GOOGLE "MIRACLE PRODUCT" and the world's favourite search engine will spill out in excess of 39 million results. We use the term “miracle” liberally in the beauty business, but most times we mean it. After all, what's not miraculous in this multi-billion-dollar industry? We can tighten, whiten and brighten, all with the swipe of some mystery serum onto our faces. We exfoliate with diamond dust, moisturise with gold and platinum, bathe in red wine or champagne – and that's not even counting all the lab-made miracle complexes we come across on a daily basis.
So when you gaze through the list of ingredients that make up Fresh's Crème Ancienne, the hero product and miracle moisturiser of the brand's entire line-up, it seems decidedly devoid of miracle.
The main players are meadowfoam-seed oil, rosewater and beeswax, which are lovely natural ingredients, but certainly nothing to write home about. The product itself is unique enough – with a look and consistency that approximates that of cream cheese, it needs to be warmed between the hands before being applied to the face, after which it verily melts onto the skin. Unlike creams that soak in instantly, this goes the distance, nourishing without disappearing. It's rich as anything – so rich, in fact, that it's a real weapon of choice against dry-skin disorders like eczema, and a worthy adversary of rough elbows and knees, or even old scars. Miracle enough for you yet?
The miracle though, it turns out, isn't something that you can find in the compilation of components, but is rather found in the making. On the simple white jar that holds the product, underneath the letters spelling out Crème Ancienne, reads “The Ultimate Anti-Aging Treatment. Made by Hand in a Monastery”.
Given that the tenets of modern luxury spurn the factory produced, the words “made by hand” may be emblazoned in capital letters, but their impact is limited by the ubiquity of the statement. Fancy French purses are hand-stitched together; Italian leather shoes hammered out by hand, Swiss watches painstakingly assembled with the aid of handheld tweezers and an eagle eye, and it's not just the luxury-goods sector. Who settles for packaged pasta when menus everywhere herald the hand-kneaded?
It takes an invitation to witness the making of Crème Ancienne to fully comprehend the gravity of the phrase. This takes place, exactly as the jar claims, in a monastery, one situated some two-hours' drive from Prague. According to the founders of the Fresh brand, Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg, only two journalists have ever gained passage to the sacred location since the monks began producing the cream some 12 years ago – though they've undertaken a commercial vocation by ecessity, the brothers understandably have little interest in marketing their labours.
So it is with lowered heads and voices, and attitudes of utmost respect, that we arrive at the monastery to be met by Father Samuel, who not only runs the place, but also acts as an external liaison for the brothers. He welcomes us in slow but smooth English, introducing a motley crew of brothers, several of whom work in various capacities on Crème Ancienne.
The idea of outsourcing the production line to a monastery wasn't born of whim. Glazman and Roytberg are a married couple who launched Fresh nearly a quarter of a century ago and took on a sizeable investment from the LVMH group in 2000, which not only made them part of one of the world's largest luxury conglomerates, but afforded them access to research, resources and facilities beyond compare. It was in the LVMH library that Glazman, a confessed product junkie whose lifelong quest it has been to uncover the secret powers of natural ingredients, found a book of recipes that contained ancient philosopher and medicine man Claudius Galenus' formula for a cream that could hasten the healing of wounds. This combination of ingredients – almond oil, beeswax and rosewater – thus became the world's first known skincare product. At the time, Glazman was looking for inspiration for a cream that was “rich and pure”, and he gravitated immediately towards the idea. “I looked at the formula, I looked at the key ingredients and the ratio of water and waxes and oils and I was like ... this is incredible. I've got to try it. I found it to be so simple and so unique that it just resonated with me immediately,” says Glazman.
“Without the past, there is no future,” he intones. “The discovery of Crème Ancienne became a symbol of what Fresh is all about.”
First and foremost, there was a respect for the formula. Although the couple switched out almond oil for meadowfoam-seed oil, and added a few extra elements to bolster the effects of the product, the integrity of the proportions remains true to the original. “Because of the fact that it is high in content of oil and wax ... it's not what the modern cream is, so it was just really interesting to see what would happen in a formula that does not use so much water – what happens to the texture, and how does that actually work on the skin? When the first tests went through, it was kind of amazing how strong the anti-ageing claims came back,”says Roytberg.
Glazman and Roytberg were sold. But adhering to the original blueprint, which they discovered was a volatile recipe not suited for machine manufacturing, meant more than just tipping their hats to Claudius Galenus and setting up an assembly line of factory workers. They became convinced that this sacred recipe should be handled by sacred hands – descendents of the same hands that likely protected this book of medicinal recipes through the ages of book burning and literary persecution. And so began the Fresh quest to find a group that would appreciate and appropriately handle the task.
“Everybody looked at me like I was crazy,” says Glazman, laughing. “You never really think how you take modern manufacturing and go to handmade. Teaching the monks how to do it, it takes a huge commitment, but it was uncompromising to me and Alina that this was the way to go. It was our way to complete the whole story. When you tell the story, people say, ‘What a great marketing idea!' We never think about marketing in the process of creating.”
“We did not do it because it was a great marketing idea,” chimes in Roytberg. “None of [our] answers really answer [the question of why we chose to do it this way] because the reason we did it is exactly because of what happened that night, when the formula was first made. It was that the idea was so strong and so important that how we made that happen did not matter. No chemist is going to a monastery to teach monks how to make products. Life could be a lot easier if it was produced somewhere else.”
Respect for tradition is at the core of Fresh's values, but the company isn't afraid of technology, either. The couple took to the Internet, searching for religious institutions that still prized manual labour as a daily duty, and in particular ones that were already producing heartfelt, handmade goods, such as jams and spreads. It took letters, visits and pleas to find a nunnery in Norway, home to seven sisters, that would take on the production. They did it, but 14 hands were not enough to supply the world's hunger for Crème Ancienne. The nuns were overwhelmed, and soon gave up the profession to a French monastery in the Czech Republic – the very one we are visiting today.
The monks may not be used to having visitors, especially those of the female persuasion (and as you may imagine, many of us who cover the beauty industry are of the fairer sex), but they are generous hosts. They spend their days mainly in the silence of unspoken prayer, even as they work, but in the church, their hymns, accompanied by organ, quiet our voices and thoughts. They serve us lunch they have cooked, beauty a cauliflower soup and vegetable gratin, made from produce they have farmed themselves. (“Today, we will have the frozen vegetables instead,” Father Samuel graciously informs us.)
In the belly of the laboratory, a separate stand-alone structure besides the monastery proper, as simple and stark as a modern art gallery but bathed in natural light and an aura of peace, Glazman demonstrates the delicate procedure entailed in making Crème Ancienne. It's finicky, and the batches are small, but it's not
complicated – a smattering of beakers is spread across a table, along with a handheld blender and a bunsen burner. There's some boiling and pouring and cooling, but the key step is no different from emulsifying mayonnaise.
In an adjacent room, we meet three monks whose task for the day is to fill the jars. The furnishings are spare: a long metal table behind which three chairs are set. At each workstation is a mixing bowl of cream, a spoon, a scale, some cotton wipes and a collection of empty jars.
Father Samuel has told us that monks are assigned to tasks according to personal preference and aptitude, so many of the younger monks end up in external labours such as farming. We watch three brothers fill the jars, weigh them, clean the edges and screw the tops on. They don't speak, but they smile kindly. Glazman informs us that they would like to give each of us a jar of Crème Ancienne.
We take the jars with both palms, contemplating these little handmade, handheld miracles. Google may think there are 39 million miracle products out there, but right now, the one we believe in is the one that's clutched in our fingers. After all, Google is but a machine – and miracles, we know, are made by hand.