Blonde harvest that flows from the East

THE road into town is a potholed track, passing villages of log cabins and fallow fields indicative of the poverty that has gripped this part of central Russia for as long as anyone can remember.

But, on a lane where geese waddle through dirty puddles, a brick building holds crate upon crate of this region's single precious harvest - human hair, much of it blonde. For the global beauty industry, this is golden treasure.

"Nobody else has this, nobody in the world," said Aleksei Kuznetsov, the building's owner. "Russian hair is the best in the world."

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Buyers of human hair, most of them small-scale Russian and Ukrainian journeymen who sell to hair processors like Kuznetsov, flock to poor regions such as this. Cash in hand, they pay small sums for a head's worth of tresses shorn from women who often have few economic alternatives.

Long sought after for wigs, human hair is now in high demand for use as extension in affluent countries. Dark hair from India and China is more plentiful, but blonde and other light shades are valued for their relative scarcity and because they are easier to dye to match any hair colour.

The largest market is the United States, where tens of thousands of beauty salons offer hair extensions. African-American women have long worn hair extensions, but the trend has been further popularised by celebrities such as Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton.

Great Lengths, an Italian company and major supplier to the US, estimates the retail market for hair extensions at $250 million (160m) a year, or about 3 per cent of the hair-care products market.

The average price for extensions is $439 (280), according to a survey by American Salon Magazine, although the procedure can cost several thousand dollars at top hairdressers.

The extension business is also growing in Europe.

An estimated 20 per cent of Russian hair is used domestically, by the well coifed of Moscow and St Petersburg.

The market for the blonde harvest has spread over the decades, from Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s to Poland in the 1980s and to Ukraine and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But as more of the world's light-haired women have prospered, the search for poor blondes willing to part with their locks has become ever more difficult.

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David Elman, a co-owner of Raw Virgin Hair Company, an importer based in Kiev, said: "Usually, only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair."

In Mosalsk, a 16in braid, the shortest a buyer will consider, fetches about $50 (32).

Natalya Vinokurova, 26, grew up nearby in Yukhnov, in Russia's Kaluga region, where half the homes lack running water and the average monthly wage is about $300 (190). What little cash-crop agriculture there was died with the Soviet Union.

But Vinokurova cultivated something with market value: strawberry blonde hair that hung to her waist.

"I wore it in a braid, a ponytail, different ways," she said. "But I got sick of it, and all the other girls have short hair, so I cut it, and then sold it," she said. She now wears a bob and has no current plans to grow it to a marketable length, which she said would take years.

Kuznetsov's firm, Belli Capelli, which sells extension kits, is the largest business of its type in Russia, with annual revenue of about $16m (10m).

A few dozen employees wash, dye and comb hair, then sort it by shade and length. The best hair, he said, is honey blonde, changes colour in the light and is soft to the touch.

"This is capitalism," he said. "The people with money want to distinguish themselves from the people with no money. Why does one woman sell her hair to another?

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"The one with money wants to look better than the one without money."

US customers are typically unconcerned about the origins of extensions, said Ron Landzatt, founder of Hair Extensions Guide, a Californian trade group. "They are concerned about their looks more than anything else," he said.

Obtaining adequate supplies is the industry's biggest challenge. Russian factory towns in the Urals, about 900 miles east of Mosalsk, became such contested territory among buyers that in 2006 one was shot in a dispute with another.

Although Kuznetsov claims no local rivals, he keeps a security guard posted at his storeroom. The milk crates, filled with the hair of thousands of women and sorted by categories including "Southern Russian" and "Russian Gold," might be a target for thieves.

Most hair comes from buyers who roam the rougher parts of Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet states, posting fliers on telegraph poles offering cash for hair. In Belarus, nationalist president Aleksandr Lukashenko has almost closed down the trade by applying strict controls, even though the country is poor and has plenty of blondes.

About 70 per cent of the hair from Russia comes from previous haircuts at home. Some traditionally cut their hair after the birth of their first child, only selling it when needs must.

The rest is bought, often after haggling, from the seller, who gets a salon haircut on the spot. "Some women cut their hair to change their style, others need the money," said Sergei Kotlubi, a buyer in Siberia. "It's like fishing. You never know what you will catch."