Madonna often sported it on stage in the 1980s. The late Pope John Paul II wore it when his gold and silver-embroidered robes became too hot and heavy. Fencers' protective clothing can include it. And during the first Gulf War it was used in material draped over tanks to confuse the opposing army's radar.

What is it? The gold and silver metallised yarn which goes by the brand name Lurex.

The managing director of The Lurex Company, Hugo Wolfram, 81, talked to me about the history and evolution of this ever-popular product from his home in North Oxford, where he has lived for 30 years.

He said: "Gold and silver have always been signs of power. The original metallic threads were made from real gold and silver, and came down the Silk Route from China with Marco Polo. They hammered them into a flat film, then slit it."

Centuries later this ancient craft was the inspiration for a complex industrial process, invented after the Second World War in the USA, which produced yarn remarkably similar to real gold and silver.

Lurex is actually made from polyester film, coated in a tiny amount of aluminium in a vacuum. This evaporates, leaving a silver material which can be coloured gold or other shades, slit into fine strands, and wound on to bobbins or cones. These are sold on to the textile trade to be made into woven, knitted, and embroidered materials.

Lurex comes in two standard widths - 1/69th and 1/100th of an inch - and is generally 12 microns thick.

A new six micron thickness has been invented specifically to be comfortable worn next to the skin: "We've moved away from the idea that it's a brash yarn" said Mr Wolfram.

This kind of innovation and adaptability to changing fashion has been one major factor in the company's longevity and success. The other is the yarn's wide range of applications, including outwear for men and women, underwear, tapestries and carpets.

Mr Wolfram was born in Germany. Because his father was Jewish, his family decided to send him to Britain in 1933. When war broke out, he was regarded as an enemy alien and, leaving school at 15, found it hard to get a job.

Through a family contact, he began working as a textile agent, dealing in a range of materials, including alpaca and mohair. In the early 1970s he was approached by the company which owned Lurex; Sildorex SA - Paris. Initially he was not keen to deal in the product.

"But then I suddenly saw the possibilities of metallised yarns, especially if they were developed so they could be worn next to the skin," he said.

Today, the UK-based part of the Lurex company has a turnover of £3.73m, and the French part up to £8m. The London office employs nine people, and its factory in Leicester, which does the slitting and winding parts of the manufacturing process, about 20 people.

The factory also includes a state-of-the-art laboratory where new products are tested. For example, they have invented a yarn which can be incorporated into cloth and then over-dyed without changing colour or becoming see-through.

They have also developed a deliberately transparent version which is used, for example, in chenille wool to give it a subtle sheen. New colours reflect fashion - fiesta red is popular.

Mr Wolfram said there was a surprising correlation between the popularity of Lurex and economic conditions.

"When people are depressed, when there is a recession, they look for glitter. Economists could use it like a barometer. It is very strange - a psychological or sociological phenomenon," he said. Recently both the British and French parts of the company have seen a large increase in sales.

There is no doubt Mr Wolfram is an entrepreneur but are they born or made? He thinks it is probably a bit of both.

He said: "You must have some kind of flair for it. You have to be a risk-taker, and if you've made a decision you have to stick to it."

But, he added: "You will find the textile trade is full of old fogies like me. Experience counts for an awful lot in this business."

One of his sons, Stephen Wolfram, is a physicist and also a successful businessman with his own company in the United States, Wolfram Research.

He invented the computer language Mathematica, which has scientific, engineering, financial, mathematical, and many other applications. It is even used by astronauts. The European division is run from Long Hanborough by his younger brother, Conrad.

While running his business, Mr Wolfram senior also studied philosophy and psychology by correspondence. His late wife, Sybil, was a philosophy don at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.

When he retires, he plans to spend more time writing. He has already published three novels.

But does he wear Lurex himself?

"I have a black tie with a gold thread, which I use for funerals," he said.