This is a tale of bee venom and bovine colostrum; of Camellia japonica oil and mineral-rich thermal water; of Touriga Nacional grapes and donkey milk; of the bottled aromatic essence of riding fast and free on the well-polished saddle of a well-groomed Lusitano across the pure white sands of Comporta. It is a story that spans more than a century and involves monarchs, revolutions and dictators, emigrants, nostalgia and vintage elegance. Above all, it is about Portugal and a bounty that hails from its fields and valleys, coastline and capital, from the buzzing north and even from the Azorean island of São Miguel some 1,600km away across the Sea of Atlas.
Muito complicado, which means “too complicated”, is a phrase that peppers everyday Portuguese. It can describe a traffic jam in Lisbon’s narrow cobbled streets, or a family drama – but it’s also perfectly apt for the rollercoaster-style evolution of the beauty industry in Portugal.
At the end of the 19th century, Portuguese-made soaps, fragrances and skincare began to appear on the national market. The leader of the pack back then was Claus & Schweder – known today as Claus Porto and the leader still. These two German entrepreneurs, Ferdinand Claus and Georges Schweder, set up their soap and fragrance factory in Porto in 1887, drawing on the belle époque era’s ornate aesthetic and the local, boldly coloured azulejo tiles to create glossy, eye-catching packaging in oranges, golds, purples and blues, often finished with a regal-looking seal. When Schweder stepped down due to ill health, a young Portuguese bookkeeper, Achilles de Brito, joined the fold, rising to become a partner in the business.
In 1908, the factory attracted a visit from the king of Portugal, who was curious at the awards – including a gold medal in 1904 at the universal exhibition in St Louis, Missouri – being won by the transparent glycerine soaps of eucalyptus, pine and vetiver blended with sea moss from the country’s shores. But clouds arrived when Germany declared war on Portugal in 1916, and Claus left the country. The company underwent ownership changes due to the nationalisation of properties owned by Germans, and de Brito – along with his brother – founded Ach Brito, a brand that drew on the much-loved fragrances and trademark packaging of his previous venture, which in 1925 he managed to acquire again.
In the same year, an apothecary in Lisbon started handmaking “miracle creams” in its laboratory – recipes that embraced ingredients grown under the Portuguese sun: lemons, roses, aloe vera and almond oil. The products, named Benamôr, were packaged in distinctive art deco tubes and the Créme de Rosto face cream was an instant success, joined over time by a sun protector (Créme das Praias) and the now-iconic Alantoíne hand cream.
In the meantime, back in Porto, a family called Couto had launched a pharmaceutical company. Its first product, a toothpaste (€1.45 for 25g), launched in 1932, promised to limit the gingival recession that was widespread at the time, due in part to syphilis. It came in a bold orange box and neither its recipe nor its packaging has ever changed. The company, still family owned today, has introduced soaps and hand creams with shea butter and sweet almond oil (€4.45 for 30g) – drawing on its recognisable packaging, with the addition of a vintage Portuguese tile pattern – in response to emigrants wanting to take with them the familiar smell of home. This year, to celebrate its centenary, Couto opened a flagship store in Porto, with new colognes of basil and neroli (€17.90 for 250ml EDC) on the shelves.
Today, there is undoubtedly a cult following for these homegrown companies, all of which had to survive the shift to western brands after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, when Portugal opened up to new influences and outside competition. Benamôr just scraped by, with the patronage of Queen Amélie, who continued to use its face cream while in exile – but then hope came in the shape of Pierre Stark, a Frenchman who had been working in Portugal for L’Oréal, at the helm of brands like Lancôme and Yves Saint Laurent, and had spotted the heritage brand’s potential. In 2016, four years after he left L’Oréal, he relaunched Benamôr, and business partner Filipe Serzedelo – almost in tandem with Claus Porto – opened a shop in Lisbon in 2017. Here, clean, white contemporary interiors are enhanced by alluringly vivid retro packaging. Stark has removed the preservatives from the original products and added new lines, including Jacarandá, in homage to the lilac-blossom trees that cover Lisbon in the spring, and Rose Amélie, in honour of the company’s one-time, loyal royal client – all of which feature soaps (from about €6 for 100g) still beautifully hand-wrapped in tissue paper, along with shower gels (€15 for 500ml), lip balms (€7.50 for 12ml) and rich shea-butter creams (€22 for 200ml). But the Créme de Rosto (€15 for 50ml) remains the most popular product, having proven its efficacy over four generations.
Claus Porto, which sold a majority stake in its business in 2015 to a private Portuguese equity firm (retaining the great-grandson of Achilles de Brito as a shareholder and adviser), opened its shop a little higher up the hill in Lisbon’s Chiado in 2016. An exterior with cool-blue handmade tiles leads into a vibrant treasure trove, where the products are displayed in glass cabinets with the charm of an old-school sweet shop. To mark its 130th anniversary last year, the brand opened a flagship in Porto, over three floors, including a soap-making corner (soap from €8 for 50g), and enlisted British nose Lyn Harris (of Perfumer H) to create a limited edition Le Parfum (€160 for 95ml EDP) – her olfactory take on Portugal, which combines citrus notes with the warmth of fig and watermelon and a base of cedar. This winter saw the opening of the brand’s first foreign outpost, in New York’s Nolita district, where that gold medal won in the US in 1904 will now hang on the wall.
These successes are due not only to the quality of the Portuguese ingredients, but also to the current mood in Portugal of supporting homegrown products with pride, which is creating a platform for new beauty brands to flourish too. Isabel Vidal, a leading Portuguese beauty editor, cites several recent launches that have impressed her, including products from Dermoteca’s DC anti-ageing brand, formulated from Touriga Nacional grapes, which targets sensitive or rosacea-prone skin (DC Anti-Aging Lifting Reactive Skin/Rosacea cream, €64 for 50ml), and Dvine, a brand that launched last year whose products’ fragrance draws its inspiration from the Douro Valley’s first fully organic production of port. These potions are divided into Light Harvest and Gold Harvest, the former range for everyday conditioning and protection, the latter geared towards anti-ageing, with a superb eye contour cream called Invincible Tawny Eye Serum (€48.50 for 15ml), with caffeine, resveratrol, grape-seed extract and hyaluronic acid for banishing dark circles, bags and wrinkles.
Phillippe by Almada draws on a different indigenous liquid. It launched in 2014, when Filipe Carvalho began investigating the rejuvenating potential of donkey milk after reading about Cleopatra and her baths. He embarked upon an ambitious scientific study that has resulted in delicious creams, soaps and body milks (from €4.98 for 30ml) – with a serum launching next month – containing milk from the native Mirandesa breed, which is thought to have super-hydrating, wrinkle-reducing and other anti-ageing benefits. Taken when the foals have had their fill, it is frozen fresh and then the solid is ground to a powder at Carvalho’s farm outside Lisbon.
And so to cow’s colostrum. The arrival of Ignae, produced on São Miguel, could almost justify the description of Portugal as being in its second “golden age of discovery”, for it is an extraordinarily exciting story. Its young founder Miguel Pombo noticed, while working in Brussels as an intern at a consultancy for pharmaceutical-industry clients, that thermal water – something São Miguel is not short of – was a key ingredient in many beautifying creams, so he decided to return home and start creating his own.
The island’s Terra Nostra botanical garden dates back to 1775; from here Pombo took the thermal water, exceptionally rich in silica and other minerals that improve the skin’s barrier function. He cold-pressed Camellia japonica seeds, making oil that delivers anti-ageing and antioxidant properties. From the cows he took colostrum (after their calves were sated), having found that the milk of cows in the Azores – probably due to year-round grazing and an immune system stimulated by the Atlantic winds – is unusually rich in immunoglobulins, growth factors and proline-rich peptides, which stimulate collagen production. Then he tapped the anti-ageing and replenishing properties of the local bees’ honey (the black Azorean bees also seem to produce a better quality of venom, extracted on a glass so they don’t die).All this resulted in a wrinkle-busting Day Complex (€115 for 50ml) with peptides and antioxidant-rich lactobionic acid; a revitalising Night Complex (€120 for 50ml) with peptides and collagen-boosting stem cells; an Enriched Regenerating Serum (€109 for 15ml) and an Eye Complex (€90 for 15ml) with haloxyl, which stimulates microcirculation to this delicate area; and a cleansing, firming and illuminating Bee Venom & Clay Mask (€95 for 100ml).
Lisbon’s Four Seasons Hotel Ritz has just launched Ignae facials at its spa, and the products are gaining global attention. Renowned US-based facialist (and global brand ambassador for Biologique Recherche) Joanna Czech is impressed: “The science is what impresses me the most about Ignae. The creams are hydrating and healing and have all the steps to fight the glycation process [when sugar reaches your skin, breaking down the collagen molecules – one of the main accelerators of skin ageing]. I have used the eye serum on clients before the Met Ball: it is great for red-carpet preparation, as it is lightweight and plumps the eye area, diminishing the appearance of fine lines.”
Following the scent of these inspiring success stories is a recently launched fragrance house in Lisbon, a first in Portugal, which tends to produce colognes. Comporta Perfumes’ scents (€118 for 100ml EDP), designed by lawyer-turned-“scent evangelist” Pedro Dias, are utterly transporting. There are eight and counting – each one delectable, desirable, delicious. Sela, with its heart notes of leather, represents that wild horseride across white sands; Dona Bia is spicy and warm – the sensorial memory of a tiny restaurant in the village of Comporta; rose-tinted Muda conjures sunset at early-evening parties; and Areia Salgada (or salty sands) is a zingy sea spray with citrus and green bergamot. Latest to join the stable is Ocaso (€220 for 100ml): the scent of moonlight on the sea… Pure escapism