It's hard to deny the appeal of a shiny, unnecessary layer of gold. It's a rare and impressive sight, but it also sends a message: I went out of my way to get this, and I want you to see it.
As capitalism is wont to do, it's taken the novelty of the headline-grabbing golden confection (take the record-breaking $25,000 dessert at Serendipity 3 in New York, for example, infused with 23-karat edible gold, served with a take-home gold spoon) and flooded the market with options that are less expensive but still flashy enough for Instagram.
Gold-smothered chicken wings will run you $45 for 10 at the Ainsworth, also in New York. There are golden burgers, gold-flaked sushi, and gold Kit-Kat bars. The trend isn't confined to food, with Rihanna's line of luminizers, Body Lava, taking over YouTube beauty guru accounts one limited drop at a time. Though the rub isn't made of actual gold, it does leave users visibly shimmering in the sun like a vampire from Twilight.
Maybe it was just a matter of time before someone swooped in to elevate the pedestrian, and rarely glamorous, habit of smoking weed.
"Being in the luxury space has always been interesting to us," says Dave Brown, the CEO of Shine, a company that sells gold-plated rolling papers and blunts, among other things.
- A page on Shine’s website titled “baddies” features attractive young women enjoying their gold-plated paraphernalia
The College of Charleston graduate wears a navy blue T-shirt and sneakers as he recounts his company's origin story from their Mt. Pleasant headquarters, housed in a coworking space above a furniture store.
"We weren't looking at this product as a trend," Brown says. "It was really more coincidental, because the whole idea just started from wanting to sell an expensive cigar to guys that were spending a lot of money in casinos."
He soon discovered that whales, as these big spenders are called, weren't reckless enough to pay $1,000 for a golden cigar (casino mark-up included), so Shine went back to the drawing board in 2013. Brown made the first few rolling paper prototypes himself, gifting them to an employee whom he knew would use them.
"He sent me a picture a couple hours later like, 'It works, and this is really cool,'" Brown recalls.
Within a few months, the fledgling company started building social media profiles for their new idea. Using an X-Acto knife, they carved out packaging templates to use in promotional pictures. (One of their first shoots was with the DJ troupe Club Bullies, owing to Brown's friendship with member DJ NattyHeavy.)
The move to rolling papers was, in hindsight, a much better idea to begin with. Cigars are a niche market, after all, and the clientele is much older. Weed is young, ubiquitous, not explicitly linked to cancer, and, increasingly, legal.
"It's very visual, so it's perfectly built for Instagram," Brown says of his signature product.
But online exposure is still hard to come by. As a tobacco and paraphernalia product, Shine can't sponsor content on Facebook and Instagram. That leaves it with press from interested media outlets, a nationwide promotional "street team," and influencers, who the company promotes in a section of its website titled "baddies" that features attractive young women suggestively smoking golden doobies.
One of their biggest initial challenges was convincing customers that smoking the 24-karat rolling papers is not bad for them. Brown maintains that common lighters are not hot enough to incinerate the gold, which winds up falling off the joint while a base of hemp paper does the actual burning. (As proof of just how innovative Shine's concept is, the Centers for Disease Control could not find anyone to speak on the health effects of inhaling burning gold. Responding to a request for comment from the City Paper, a spokesman for the Medical University of South Carolina said, "I'm sorry, but we don't have anyone that's heard of this and cannot respond.")
That unanswered question is the least of the company's concerns. Their reach continues to grow, a noteworthy feat to anyone who has stepped foot in a smoke shop and seen just how many products are available to enhance the simple activity of inhaling a burning substance.
Brown is not even a big smoker, which is key to Shine's success, he says. The company has 12 full-time employees, an exclusive line of cannabis sold in California, and plans for a line of gold-flaked vodka.
"There's not a right way or a wrong way, but being an outsider and not being completely driven by my personal passion allowed me to curate the market with detachment," he says.
Most of the product is sold to distributors, who disseminate the golden joints, checkerboard blunts, and cones (pre-rolled joints that need only be filled and twisted), across the country. The rolling papers are manufactured in Italy and "some countries in the Far East," Brown says, and day-to-day operations in Mt. Pleasant are kept on the down-low.
"We want to avoid people coming up here and being like, "Can I just get one cone? One paper? It's my birthday," he jokes. "It really isn't a big issue. It might have happened twice in three years."