Page 1

Insight

Essence

Ancient secrets, modern applications In a Czech monastery three hours outside Prague, monks toil over an ancient skincare recipe once used to heal the wounds of gladiators. Gavin Nazareth on this Fresh take on beauty. 56

o c to b e r - n o v e m BER 2 015

/ E X P RE S S I ON

Some of the ingredients that go into Crème Ancienne.

ur destination is unknown. Even when we get to it, almost three hours later, the location must remain a mystery, and photographs are banned, as is all social media. Only a day earlier we were rendered from different countries across Asia to one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Though the rendition was done in business class style. At the airport, black limousines with tinted glasses waiting on the tarmac, whisked us away to a private lounge, while our immigration formalities were sorted out. Then another vehicle dropped us off right in the centre of the medieval city, to our accommodation for the night, the Mandarin Oriental Prague. Our mission was to discover the secret behind the “ultimate antiageing treatment”. Not exactly James Bond-esque. But then this rich (yes, pun intended) face and body cream, formulated from a secondcentury recipe, could just be the next best thing to eternal youth. And who wants to snub an offer that allows you a dip in that fountain. At our eventual destination, a beautifully isolated white-walled monastery, monks in flowing white robes work from an ancient skincare formula to recreate a present day version of what was once used to heal the wounds of gladiators. The Crème Ancienne narrative harks back to the world’s first cold cream created circa AD 160. The credit for that goes to eminent Greek physician and

o c to b e r - n o v e m BER 2 015

/ E X P RE S S I ON 57


Insight

Essence

above: Creating the elixir in the monastery outside Prague.

surgeon Claudius Galenus, or Galen, one of the most prolific and influential medical writers of antiquity. Appointed as physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his successors, his theories dominated European medicine for 1,500 years. Early in his career, he was appointed resident physician at the gladiator school in his hometown of Pergamum, Greece, where he developed a balm or cerate of beeswax, water, herbal infusions, and olive oil that accelerated the healing process of burns and wounds. Fast forward some two thousand years and Lev Glazman discovers the formula in a pharmacopoeia in a library. Intrigued, he recreates the cream, which had a “very rich texture”. The skin absorbed the oils, while the wax coated it,” he tells me, “It was like a healing Band-Aid” Glazman is no stranger to world of beauty. Growing up in communist Russia with no access to personal grooming luxuries, fuelled an obsession with perfumes and beauty products. He tells of life aged six, “We were living in St Petersburg. Nothing came through the Iron Curtain. Everyone basically wore the same clothes… there was no colour. We lived in colourless world and even people who wanted to look pretty, had a hard time doing it.” He recalls how the only perfume available then was called ‘Red Moscow’ and how horrible it smelled. “Anywhere you’d go, everybody smelled the same. I thought the world only had one colour and one colour.” It’s a perception that changed one Saturday in later October at the onset of another long, cold, grey winter. He and his mother were in their communal flat, when a friend came by to say that

58

o c to b e r - n o v e m BER 2 015

/ E X P RE S S I ON

“Antoine” was in town. Throwing a coat over their clothes, his mother took him to a black market for goods of all kinds brought in from Europe, a crime punishable by five years in prison. At “Antoine’s” stall, his mother exchanged 100 rubles (the equivalent of a month’s salary, or five month’s rent) for a bottle of fragrance. “I remember that she opened the bottle quickly and put some of the fragrance on her,” says Glazman, adding that there seemed to be an immediate transformation. “ The whiff of the fragrance was something so magical. I smelled flowers, something so different from ‘Red Moscow’. And I was no long there in my slippers and my mother seemed to have transformed into a princess. It’s a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.” It was also the moment he says he developed an interest in fragrance and beauty. “I started understanding there was a whole world out there and how amazing it was. I felt I had to be part of it because it made people so happy and gave them a sense of enjoyment.” A few years later he and his mother left Russia for Israel, and from there onwards to America where he eventually met his partner in beauty, the Ukraine-born, Alina Roytberg, a fashion design graduate from the Parsons School of Design in New York. Together, the husband-wife duo turned a dream into reality in 1991 with $10,000 borrowed from their parents; an apothecary store, Nuts About Beauty, on Boston’s Tremont Street, sold natural upscale personal care products from around the world. An open environment that encouraged customers to touch and smell at their own pace was the novel concept behind the store. “We wanted

people to get caught up and explore,” says Roytberg. A few years later they re-branded as Fresh and launched their own line of artisanal soaps. A triple-milled, vegetable-based soap infused with shea butter and laced with delicate, single-note scents, Oval Soap was personally hand-wrapped in ornate cotton inlaid paper, tied with a delicate wire, and topped with a semi-precious stone. It was an instant hit with consumers, and their first wholesale order of 1,000 soaps to Barneys New York, sold out in three days. High on this initial success they began to make more bodycare and skincare products and expand their operations. Fresh’s first New York store opened on Madison Avenue. New products that won wide acclaim and a slew of awards. Inspired by a remedy Glazman’s grandmother used to heal cuts and scrapes, the original Brown Sugar Body Polish, the first sugar exfoliant, was launched. “My grandmother used to put sugar on my wounds when I was little. It healed without stinging and locked in the moisture,” he explains. The now iconic Rose Face Mask, and Sugar Face Polish, followed next; these two original treatments were enriched with real rose petals and wild strawberries. The Fragrance Bar also made its debut showcasing an assortment of 28 unique, complex fragrances that drew inspiration from the Fresh founders’ experiences and travels. French luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) quick to see the potential of Fresh made the duo a partnership offer that was irresistible. The group became the majority owner with the husband-wife duo continuing as co-presidents. “While we weren’t interested in selling the company then,

we liked the idea of having a partner so that Fresh had the opportunity to grow,” says Roytberg, adding that what also attracted them was the fact that “LVMH was a luxury group that manages different brands and respects the creativity of the founders.” Glazman says that the opportunity “to work in the LVMH labs was a big deal” for him. “We were outgrowing our small lab in France, and needed more resources and access to ingredients that small companies wouldn’t get. The partnership helped take our products to the next level.” It was at this time that Glazman came across the ancient formula while doing research. “It was just what I was looking for,” he explains. “The right balance of oils and waxes with an unusually small amount of water, exactly what we needed to create this highly nourishing formula.” After recreating the original ‘Creme Ancienne’, the Fresh team refined it to prevent spoilage, something that the original was notorious for, and added other precious oils and natural ingredients such as meadowfoam seed oil, vitamin E and chamomile flower wax. There was one major problem. The precious ingredients are very fragile and each must be poured in a particular sequence at a pre-determined temperature so that their delicate balance is not disturbed. The only way to do this was by hand. “Producing Crème Ancienne is a labour intensive process as the waxes in the recipe have different melting points, and the oil has to mixed in at a certain temperature, or it will be burnt,” explains Glazman. “There is no way we could use modern machines to do it.” They turned to people who have been the keepers and protectors of

o c to b e r - n o v e m BER 2 015

/ E X P RE S S I ON 59


Insight

Essence

from Left: The founders – Alina Roytberg and Lev Glazman; Crème Ancienne product line; facade of the monastery; a monk at pray.

knowledge through the ages. “This recipe survived only because monasteries were repositories and protectors of knowledge, even in the Middle Ages when books were being burned,” says Roytberg. “They also played the role of apothecary, growing healing herbs and flowers in their gardens, and preparing remedies from them. It seemed a perfect fit.” “Monasteries have to sustain themselves,” adds Glazman, “and many of them have and still produce jams, honeys, and even wine and beer. It is very much in their DNA to make things. It was also very important for us to have people who are very dedicated, loyal and will make our products with a lot of precision, integrity and respect for the past.” Finding one was not easy though. After a year of writing and just turning up at various monasteries, they were finally directed to an island in Norway, home to the convent of Tautra Mariakloster. With only seven nuns, production was limited to just a 1,000 jars a year. The first batch of Crème Ancienne sold out within three months of the launch, and with demand outstripping supply, there was a waiting list. The nuns unable to balance production and prayer complained and the search was on once again. As we all know the Lord works in mysterious ways and their prayers were soon answered, this time by a newly formed monastery in the Czech Republic. Religious orders were banned and monasteries shut down after the Communist takeover in 1948, and many of the Czech monks moved to France. With the fall of the communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sept-Fons in France decided to help Czech monks return to their

60

o c to b e r - n o v e m BER 2 015

/ E X P RE S S I ON

homeland by establishing a new monastery. Work began in 2001 on an abandoned 18th century Baroque farmhouse that stood on 100 acres of land. The well-known architect (I could name him, but I’d have to….) incorporated a 60,000-square-foot complex, including church, cloister, refectory, school, dormitory, guesthouse, and cemetery. The 25 monks here live an austere life of personal poverty with few possessions and as little contact as possible with the world outside. They awake at 3.15am and begin their day with first of seven services in the chapel. Prayer, work, rest and reading fill up the rest of their day. Meals are simple and mostly consist of bread, vegetables and fruit, and on occasion milk and cheese. Silence is golden for them as the belief is that it is most conducive to prayer and feeling the presence of God. Glazman and the monastery reached an agreement and the monks now produce 10,000 units for Fresh – the cream in jars of two sizes, and corresponding face oil, Elixir Ancien. Our small group is ushered into the all-white laboratory. Huge apothecary jars filled with the precious oils and other ingredients sit atop stainless steel tables. Beeswax is slowly melting in a double boiler. Glazman explains the process, “each batch of 12 kilos takes two days to make. The waxes are melted and then poured together as the rose water and oils are added, a process that requires four hands and 15 minutes of blending. We use damask rose petals and it takes one tonne of roses to extract one kilogram of oil.” Precision is the key here to transform the liquefied concoction a creamy, smooth emollient, which is then left overnight to cool before the monks hand fill the jars. The obvious question pops up. How do these monks counterbalance their austere lives, in which they have renounced

the things that pass away in order to turn to the things that endure, a life entirely consecrated to God, with making a product that sells the idea of eternal beauty? Father Samuel, the head monk, puts that query to rest very quickly. “There is no conflict between us and the people who buy Crème Ancienne. But there is opposition between the monastic culture and the culture of these people, which is why we asked for anonymity, to preserve the essence of mystery, And equally to preserve the sacred character of our life.” It’s hard to get my head around that until he explains further. “The work is part of our vocation. We work to earn our livelihood, to keep our hands busy while our hearts struggle to live in the presence of God, and the care that we devote to our life of prayer is the same care that we devote to all that we do. Fresh respects this level of care.” On way back from the monastery, Glazman and Roytberg tell us how their other signature lines have also combined ancient remedies with modern technology like the Umbrian Clay series. The mineral and alkali-rich clay, found only in the small Italian town of Nocera Umbra, has been the basis of therapeutic treatments for centuries. Through a friend they discovered the source of the fine ash-white powder and added it into a skin-purifying clay skincare line. Similarly, the Fresh Sake collection was inspired by ancient beauty rituals of Japanese geishas who soaked in sake to purify and soften their skin, to which persimmons, lemon slices, and camellia flowers were also added to detoxify and brighten their skin. Their list of signature treatments goes on: Soy, Black Tea, Lotus, Peony, Seaberry, Rose, Sugar. All inspired by centuries-old beauty traditions that Lev, Alina and Fresh have now transformed into everyday sensorial beauty rituals.

o c to b e r - n o v e m BER 2 015

/ E X P RE S S I ON 61

Ancient Secrets, Modern Applications  

A look at skincare company, Fresh, which uses an ancient recipe once used to heal the wounds of gladiators .

Ancient Secrets, Modern Applications  

A look at skincare company, Fresh, which uses an ancient recipe once used to heal the wounds of gladiators .

Advertisement