Newton’s Rings: Understanding the Encapsulation Illusion3 min read

Submitting your collectibles to PSA for authentication and grading is a pacifying exercise. The owner knows that once their prized items are encapsulated in PSA’s tamper-evident holders, they have been inspected by the premier service in the hobby; confirmed to be authentic; given an industry-accepted grade based on their condition; and finally, are safe from damage or accidents.

Some collectors recently experienced a disruption in that feeling of contentment. They received back their completed submissions but when reviewing their slabbed stickers (or cards, in some instances) for the first time they discovered what appeared to be moisture inside the holders. They immediately got on the phone with PSA to discuss the situation.

“It puzzled me at first,” said David Rosenberg, Collectors Universe vice president of Operations. “There is absolutely no opportunity for liquid to get inside a PSA holder, so I could not imagine what they were talking about. Then they shared with me some images of the holders in question and it began to make sense.”

In fact, the issue was not liquid that had made its way into PSA holders. Rather, it was a phenomenon called “Newton’s Rings,” named after the noted physicist Sir Isaac Newton who spoke of the effect in his treatise, Optiks, in 1704. The rings can appear as a series of concentric light- and dark-colored bands or as liquid trapped between two surfaces. The phenomenon occurs when one clear convex surface rests on its convex side atop another clear, flat surface. In these instances, two plastic surfaces are meeting.

Can you spot the Newton’s Rings on this Ja Morant PSA-encapsulated sticker?

After further studying the situation it became apparent that the presence of Newton’s Rings within PSA holders was due to the introduction of a clear, thin sleeve that is inserted into holders when a trading card or sticker is particularly thin or is not large enough to properly fill the space within the interior rails of a PSA holder.

“When a card or sticker is smaller or thinner than standard, it is sometimes inserted into an additional sleeve, which is then sealed inside the PSA holder,” Rosenberg said. “This is done to minimize the item’s movement inside the holder. The Newton’s Rings were occurring when light was passing through the flat surface of the holder and onto the slightly concaved sleeve. It’s the plastic from the insert that touches the plastic of the holder that creates the effect. The result looked like a moisture spot within the holder, when in reality it was completely free of moisture.”

In fact, a similar situation occurs with semi-rigid card protectors like Card Savers, as many of the top loaders will present Newton’s Rings when first removed from their packaging. The two sides of the Card Saver are pressed together in the packaging process and have a slight curvature straight out of the package. The resulting visual appears as though there is moisture inside the holder, but when opened to insert a card the illusion immediately disappears.

In an effort to better serve its customers and alleviate concerns regarding Newton’s Rings in the grading process, PSA is currently testing new ways to encapsulate the cards and stickers that sometimes require the use of inserts. We’ll share more information on that front as it becomes available.


Posted by Todd Tobias

Todd Tobias is a longtime hobbyist and PSA staff member who is constantly on the hunt for vintage lacrosse issues and autographed cards for his American Football League (1960-1969) collection.

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