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The Beauty Gypsy is back… and she has some steamy secrets up her sleeve. Come over and listen!

I still haven’t understood what’s it about a calendar change that brings about this inevitable audit-taking of our lives. Want to get healthier? You can just as easily start doing that from July 26th, rather than January 1st. Want to switch careers? Why not the middle of April (speaking randomly). Want to detox your social list? What’s wrong with (again randomly!) February to put it in action? What is it about January 1st that we seem to count our hopes and blessings and achievements and failures from this one day out of 365? But despite all my wonderings, the bottom-line remains that we do this. I do it. Every single year.

So, in that spirit, let me announce the new Beauty Gypsy. Worry not… not everything has changed. Like all of us, she’s just older by a year and is taking all the lessons learnt through 2013 to be prettier, shinier, more relevant and a tad bit more investigative (will come to that in a bit!).

To begin: as many of you have noticed, The Beauty Gypsy has a brand new look courtesy two utterly fabulous ladies: Brooke Hagel, who has distilled the very essence of this crazy, quirky, lover-of-everything-offbeat gypsy in a fabulous illustration that you see in the header; and April Durham, the madly chic graphic designer who has put together this fresh new layout and deserves all the credit for re-designing and re-coding this blog for the second time now! Huge, huge, huge thank you Brooke and April… you are simply the best!

the-beauty-gypsyLet’s talk about being a “gypsy”

And while we are talking about people and inspirations, a lot of people ask me why I chose to be a “gypsy”. Why not a Beauty Maverick? Or a Beauty Consultant? There is a reason for this choice… very many reasons, actually.

I am a beauty-aholic (or beauty-ista?), obsessed with everything skincare, haircare, perfume, makeup and spa. But even though I can (and do!) spend hours wandering aisles lined with the Clarins’ and La Mer’s of our world, it’s the off-the-beaten-path, inspired by indigenous treatments and beauty recipes that really captivate my heart. And brains. Because being indigenous or based on ancient traditions does not mean these beauty recipes are frivolous. Neither are they the stuff of magic. Most come with solid scientific backing… you just need to dig deep.

And that’s what I do: wander from place to place (I am on a rustic beach near Phuket, Thailand, as I write this), digging deep into local beauty traditions and piecing together half forgotten memories of secret recipes that have made women of the world gorgeous from times immemorial. From Yakumo in Japan to Siena in Italy, I am on the road at least 10 months a year. A traveler at heart, for me the journey is often more important than the destination, the secret lives of a city’s locals more interesting than the knowledge of guidebooks.

And that’s what the gypsies do, right? Going from place to place, translating and adapting myriad cultures and mixing them with each other. In my mind, they are like very beautiful, very colourful butterflies that flit from one source to another, cross-pollinating and becoming a repository of traditional knowledge. Plus, they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously, believing in both indulgence and fun – two principles that I love to the core. After all, what’s life without a bit of enjoyment and aimless wandering through a journey of self discoveries?

Gypsy Girl with a Tambourine by Alois Hans Schram

Gypsy Girl with a Tambourine by Alois Hans Schram

I don’t walk this road alone. Call it genetic memory, if you will. After all, DNA research has firmly established that gypsies originally came from Northern India (like me!), travelling to Europe via Egypt and Bulgaria. They were goddess-worshippers, praying at the altar of Kali, the ferocious mother goddess of Hinduism; their language (Romany) is based on Sanskrit.

Today, a slew of myths and superstitions have led to wide scale persecution. But the gypsies have also made fabulous contributions. From violins in Hungary to flamenco dances in Spain, they have added laughter and music to our worlds. They have inspired the works of so many writers, including Shakespeare, whose Cleopatra and the dark lady are said to be modelled on a gypsy – fiery, intense and unfaithful.

So, to me, “gypsy” connotes fantasy, soul-wrenching violin music, brightly colored dresses, flowing hair, dark eyes, tempestuous dancing, ancient knowledge and freedom. Lots of freedom. Maybe it’s my destiny to be a gypsy. Maybe I was one in my past birth. Maybe I am one in this birth itself. And maybe the word “gypsy” is a racial slur – but if it is one, isn’t it better to obliterate its negative associations and restore its beauty, rather than try and erase the word itself from our language? It’s not words that are good are bad. Often, neither are the people to whom they are directed. To me, the people who load them with negativity are the ones we should worry about. I, for one, would rather be a free spirited, rootless gypsy than an imprisoned-in-conventions blowhard. What about you?

Some big changes to the blog

Ok, here’s backing away from the rant and back on to the blog itself. As I said, you will be seeing many changes out here in the coming months. One of the big ones: I have stopped accepting any products, spa treatments or anything else for review. Everything that appears in these pages will have been bought and tested on my own dime. Because that’s the only way to remain unbiased. To me, that’s the core function of a blog – to give absolutely honest and unbiased information. Otherwise what makes us different from a traditional magazine, which glorifies its “supporters”, shying away from any critique in the fear of losing out on advertising dollars (speaking from personal experience of more than a decade spent working with leading glossies).

And that brings me to another major addition: a column on beauty products and treatments that you shouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Surprisingly, given all the zillions of products that launch every month, not one of them seems to be ineffectual or a waste of money, if the media is to believed. They all work brilliantly, fullfill every promise made by the brand and are must, must, must, must-have if you want even a decent shot at glowing skin, shiny hair or a happy life. Sounds too far fetched? I think so too. And this is my way of sorting the truth from the superficialities.

But I can’t do any of this without you. We have come this far together and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for making The Beauty Gypsy – an ambitious little blog that was born on a frustrated night in my bedroom – reach the top echelons (600,000+ visitors in 2014!) sans having to go the corporate way or accepting outside funding. I have had two offers this past year by big media names who want to buy out or invest in this blog. But there’s nothing like a free meal and all such offers come with some very tangled strings attached. I would rather remain independent and able to speak my mind, even if it means living on toast and butter. And every time you send me a message, post a comment or share my post, it makes the toast seem so much sweeter – far more than a dish of caviar ever could.

So, now you need to help me more. Tell me what you want this blog to be about. Send me questions on your beauty dilemmas. Let me know which products you want reviewed. Shout out about what you don’t want to see here. It all helps. It really, really helps.

Of new year resolutions

Till then, what are you New Year resolutions? Mine are pretty precise.

1. Last month brought the revelation that I have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Yay for that because it explains my sudden weight gain, acne, mood swings and general feeling of lacklustre-ness. Yikes for the fact that PCOS creates insulin resistance, which gives you diabetes. Resolution: cut out any extra sugars to help the treatment along and get back to the gym.

2. Have a social life. Because dashing like a runaway train through the continents is not really feasible for maintaining relationships. And I am learning that a friendless life is a lonely life. Travel can’t fill all the voids.

3. Sleeping more. I know that everyone who’s reading this is going to be laughing their guts out at the thought of me actually going to bed before 3 am but…. . Suffice to say, it will happen.

Over to you now!

The Beauty Gypsy is back!

And we are finally back up and running – bigger and better and faster, as promised! I still have to go through the painful process of manually re-inserting a zillion photos that have gone to blog heaven but still, will take my blessings as they are. So, thank you everyone for all the love and support… pls drop by and tell me if you notice any bugs!!!!

I can’t end this post without a big shoutout to Webdigia.co, the Michigan-based web maintenance geniuses who sorted out my crisis across a couple of continents, with immense patience and in record time. And not only did they solve the problems but also came up with solutions to issues that I did not even know existed – thereby preventing mucho grief in the future! Thank you guys, this blog stands tall because of you…!

The Beauty Gypsy is back!

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry for not having updated this blog in a week! A lot of you have been writing to ask if everything was all right – yes, it is and thanks so much for the concern. Blogging can be a lonely profession sometimes and it feels really good to hear from all of you, especially to know that there are people out there who would miss me if I was to suddenly drop off the face of this earth 🙂

Actually, I have been travelling like mad and have just about gotten my head back in order. The suitcases still need to be unpacked but am dying to share all my awesome beauty finds through these journeys with all of you. So, start checking back in a few hours! And keep those mails rolling in 🙂

17 beauty products that have been around for more than 100 years!

Which brand would you trust more? One that’s been around for just a few years? Or one that’s been around for a few centuries? Of course, the lure of the new, the shiny, the technologically state of art is massive but remember that brands that have stood the time have done so for a reason: They are already so perfect that nobody felt the need to tinker with their formula at all. And they still continue to sell… often, outpacing their younger rivals by acres of competence, efficacy and well proven results.

These then, right here, are the world’s oldest beauty products. And don’t be fooled by appearances… they may have donned new robes on the outside but inside are the same classic formulas that have been around for a 100 years or more!

Each one is a cult formula that everyone should try at least once.

Santa Maria Novella Acqua della Regina, 1533

Literally the world’s oldest continuously existing pharmacy, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is now well into its eighth century.

Yes, eighth century.

Like. 800. Years.

The Florentine institution was constituted by Dominican friars in the early 1200s to make medications, balms and pomades from herbs grown in the monastery’s gardens. As its reputation spread, Santa Maria Novella caught the attention of Catherine de’ Medici. Acqua della Regina, the signature scent created in 1533 for her marriage to Henry II, the future king of France, remains one of the best selling products for the pharmacy till date.

santa-mariaOther ancient notables that go back centuries include Acqua di Rose (rosewater), Alkermes liqueur and Elisir di China (post-dinner digestif). Most of the flowers and herbs are still sourced from the monastic garden. And you can still browse the shelves of the old pharmacy in Florence – part of which is one of the most gorgeous beauty boutiques in the world.

Farina Eau de Cologne, 1709

Farina didn’t just invent a single fragrance, it invented an entire category that continues to rule the shelves and our hearts till today. It was the Italian born and bred Giovanni Maria Farina who first created Eau de Cologne, as an attempt to recapture the sensory soul of his hometown while living in Germany. His exact words, in a letter to his brother: “I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain.”

The fragrance was composed with the essential oils of lemon, bergamot, tangerine, orange, neroli and grapefruit married with dashes of tobacco, petit grain, lavender, jasmine, thyme and rosemary. It immediately caught the fancy of a populace that was desperately trying to subdue the not-so-pleasant aroma of unwashed bodies and wanted something crisp and fresh, rather than the heavy, musky fragrances of the time. Farina named the composition after Cologne, the city of his residence, and was soon supplying to every royal family across the world. And it was worth a pretty penny: one vial cost the equivalent of half the year’s wage of a civil servant!

Yardley London Lavender Soap, 1770

Yardley may be innocuous today but it’s the oldest registered beauty brand in the world. In fact, records show that even though the company was officially founded in 1770, its story actually began in the 1600s, when King Charles I granted a young man the concession to supply all the soap for the City of London.

Sadly, the particulars were lost in the Great Fire of 1666. Only one detail remained: the key ingredient in Yardley London’s soaps was lavender, known for its soothing properties. Till today, there is a special species of lavender – Lavandula augustifolia – that is exclusively grown for Yardley London in the South of England. No wonder the brand continues to enjoy royal patronage, with Kate Middleton being the latest purveyor.

Bonus fact: In 1971, Yardley sponsored the British Racing Motors team in the Formula 1 Grand Prix. In 1972 the company moved on to McLaren, which it sponsored till 1974.

Pears Soap, 1807

Founded by Andrew Pears in 1789 as a barber’s studio in SoHo, London, Pears was originally reserved for a very exclusive set of peers and nobles. In 1807 (that’s almost 210 years back, people!) came the world’s first transparent soap bar, which was initially billed as an ‘English Complexion Soap’, due to its ultra-gentle formula comprising of glycerin and other natural products. It took three months to make (still does!) and won the prize for soap at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

pears-soap-historyThayers Original Witch Hazel, 1847

Thayers has been a household name ever since Dr. Henry Thayer created his proprietary witch hazel extract. What set it apart from a slew of businesses that were capitalising on the multifarious benefits of this shrub was that Thayer’s extract was made from non-distilled witch hazel, thereby maintaining the highest quality of therapeutic tannins. Till today, more than 150 years later, few facial toners can compete with the skin boosting properties of this non-alcoholic astringent.

thayers-historyBourjois Little Round Pot Blush, 1863

In 1863, Parisian actor Joseph-Albert Ponsin created the world’s first powder blush based on a complex recipe: carefully combine a measured amount of of powder, water and mother-of-pearl, mix delicately, pour into rounded moulds and put in the oven to bake. Now, 150 years later, the little round pot of Bourjois blusher has gone beyond stage makeup to become one of the brand’s bestselling lines. And for collectors who just can’t resist those original iconic Little Round Pots, Bourjois regularly launches limited edition vintage series.

bourjois-historyPenhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, 1872

As a brand that has not one but four of its original blends on the shelves more than a century later, it’s not a surprise that Penhaligon’s has received a number of royal warrants over the years. The perfumery was founded by William Henry Penhaligon, a Cornish barber who moved to London and set up shop on Jermyn Street in the late 1860s. His first fragrance was Hammam Bouquet, inspired by the heady aromas emanating from the Turkish bath next door.

Hammam Bouquet remains a customer favourite till date, along with Blenheim Bouquet (crafted in 1902 as a bespoke fragrance for the Duke of Malborough), English Fern and Douro (both 1911). Happily for lovers of history, even William Penhaligon’s bottle design remains largely unchanged, with the flash of ribbon taking us back down memory lane to the England of Queen Victoria.

penhaligons-historyVaseline, 1872

Would you believe that oil wells can be fashionable? In the hands of Robert Chesebrough, that’s a resounding yes. Cheseborough founded Vaseline when he was prospecting for oil at Titusville, Pennsylvania. The observation that oil rig workers used “rod wax” – the drill residue – to heal cuts and minor burns caught the chemist’s imagination. He then spent the better part of a decade refining the rod wax to the clear, white petroleum jelly that became Vaseline. The name came from a combination of the German wasser (water) and Greek oleon (oil).

However, drugstore owners were unimpressed and so Cheseborough took to the road, advertising the wares himself. The modus operandi? He would inflict wounds on his own body and spread Vaseline on the affected areas to show its efficacy (don’t try this at home!).

Soon, Vaseline was selling at the rate of a jar a minute and Queen Victoria knighted Chesebrough in 1883, telling the inventor that she used it every single day!

vaseline-historyBonus fact: Cheseborough ate a spoonful of Vaseline every day. Though I seriously wouldn’t recommend this, the inventor lived to be 96 years old.

Another bonus fact: In 1886, Manufacture and Builder reported: “French bakers are making large use of vaseline in cake and other pastry. Its advantage over lard or butter lies in the fact that, however stale the pastry may be, it will not become rancid.”

Listerine, 1879

Developed by Missouri chemist Joseph Lawrence as a surgical antiseptic, Listerine was named after Baron Joseph Lister, a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. Over the years, this combination of menthol, thymol (thyme), eucalyptol (eucalyptus) and methyl salicylate (wintergreen) has been used for purposes ranging from gonorrhoea and bathing surgical wounds to treating sore throats, soothing insect bites and cleaning the floor.

However, Listerine truly hit its stride in 1895, when it caught the attention of dentists. In fact, the word ‘halitosis’ (Latin for ‘bad breath’) was coined by Listerine staff and this became the first over the counter mouthwash to be sold without a prescription. At one point, they were even manufacturing Listerine cigarettes!

Today, the 138-year-old liquid remains the oldest product in the Johnson & Johnson portfolio.

listerine-historyIvory Soap, 1879

When chemist James Gamble, of Procter & Gamble, whipped extra air into a batch of Ivory soap bars, he not only created the world’s first floating soap (advantage: it wouldn’t get lost while bathing!) but also one that was 99.44% pure. Going strong for 138 years now, Ivory soap also has another well documented use: the soap flakes have been a staple to create “snow” for Christmas trees since the 1920s.

Bonus fact: The name ‘Ivory’ was adopted by Harley Procter after he heard the 45th Psalm at a Bible reading.

WTF fact: Researchers asked children to do a soap taste test in 1994 and Ivory soap tasted the least disgusting. Ummm… !!??

ivory-soap-historySmith’s Rosebud Salve, 1892

Invented by Dr. GF Smith as an all-purpose salve to help with issues such as chapped lips, razor burn, haemorrhoids and diaper rash, Smith’s Rosebud Salve is still one of the most multipurpose products out there. I personally use it for everything from dry skin to makeup (every single makeup artist backstage will tell you it makes for the best highlighter!).

And while the salve now comes in more efficient tubes as well, nothing can drag me away from the cool, vintage, pharmacy-type tins. Little wonder that 3,500 tins of Smith’s Rosebud Salve continue to be sold somewhere in the world every day!

Shiseido Eudermine, 1897

Established in 1872 by Arinobu Fukuhar in Ginza, Tokyo, Shiseido was not only Japan’s first “western style” pharmacy, it was also the one that launched ice cream in the country. The Shiseido Ice Cream Parlour branched off in 1928 and is still in business today.

The brand’s first beauty product – a softening lotion called Eudermine – was launched in 1897. This lotion can still be found on the Shiseido counters 120 years later and in the original packaging style if you look hard enough.

Another cult product – the Shiseido Rainbow Face Powder – is being launched as a limited edition just in time for its centenary. This was one of the world’s first color correcting and mood lighting face powders!

eudermine-shiseido-historyPond’s Cold Cream, 1907

Pond’s Cold Cream goes back to 1907 but as if that’s not old enough, it’s origins date back even further – to 1846, when pharmacist Theron T. Pond extracted a healing tea from witch hazel that was perfect for healing small cuts, rashes, minor burns and other skin ailments. This ‘Pond’s Extract’ became the origin for what we, our mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers and great, great grandmothers came to know as Ponds Cold Cream, used for everything from moisturising to removing makeup.

Why “cold”? Because this was the world’s first moisturiser that did not require refrigeration.

ponds-cold-cream-historyLabello Lip Salve, 1909

The precursor to Nivea Lip Care, Labello introduced the slider mechanism to the world of lip balms in 1911. Till then, lip care products were sold as a wedge wrapped up in a bit of paper, to be applied by hands. Later, in 1963, the brand evolved this into today’s twist mechanism. The brand is owned by German Beiserdorf and its name is a combination of labium (lips) and bellus (beautiful).

Nivea Crème, 1911

It all started with a butter churner. The butter churner that German pharmacist Dr. Oscar Troplowitz and dermatologist Prof. Paul Gerson Unna used to combine water and oil with Eucerit (ancient Greek word for ‘beautiful wax’), a new emulsifying agent, to create the world’s first stable water-in-oil skin emulsion. Water-in-oil emulsions are the best way to tackle dry complexions as they moisturise while simultaneously creating a skin barrier.

The word ‘Nivea’ was derived from the Latin nix, nivis, which means ‘snow white’, as an ode to the cream’s pure white colour. And that little blue aluminium pot, which made it’s entry in 1925 (before that Nivea came in a yellow pot), has it’s own ticket to history: It’s distinctive blue is one of the very rare colour marks protected worldwide.

Noxzema, 1914

The ubiquitous cobalt blue jar, which has been a staple of every family home since the last century, was launched in the same year that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, leading to the beginning of the first World War. Invented by Dr. Francis J Townsend in Ocean City, Maryland, this greaseless cold cream, which soothes skin and acts as a mild pain reliever, was originally called Townsend R22 and was prescribed to resort-goers for soothing their sunburn.

Soon, it was being called upon for everything from chapped and irritated skin to remove makeup and deep cleanse, keep wrinkles at bay and treat acne. It has had a near religious following amongst generations of devotees and a famous consumer quip that, “It knocked my eczema”, led to the name Noxzema (“no eczema”). Many women left it on overnight, making it the original sleeping mask.

noxzema-historyAcqua di Parma Colonia, 1916

When Italian aristocrat Carlo Magnani commissioned a crisp, fresh and citrusy fragrance from a small perfumery in Parma, little did he know that his legacy would go on to last more than a century. Today, Acqua di Parma Colonia remains unchanged from the original 100-year-old composition. In fact, it is still made by hand in small Italian factories, its signature yellow packaging paying homage to the colour that’s graced the facades of Parma’s most elegant buildings since the 18th century.

Bonus fact: That logo? It’s the coat of arms of Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma (1816-1847), who helped develop the perfume and glass industry of Parma.

Am I missing out anything here?