good news, Ben. I have a few sources in the paint industry who have gotten as excited about answering this mystery as we have been. And so they've been kind of looking into it on our behalf. And so one of them said their company does buy glitter from Glitterex.
Ben: Ohhhhh. Okay.
Josh: But it's not high volume. They were like, there's no way we are their biggest client. But because they are a Glitterex client, this source had a colleague who went to Glitterex for a normal supplier meeting and they poked into it on our behalf.
Ben: Oh my God! We got someone on the inside! Josh, well done.
Josh: So my source says that their colleague did get confirmation from someone at Glitterex that the largest purchasers of Glitterex glitter are boat manufacturers.
Ben: Boat manufacturers. Of course!
Amory: Boaty McBoatface!
Ben: Boaty McBoatface! For the same reason, right? For glitter paint?
Josh: Glitter paint. You can imagine that fishing boats, jet skis, all that type of stuff, are very shiny.
Ben: Very shiny. Wait wait wait — this brings up questions.
Ben: Why does the boat industry care whether or not we know it's the boat industry?
Josh: I don't know for sure, but my guess is that it's less that the boat industry cares and it's more that Glitterex just doesn't want to go revealing their clientele to any old person on the street ... any old podcast on the street.
Josh: I think the next step is probably just to call up as many boat manufacturers as humanly possible.
Amory: Bring it on!
Ben: Alright, I love this. Let’s go find some boat, some boat people.
Amory: And we did! Or, rather, we tried.
Voicemail recording: This call may be recorded or monitored for quality assurance purposes.
Voicemail recording: Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice message system. At the tone, please record your message.
Voicemail recording: You have reached the voicemail of Nathan Long. I am unavailable to take your call. Please leave your name, your number, and a brief message. I will return your call as soon as possible. Thank you and make it a great day.
Ben: Eventually, we did find someone who picked up and would totally talk to us.
Brannon Pittman: My name is Brannon Pittman. I'm a technical director, chemist, for a company called HK Research Corporation who makes polyester gel coats for the marine and fiberglass, cast polymer industries.
Ben: What is gel coat?
Brannon: Think of it like a paint almost. It was originally designed in the 50s to just protect the fiberglass from water and that sort of thing.
Ben: And is it both now, is it cosmetic and protective?
Ben: Have you ever touched gel coat?
Brannon: Touched it?
Brannon: Absolutely. Got some on my hands this morning.
Ben: What does it feel like?
Brannon: So in the liquid form it’s a viscous paint about the consistency of a ketchup, if you will. In the cured form, it's a hard shell-like covering on the outside of fiberglass. I mean, you can tap it and it's extremely hard.
Ben: What does it look like? Is it sparkly or...
Brannon: Anything that you want. We make solid colors and we also make clears that they can mix different things into to give different effects, whether it's glitter or an automotive metallic.
Amory: So boat manufacturers are buying this gel coat substance from Brannon’s company, HK Research, and mixing it with glitter they’ve bought directly from glitter companies.
Ben: And, folks, these boat companies are using a lot of glitter.
Brannon: I know how much boat manufacturers use, especially the bass boat manufacturers. And when I say I know how much they use, I don’t know the exact volumes, but I’ve been in their plants and I've seen the drums of material. And compared to other uses of glitter or greeting cards and Christmas ornaments and the cosmetic industry, the volume is way more that goes into a boat. So I used to work for a bass boat manufacturer back in the 90s and we bought it in 30-gallon drums, probably 10 of those drums a week.
Amory: Woahhh. Okay.
Ben: 10 30-gallon drums of glitter per week!
Ben: 300 gallons of glitter every week, or 15,600 gallons every year, is definitely buying in bulk. And that could just be for one boat company. Industry-wide, we’re talking glitter-palooza.
Amory: Even Brannon’s company buys glitter for some of its gel coat products.
Brannon: There's two main manufacturers of glitter in the United States. One is called Glitterex. The other one is Meadowbrook Inventions.
Brannon: Glitterex. And we buy from their distributors.
Amory: Okay. And who's the distributor?
Brannon: I believe their name is Polycryl. They’re outside of Memphis, Tennessee.
Ben: Brannon says almost all the customers he deals with buy glitter from Polycryl. And Polycryl gets its product from Gliterex.
Amory: Pewwww! You know what that is?
Ben: Glitter, glitter, glitter, glitter, glitter.
Amory: Yes! That’s a glitter bomb going off right now.
Ben: Yes! Yes!
Amory: Not beach sand, not military technology, not strip clubs — you know, I was really hoping it was going to be something else.
Ben: Like something more crazy? Me too. I was hoping it was going to be in our food, maybe.
Amory: Ugh, why?
Ben: I don't know. It's just funny? But instead, it's something mundane. So Amory, what have we learned?
Amory: We’ve learned that, yet again, sometimes the journey is much more intriguing than the destination. I mean, boat paint?
Ben: Boat Paint.
Amory: Boat paint. Just trying it out. Getting used to it. Boat paint.
Ben: Boat paint.
Amory: Boat paint.
Ben: The more you say it the weirder it gets! It gets more satisfying of an answer the more you say it.
Amory: Boat paint.
Ben: Boat Paint.
Amory: Boat ... you're supposed to say paint.
Ben: Paint. But we did solve it right? You gotta admit. Our email to Jeet. It’s going to feel good. And after all our work, if he sits down atop a mountain of glitter with his dad, Babu, and they listen to the episode, I’d like to hope they wouldn’t even be mad at us.
Amory: Don’t hold your breath on that one. One thing I did learn, though: glitter is not good! Not good for anybody. You can’t spell glitter without litter.
Ben: So true, grandma. Can you pass the milk and cookies?
Amory: Sure thing.
Ben: By the way, we offered Glitterex the chance to confirm or deny our findings. They declined to comment.