A small industrial company in the Chicago burbs had to hire 15 temps after its sales jumped 700% in a month—all because of crypto investors’ love for tungsten

December 2, 2021, 7:55 PM UTC

Sean Murray remembers the day when the craze went from intense to insane.

It was late October, and the team at Midwest Tungsten Service (MTS) was celebrating over lunch. Over the prior few weeks, the southwest suburban Chicago industrial company had seen a spike in sales that was unlike any other it had seen before.

MTS sells tungsten, a staggeringly dense metal, mostly for industrial uses, to clients ranging from NASA to NASCAR. But it has a sideline business making small tungsten cubes as toys, gifts, and memorabilia. And those cubes had suddenly been swept up in the global cryptocurrency mania—with zealous techies scooping them up as symbols of their weighty passions for all things blockchain.

As Murray and his colleagues ate in their warehouse-like offices in Willowbrook, Ill., Murray, who is officially director of e-commerce for MTS but perhaps can be better called the company’s crypto connoisseur, was trying to explain non-fungible tokens, the digital collectibles that have captivated the art and crypto worlds in 2021, to his coworkers. An auction had been set that day for 500 tungsten-cube NFTs that had been created by a group of crypto advocates. MTS had agreed to back each of the 500 digital collectibles with a real-life tungsten cube.

When Murray checked his phone for an update on the auction, he found astonishing news: All 500 cubes had sold out—in a single second. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Murray later told Fortune.

While the others wrapped up lunch and headed back to work, Murray set off on a new journey. If someone else can make a tungsten cube NFT backed by MTS’s cubes, he wondered, what’s stopping MTS from doing its own? The process of making NFTs was a mystery to Murray. So, like any respectable noob, he started simple with the help of a Google search, asking how to make a GIF, then an NFT. Before the night was over, MTS had an NFT of its very own: A looping video that zooms in and out, focusing on an animated tungsten cube. It wasn’t just any old cube, though: This GIF was meant to represent a monumental one, a cube weighing nearly a ton that MTS promised to create, if the NFT sold.

Granted, Murray had no idea if anyone would buy it. MTS set the NFT’s minimum bid on the auction site OpenSea at the Ether equivalent of about $200,000, which would cover the costs of building the cube. While a few people had reached out in private to talk about it, the NFT auction sat quietly on OpenSea, untouched, for days. Then, in the final hours of bidding on Nov. 1, an anonymous group of crypto and NFT fans calling itself the TungstenDAO made what would be the winning bid for the NFT, at 56.9 Ether, or roughly $247,000 at the time—marking a new zenith for the tungsten phenomenon in the process, and plunging MTS even deeper into crypto’s alternative reality.

Thor’s hammer

The word tungsten is Swedish for “heavy stone,” and if anything, that’s an understatement. The most important thing to understand about tungsten—the little-known metal behind the “W” symbol on the periodic table that probably decorated your high-school science classroom—is that it’s incredibly dense.

On a technical level, tungsten has a density of 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter—making it denser than lead, iron, and steel. The metal that shares the closest density to tungsten, in fact, is gold, which is far more rare. And that makes the experience of actually holding tungsten—or, dare we say, HODLing it—something to marvel at.

Take a tungsten cube that is 4 inches on a side, for example. Its weight is roughly 41.62 pounds, meaning that a cube about the size of your wallet weighs almost as much as one of the heaviest barbells at your gym. The nearly 2,000-pound cube MTS is making for the TungstenDAO? It’s going to be surprisingly small, with sides likely just a little bigger than the computer screen you’re reading this story on.

Holding a tungsten cube is, in effect, an experience that can bring about thoughts of Thor’s hammer, King Arthur’s sword in the stone, or even just pure confusion. People around the world have attached deep spiritual significance to the cubes, with many saying the collectibles remind them of the importance of staying grounded. And in the digital and decentralized world of cryptocurrencies, that idea has seemingly taken hold, too.

Crypto investors, executives, and journalists have been rushing online for weeks now to buy up the cubes, which on MTS’s website range in price from $29.99 for a tiny cube with 1 centimeter sides to $3,499.99 for a cube with 4-inch sides. Some say the cubes planted on their desks act as symbols of the physical world that lives beyond their phones and laptops, in the intangible realm where decentralized finance, the metaverse, and crypto markets reside. Others add that owning a cube helps keep them focused. No matter the rationale, crypto fans have elevated tungsten cubes to meme status in the space. 

“Ask a crypto trader what they do, and it’s like ‘I trade JPEGs back and forth.’ It’s incredibly abstract,” says Castle Island Ventures founding partner Nic Carter, who says he has owned a tungsten cube for several years. “We crypto people, spend enormous amounts of money on total nonsense like digital images of apes, lions, or frogs—all kinds of crazy, lunatic stuff. It’s nice for once to actually get a physical product.”

“It also is useless,” he adds. “But it happens to be physical.”

5 metal cubes
Tungsten cubes, like the one on the far left, above, have become a source of unbridled interest within the cryptocurrency community in 2021.
Courtesy of Midwest Tungsten Service

A 700% spike

Founded in 1958, MTS’s business stretches well beyond the tungsten collectibles it sells online today. Its clients over the years have included SpaceX, NASA, and NASCAR, Murray says, as well as the parts of the federal government for which it works as a contractor.

Of course, none of those clients are buying tungsten cubes. MTS’s primary business revolves around making everything from welding electrodes, used to help join various metals together, to race-car balancing weights.

It wasn’t until 2015 that MTS began selling the cubes, after it saw others doing it online to much interest. Since then, MTS has frequently been on the receiving end of the passions of tungsten cube fans. Years ago, MTS President Joel Stava received a lengthy letter from a psychiatrist, talking about how they would have their patients hold the cube during sessions and how it helped the patients open up. And in 2019, an Amazon reviewer wrote on the MTS store page: “I, in my exalted wisdom and unbridled ambition, bought this cube to become fully accustomed to the intensity of its density, to make its weight bearable and in fact normal to me, so that all the world around me may fade into a fluffy arena of gravitational inconsequence. And it has worked, to profound success.”

Crypto enthusiasts’ fandom of the cubes, though, has been unlike anything else the company has seen. According to Sean Murray, it all started on Oct. 12. That was when prominent members of the crypto community, including Carter and Neeraj Agrawal of CoinCenter turned a joke on Twitter into a movement of sorts.

Soon, tungsten cubes were the subject of heavy press coverage, NFTs were being created, and Twitter could not stop talking about the newest crypto fascination. (Google Trends shows that the phrase “tungsten cube” saw a surge of interest around the middle of October before hitting a peak during the week of Oct. 24.) Even Square, the payments company run by Jack Dorsey, got in on the joke, tweeting Wednesday that its new name, Block, is a reference to tungsten cubes, among other things. “It’s a little bit funny that people are excited about a tungsten cube,” Murray says. “I think [crypto fans] like that it doesn’t make sense, because they’re used to people thinking that what they like doesn’t make sense.”

Business all the while swelled for Midwest Tungsten Service, which saw sales jump 700% between the middle of October and the middle of November. Murray declined to say how much MTS exactly earns in revenues. Cubes spiked as a portion of the company’s sales, too, going from 15% to 47%. Years of inventory that the company had stockpiled were gone in a matter of weeks, just ahead of what is usually the company’s busiest time of the year in the holidays. (Cubes have proven to be popular gifts in years past, according to MTS.) To handle the flood of orders, MTS brought in 15 temps on a weekend to help with packaging the cubes, turning the company’s lunchroom into a delivery-preparation station.

“I always felt like it was just a matter of time,” Stava says. “But I didn’t really expect this surge.”

While the crypto world has been a welcome new customer base for MTS, it has come with its surprises, too.

MTS is, after all, an industrial company. Its main offices are housed in a reddish-orange-brick building that bears no logo, which is a part of a much larger industrial park that is largely hidden from view thanks to a nearby Target and Denny’s. The company would like to keep it that way, as Murray admits that it is in no way meant to be a customer-facing business. Indeed, MTS has non-disclosure agreements in place with some of its customers and prefers to keep its work out of public view.

Still, at least two cube fanatics have tried to visit since tungsten mania hit. One dropped by on a Saturday in mid-October: The Twitter account that Murray oversees for MTS was tagged by someone who tweeted a photo of themselves standing outside the company’s building. Alas, the office was closed. Days later, during MTS’s weekly “Web Wednesday” meeting, Murray and the team were interrupted: Someone was at the front door asking to hold a cube. One of Murray’s colleagues took the uninvited guest outside to the parking lot to satisfy their cube craving. 

“We really don’t encourage people to come over,” Murray says. “We have free shipping. Just do the free shipping.”

The pilgrimage 

Even with roots as an industrial company, Midwest Tungsten Service has embraced crypto headfirst. Murray has been responding to all the tweets he can from the MTS account. The company is now accepting Bitcoin as a form of payment. And then, there was the one-ton NFT sale.

It wasn’t just an NFT, either. MTS also offered the buyer the rights to an annual pilgrimage to visit the real-life version of the hefty cube, which the company has begun building. MTS is still trying to figure out how and where it will actually display the cube for its visitors, but says it is willing to work with TungstenDAO to develop a plan of sorts.

That’s not to say Midwest Tungsten Service plans to become Midwest Tungsten Blockchain Service. But the company is expanding its suite of tungsten collectibles, having recently rolled out a tungsten pyramid. More designs may be on the way, too.

The original tungsten collectible isn’t going anywhere, though. People just seem to like the cube.

“Maybe there’s something poetic where everyone in crypto is just really dense,” an anonymous representative of TungstenDAO who goes by “12 year old with a credit card” told Fortune over the phone. “So, once we found something that matched our density, we found our home.”

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