Martens-Tomas began tinkering with adhesives like wood glue to find a formula that could withstand months of washing and drying and would not destroy hair cuticles. “Because of my math background, I knew a lot of chemists and asked their opinions,” she says. “Little by little I learned about chemistry and developed my own very gentle adhesive. And because of my modeling connections, I had a good source for hair.” Martens-Tomas adjusts her formula for each client, depending on whether the woman’s hair is oily or dry and how active she is. Those who hit the gym and the shower regularly, for example, will need a different bond from those who don’t.
Martens-Tomas is remarkably direct about her own experience as a follicularly challenged woman in a world that views lush hair as a symbol of youth and vitality. The divorcée claims that her extensions are a huge boon to her dating life. “Men don’t care that the hair is not all mine,” she says. “They come up to me all the time and say, ‘You have great hair.’ It’s a conversation starter.” Her clients, an assortment of professionals and social types of all ages, appreciate her candor. Close to half of them suffer from a medical or hormonal condition that causes hair loss, from thyroid problems to trichotillomania (an impulse control disorder that involves pulling out one’s own hair). Some need just a handful of microtresses to fill in a bald spot, and others want ounces of thick hair simply for kicks. And because Martens-Tomas works out of plastic surgery offices, she gets many doctor-referred clients, who want their hair to look as youthful as their freshly lifted faces.
In the lucrative business of hair extensions—the annual revenue of Great Lengths International, an extensions system and hair source used by many top salons, is nearly $1 billion—several factors determine the cost of the service. There are the skill of the technician (any connoisseur of paparazzi photos will tell you there’s little margin for error) and the method used to attach the clusters to the client’s natural hair. Sewing is popular at the low end, while ultrasound-administered keratin bonds are favored at the high end. Martens-Tomas describes her method as a thermal polyamide bond, and she incorporates plasticizers and other additives based on the needs of the client.
The last factor is the source of the hair. Plenty of supply is available from China, but the texture—extrathick, slick and glossy—makes it incompatible for most Western women who want a realistic look. Indian hair is the next most abundant source. Each day, for instance, thousands of women travel to the Sri Venkateswara temple in southern India to thank the Hindu god Vishnu for their blessings by offering their hair, and their vanity, as a sacrifice. Temple barbers shave the women’s heads and auction off the mounds of hair to brokers to fund the institution’s charitable programs (the women don’t receive any money for their donations). Italian and Spanish hair is, generally speaking, even finer in texture than Indian and in shorter supply, which makes it more expensive; northern European hair is the priciest. The biggest demand is for long, naturally auburn or honey-toned hair that has been untouched by chemicals. It’s usually gathered from women in Russia or Poland and sold to the most exclusive merchants, who in turn sell it to technicians like Martens-Tomas.