To understand the history of makeup brushes, you must also understand the history of mirrors. For without a mirror, a makeup brush isn’t a very useful tool.
Unless you have someone else to put on your makeup, of course.
Until 1835, when a German chemist invented a method to mass produce mirrors by depositing a thin layer of metallic silver onto glass, mirrors were expensive luxuries – and makeup brushes were primarily tools of the wealthy.
The brushes were largely used by maidservants to apply makeup to women of a certain rank. No mirror needed. And while some of these women undoubtedly learned to apply some makeup by themselves, one still needed a looking glass in order to do so.
So for many centuries, makeup brushes, perhaps invented by the Egyptians, remained primarily in the realm of the well-to-do. This bronze makeup brush was found in a Saxon cemetery and thought to date back to 500 to 600 AD.
Given the close relationship between mirrors and brushes, it’s no surprise that the Germans who invented the technique for mass producing mirrors are also given credit for inventing the modern makeup brush. As affordable mirrors penetrated the global market, so, too, did makeup brushes.
The Japanese, who had been using animal-hair brushes since the B.C. days for their calligraphy, quickly transferred their skills to making cosmetic brushes.
To this day, Germany and Japan maintain a very small culture of excellent brush making, usually for the most discerning luxury customers, and it is considered a craft. But most brush making has moved to other areas of Asia, primarily Korea, Taiwan and China.
Shenzhen, just outside of Hong Kong, now has more than 200 factories that manufacture makeup brushes, according to Toney Makeup Brushes Co., a leading brush manufacturer.
Regardless of where the factory is based, the vast majority of makeup brushes remain hand made. Because of the variation in animal hair and constant change in brush styles, brush hairs are usually arranged, hand tied and trimmed by hand. So a great amount of labor goes into making makeup brushes, and low-cost countries remain attractive manufacturing locations.
Most makeup brush factories manufacture brushes on contract for cosmetics companies, for private-label brands or their own brands. Which is to say, few, if any, cosmetics companies make their own makeup brushes.
Wherever they are made, modern makeup brushes represent the democratization of beauty for all women.