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Human Hair Now More Valuable Than US Dollar

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According to the New York Times, thieves breaking into beauty parlors are more interested in making off with hair extensions than cash.

"One indication of how quickly the focus of some thieves has shifted to high-end hair is the experience of the Beauty One hair supply store in Chicago: two years ago, thieves went after the store’s cash, but last month, they bypassed the register altogether and took just the hair, which was valued at $90,000," reporter Timothy Williams writes.

No, it's not a sudden case of vanity running through the criminal underworld. It's just that, well, the "remy hair," or human hair that has been shaved from the heads of worshipers of the Hindu god Venkateswara as a sign of their devotion, kept on hand at salons, is worth far more than the dollars stored in the register.

Surveillance video of the theft was released a few weeks ago by ABC local affiliate WLS Chicago:

Jay Han, the owner of Beauty One, told WLS, "I think after they grabbed the hair, they tried to sell on the street."

The Times points out a spate of recent thefts across the country.

* $150,000 in human hair stolen in Houston

* $10,000 in human hair stolen in San Diego

* $85,000 in human hair stolen in Missouri City, TX.

* $10,000 in human hair stolen in Dearborn, MI

* $60,000 in human hair stolen in San Leandro, Calif

The remy hair that crooks -- and Tyra Banks, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga -- prefer takes quite the circuitous route on its long journey from its native head to its final resting place.

Scott Carney traveled to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, the "planet's top supplier of remy hair and point of origin for at least 30 percent of the Indian trade" last spring in a report on the "$900 million global trade in human hair -- not counting installation" for Mother Jones.

"Top salons prize it for the way it's collected, in a single cut, which preserves the orientation of the hair's shingle-like outer layer, and thus its strength, luster, and feel," he wrote. "That's what defines remy, and that's the reason it commands a premium price."

Carney explained the strange origins of Lil' Kim's next 'do, as he waited to have his own head shaved by the temple barber:

Name-dropped in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, Tirumala is holy ground for 50,000 pilgrims who arrive daily from across South Asia to seek favors from their god. In addition to monetary donations, about one in four offer their hair, which will then be offered to the gods of the marketplace, reaping a reported $10 million to $15 million each year. Including donations, the temple boasts that it takes in more money than the Vatican -- a dubious claim. In any case, temple leaders announced a plan last October to plate the walls of the sanctum sanctorum with gold. (Profits from the hair, according to the temple website, are used to support temple programs and feed the needy.)

Indian hair is sold to two distinct markets. The bulk of it, some 500 tons per year from short-haired men like me, is purchased by chemical companies that use it to make fertilizer or L-cysteine, an amino acid that gives hair its strength and is used in baked goods and other products. The more lucrative hair of female pilgrims—temple employees call it "black gold"—is tied in individual bundles and brought to the tonsuring center's top floor, where women in cheap flower-print saris labor over small heaps of the stuff, sorting it by length. An armed guard frisks all who exit. There's no way anyone is going to get past him with a single precious strand.

Human hair contains all sorts of secretions, including sweat and blood, plus food particles, lice, and the coconut oil many Indians use as a conditioner. Put 21 tons of the stuff in a room blooming with mildew and fungus and the stench is overpowering. One volunteer, her own long hair bound in a tight braid, appears to smile at me, but she's wearing a scrap of cloth over her nose and mouth, so she might be grimacing. It's difficult to imagine that bits of this foul-smelling heap may one day adorn the heads of American pop stars.

The hair collected then wends its way through a complex chain of sellers, buyers, auctioneers, and other middlemen until it ultimately ends up at an export house, like Raj Impex, which Carney describes as "one of India's largest hair-export houses."

The Raj Impex corporate website sheds a bit of light on the history of harvesting human hair:

The export of the long hair from India was very big business in the 1960's and the demand was so much so that the prices kept on climbing to a very high level since the quantity of supply was limited. In 1970 the Japanese found out the Synthetic Hair which was much cheaper and which can be manufactured to any length you desire. With the result the entire market for Natural Human Hair collapsed for the next 10 years.

In the Mid 80's people after using the Synthetic Hair for a long time came to realize that the Natural Human Hair even though expensive is far better in quality and in comfort for wigs and extensions etc. So the demand for natural hair started picking up.

A video describes the business of harvesting hair in near-excruciating detail, from the sorting process:

To washing:

To something that looks like row after row of women sitting on the floor doing something that could easily aggravate an allergy if they weren't wearing masks:

While spending thousands of dollars on hair extensions may strike some as fiscally unsound, Raj Impex's George Cherian told Carney that the remy industry keeps vast numbers of poor Indians afloat.

"This work supports tens of thousands of people across India in cottage sorting and collecting industries," he said. "The rule is simple: Remy hair goes to the US, the rest goes to Africa."

Of course, with human hair commanding such a premium, there have been accounts of hair being stolen right off peoples' heads by scissor-wielding bandits.

Then, there are those who have combined the best of both worlds, like Esther Armbrister of Miami.

The 20 year-old, who has seven prior arrests for prostitution, allegedly stole $1,600 from her "date's" shorts and hid the loot in her hair weave.

She stripped naked in an attempt to prove her innocence, but was arrested after police ran their fingers through Armbrister's hair -- which contained exactly $1,600 in $20 and $100 bills.
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