You probably haven’t heard of the city of Tustin in California, but recently it has become something of a Mecca. Women from all over the world have been flying in to see a hair colorist there by the name of Jack Martin.

“I chose this spot because it is close to three different airports,” Martin tells me over Zoom. “My clients stay for one day. They fly in the night before they see me and leave the morning after. They come from Argentina, from Australia. From all over the States, of course. I booked a client yesterday from New Zealand. She is coming in April 2023.”

What is going on? Martin is the man behind the Instagram hashtag #silvertransformation. In the past five years the Syrian-born 53-year-old — whose “old-school” father threatened to “disown” him when he insisted on pursuing what he called a “no-man job” — has turned himself into the world’s most celebrated gray whisperer.

Whether you plan to go gray or not, and whatever your stage of life, the before and afters on his Instagram account @jackmartincolorist — which has 729,000 followers — are breathtaking. Martin’s clients do the opposite of fade to gray. After a whopping eight hours on average in his chair their hair shape-shifts from tired-looking blonde or dead-looking brunette into a silver that is nothing short of spectacular.

Colorist Jack Martin and Jane Fonda.

Give Martin one day of your time and anything between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the length of your hair, and he will transform it from whatever color you have been dyeing your barnet into the most glamorous iteration imaginable of the gray that lies beneath it. It’s a huge amount of money, certainly, though factor in the ongoing cost of a salon dye job and it starts to make more economic sense.

As someone who went gray the hard way, via each painfully slow inch of grow-out, I can’t help but feel envious of the women Martin gets his hands on, who include celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Andie MacDowell. “I did Jane Fonda for the Oscars in 2020. They asked her to present the final award of the night and she wanted to surprise everyone.” That she most definitely did.

They come from Argentina, from Australia. From all over the States, of course.

When I asked the experts ten years ago firstly whether I should go gray, and secondly whether I could do so tout d’un coup, the answers I received were “no” and “no”. What’s changed? Martin has applied his considerable product geekery (“I am obsessed with product”) and his at least as considerable artistry (he aims to mimic the patterning of a client’s natural grays at the root line in order “to avoid any demarcation”) to what is a recent cultural shift.

For many, though by no means all, gray hair has come to be seen as empowering rather than disempowering, so much so that some young women even want to fake it to make it decades before they have any grays of their own. It’s this re-codification that is part of the reason clients come to him. Also in play, he says, “is the fact that many women are fed up with putting toxic chemicals on their scalp. Or they just feel it’s a waste of time. They want to invest that time into something more useful, especially if they are retiring. They tell me they want to travel more, or volunteer, or spend more time in the garden.”

I have never regretted going gray. Oddly it’s turned out to be one of the most self-surfacing things I have ever done, in a world in which dyed hair is still the norm among older women. But I have regretted how I went about it, wishing I had chopped all my hair off. How much more appealing, though, to go the Jack Martin approach, and get it all over and done with without sacrificing your length.

And it only took nine hours.
From “black-box color” to gorgeous gray.

Admittedly, it’s not an entirely overnight process. There’s a six to eight-month wait from when a new client is signed up to when they show up in Tustin. They have to agree to stop dyeing their hair during this period, so that by the time Martin gets to work he has enough of their natural coloring to follow. “I have never come across the same gray pattern in any two people I have done.” The pre-makeover pause is also important, he says, when it comes to “preparing mentally for the change. I want them to see how beautiful their gray is.”

Martin likes “to under-promise and over-deliver. I don’t promise because hair is different from person to person. I tell them I will do what I can.” A lot of his clients are crying by the end, he says. In a good way, to be clear. “I have never had a client who was shocked in a bad sense. They are all pleasantly surprised. Most tell me they didn’t expect to look that good.”

Martin’s mission came about accidentally. “Five years ago I had a client who was going to retire and she had ‘black box color’ with two inches of solid white color.” Er, hang on a minute. Black box color? “That’s when you buy your own color from the supermarket and do it at home. It’s the worst chemical you can put on your hair. It’s so stubborn to remove because they put in so much ammonia to make sure it covers the gray.” Right.

“She told me that she had seen on my Instagram how I had transformed women from black to blonde, and she thought that I would be able to transform her from black to gray. I thought she was crazy. That what she was asking was impossible. That her hair would fall out.”

Eventually Martin agreed to give it a go, demanding that she sign a consent form to aver that she “wouldn’t kill me if it went wrong” and making it clear that the worst-case scenario would entail a pixie crop. “She said, ‘Just get me out of this, no matter what.’ ” And so — after she spent hours in his chair — he did. “I kept her length and it all ended up silver-white like her roots.”

She was delighted. As was Martin. “It gave me huge confidence. I had pulled off the hardest color on the color wheel. I felt I could do anything. So I started to advertise myself on Instagram. And suddenly I had all these people contacting me. Now I have done over 600 heads of silver.”

After a whopping eight hours on average in his chair their hair shape-shifts.

He has never damaged a client’s hair, he says, and most ends up in better condition than when he started. What’s more, follow his 14-step maintenance plan — which includes eschewing products that might stain the hair and being “careful with hot tools” — and a client shouldn’t need any more professional help managing her gray.

Fonda at the 92nd annual Academy Awards, where she debuted her gray hair.

So what does he actually do? “Hair color is graded from 1 to 10, with 1 the darkest and 10 the lightest. For a client with hair that is level 5 or darker I use a color extractor to bring it to 7 or 8.” That’s when he gets going with the bleach to move it on to the perfect 10. Then he can start in on shading and highlighting his way toward a silver that looks amazing in the moment but will also provide a road map as the client continues to grow her hair toward its natural state.

Like the good adoptive Californian that he is, Martin is big on what he calls “glamour”. For example, “if someone has a lot of salt and pepper, I don’t want it to look boring, so I will graduate it so that the ends are more silver.”

Martin’s aim is not only to keep waving his magic wand over his silver vixens in waiting but also to train more in the industry to pull off what he does. “Some colorists say, ‘It’s not going to work, it’s going to break your hair.’ But basically it’s just that they don’t know how to do it, because it has never been done before. So I post about my technique and what I do. And other colorists are loving the challenge. They are trying it and they are succeeding.”

What about those who say he is destroying his own trade? “We always have to bring in new clients anyway. People move on. And if you really tell a client, ‘You know what, you should not do it, it’s going to make you look old’ … firstly, you’re going to look bad, because you’re not supporting her. Then she’s going to go find another stylist. Secondly, if you go on the journey with her, if she trusts you, she is going to come back to you for trims, for treatments. Thirdly, she might recommend you to other people.”

Next year he plans to start touring and giving master classes. “There is enough business for everybody. I can’t do everyone.”

Anna Murphy is the fashion director for The Times of London and the author of How to Not Wear Black