Ancient Skincare Tradition in the Czech Republic

Pascal Chevallier

In a Czech monastery two hours outside Prague, monks toil over an ancient skincare recipe once used to heal the wounds of gladiators.

Lev Glazman says the white, very dense cream with its faint flowery smell is the richest moisturizer available. To hear him tell it, Crème Ancienne, developed by the cosmetics company Fresh, of which Glazman is a founder, has an astounding number of uses: as a day or nighttime moisturizer; to reduce lines, postsurgical scars, stretch marks; as a healing agent; and to protect skin against the elements, especially during such winter sports as skiing. It even softens tiger paws, according to its best customer, a Los Angeles film producer who buys three 3.5-ounce jars at a time—one for himself, one for his mother-in-law, one for the pet tiger.

But the 14 simple ingredients listed on the no-nonsense porcelain container (rosewater, beeswax, chamomile wax, and meadowfoam-seed oil among them) hardly describe the byzantine backstory of the cream, which is hand blended by monks in the first postcommunist-era monastery to open in the Czech Republic. It’s a tale the monastery’s French prior, Father Samuel, refused to let Glazman tell, saying “We will see in a few years.” Religion, Glazman was learning, trumps commerce and spiritual contracts trump business ones.

This fall, when Glazman asked once more, Father Samuel did consent—but with conditions.

The saga begins around A.D. 160, when Claudius Galenus, aka Galen (129–216), considered one of the most important medical researchers of antiquity—his theories would dominate Western medical science for more than a millennium—became doctor-in-residence at the Roman gladiator’s school in his hometown of Pergamum, Greece. Searching for a way to hasten the healing of his patients’ wounds, he developed a cerate, or ointment—cera is Latin for “wax”—containing a precise emulsion of beeswax, water, herbal infusions, and olive oil. It worked, though it did tend to spoil a few days after preparation. Galen’s cerate was the world’s first-known skincare cream.

Cut to 1991, when Glazman, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and raised in Israel, and his wife, Alina Roytberg, born and raised in Ukraine, opened Fresh, a 20th-century apothecary selling imported natural body- and skincare products from around the world. It was, however, a triple-milled, vegetable-based Oval Soap with glycerin and shea butter the couple themselves created that turned Fresh into the global success it is today. In 1994 a wholesale order of 1,000 soaps shipped to Barneys New York sold out in three days. Suddenly the bars, hand wrapped in cotton and inlaid paper tied with wire and a semiprecious stone, were everywhere.

The first New York City store opened in 1998, followed by a second in 1999. By 2000 Fresh’s mission to combine ancient remedies with modern technology—including products based on Umbrian clay, first used by the Etruscans in the sixth century b.c., and one based on sake, a beauty secret of Japanese geishas’—had caught the attention of LVMH, the luxury goods company. They entered into a partnership that year. Today Fresh’s line is sold at 14 freestanding stores in the United States, one in London, and various department stores here and in Canada and Asia.

In 2001, while researching in the LVMH chemist library, Glazman discovered Galen’s recipe. Intrigued, he and his chemist re-created it in the lab. “I was blown away,” he recalls. “The texture felt rich, and the skin drank in the oils while the wax coated it—almost like a healing Band-Aid.” The name, says Roytberg, “came that first moment.” They all agreed it should be called Crème Ancienne.

Even though Galen’s recipe was the forerunner of all creams, spawning countless variations, Glazman’s idea was to take it back to the same proportions of oil and wax as the original’s. “No one,” he says, “had touched that ancient cream’s exact formula.” Fresh did, however, modify it in an effort to avoid spoilage, replacing the olive oil with meadowfoam-seed oil, reducing the beeswax content, adding chamomile-flower wax, vitamin E, lemon oil, osmanthus extract, and rosewater.

No amount of modification, though, could get around the need for hand blending. Because of the fragility of the ingredients and precise heating and mixing requirements, machines could not handle the job. That’s where the monks came in. “Monks are part of the cream’s heritage,” says Glazman. They had kept Galen’s formula alive. “The only reason this recipe even survived,” says Roytberg, “is because monasteries were the center and protectors of knowledge, even in the Middle Ages when books were being burned.” Monasteries also had a role as apothecaries, growing healing herbs and flowers in their gardens and preparing medicines. It couldn’t be a better fit—or so they thought. The challenge was to find one.

To be sure, this was not a group that had Rolodexes brimming with monastery contact information. “Thank God the Internet existed,” says Roytberg. Forget illuminated manuscripts. Today’s monasteries, forced to adapt to save their way of life, have telephones, Web sites, and e-mail addresses. Higher-ranking monks even have cell phones. The couple decided to go with handwritten letters in both English and French, but they received no response. Or, as Roytberg puts it, “There was a lot of silence.”

They took to cold-calling. And when that failed, they took to the road. While the visits may have been productive for other reasons—it was the magnificent tilework at the 12th-century abbey of Sept-Fons in Dompierre-sur-Besbre near Lyon that inspired Roytberg’s design for Crème Ancienne’s packaging—a year had gone by and there were still no bites.

Finally monks at a Belgian monastery directed them to a newly formed convent in Norway—Tautra Mariakloster, on the island of Tautra. Although there were only seven nuns in residence, which would mean a very limited production of 1,000 jars a year, it seemed better than nothing.

Within three months of Crème Ancienne’s launch in 2003, it had sold out and there were waiting lists. “This was not right,” says Roytberg. “It wasn’t a Birkin bag.” Overwhelmed, the nuns were not any happier.With complaints that there weren’t enough hours in the day to balance prayer and production, Fresh looked for a replacement. A fledgling monastery in the west Bohemia countryside of the Czech Republic answered their prayers.

Following the Communist coup in 1948, religious orders were prohibited by law and Czechoslovakia’s monasteries were closed. Many Czech monks went into exile in France. But after communism collapsed in 1989, a French monastery (Sept-Fons) turned its energies to the establishment of a new monastery in the Czech Republic to help its Czech monks return to their homeland. The building project, which began in 2001, involved restoring an abandoned 18th-century Baroque farmhouse on 100 acres and incorporating it in a 60,000-square-foot complex, including church, cloister, refectory, school, dormitory, guesthouse, and cemetery. It was being financed with donations and supplemented with money generated by the monks’ own labor. Father Samuel told Fresh that the men were indeed looking for work.

Within six months they had established an agreement and production had been stabilized. The monks now manufacture 10,000 units a year, including the cream in jars of two sizes, one ounce ($135) and 3.5 ounces ($250). There is also a companion face oil, Elixir Ancien, which costs $250 for 1.7 ounces.

The day I arrive at the monastery with Glazman and a few others from Fresh, Father Samuel, who has been a monk for almost half of his 54 years, ushers us into an office in the administrative wing. He tells me that I will not be able to reveal the name of the monastery, its exact location, or the name of the order to which these monks belong. When I ask for guidance, pointing out that his calling may be full of mystery but mine depends on the concrete, he says: “Explain to your readers that because of the need for solitude that is necessary to preserve the monastic life, we have decided to stay hidden.” He then voices the very thought running through my mind. “We are walking very close on the spiritual and material line.”

Dear Reader, forgive me if it seems I have sinned in the name of being able to tell a good story. To be frank, there was nothing to do but accept his terms. It seems religion trumps journalism, too. Despite his edict, and the understanding that areas of the complex are off-limits to female guests, he is a generous host, inviting us to a church service, offering us lunch, and providing a glimpse into a way of life that has not changed much in 1,000 years.

As this is a contemplative order, the 25 monks in residence—who range in age from 20 to 69—are expected to remain silent throughout the day and especially at night, on the theory that silence is most conducive to prayer and creates a space for receiving the presence of God. (When the men do speak, it is in French or Czech.) They are to live a life of personal poverty with few possessions and limited contact with the outside world. All have taken vows of “stability,” an expectation that they will live out their lives here.

The routine of their highly structured days begins with the clanging bell that rouses them from sleep at 3:15 a.m. In the 15 minutes before the first of the day’s seven church services, there is time for basic ablutions (Crème Ancienne is not used) and to don a cowl, the same habit monks have worn since the third century, a brown wool scapular over a white cotton robe, a long leather tie around the waist, a pointed white hood, and leather sandals. They gather in the chapel for an hour-long prayer session known as the night office, or Matins. The remainder of the day is spent alternately at prayer, at rest, reading, and working. The main meal is lunch, which like dinner is eaten in silence and consists of bread, vegetables, fruit, and occasionally milk and cheese. Meat, fish, and eggs are forbidden, except for the sick.

After the last prayer service at 7:30 p.m., the monks walk in procession to sleep in the common dormitory, the beds divided by cubicle walls. (Only the cells of brothers who snore have doors and ceilings.) What is known as the Great Silence of the night begins.

The monks work six days a week. On Sundays they rest and pray. While all the monks undertake labor of some sort, their work preferences and aptitudes are taken into account. Father Samuel says the younger monks prefer more physical outdoor work, such as cutting and gathering firewood in the surrounding forest and caring for the monastery’s sheep. Eight monks, who trade their robes for lab coats, make the cream.

The creammaking process—each 12-kilo batch takes two days to complete—involves heating the waxes in a double boiler and pouring them together as the damask-rose water and oils are added. This takes four hands and about 15 minutes of mixing. If everything is done right—precise temperature, ratio of ingredients, and proper mixing achieved—the concoction goes from liquid to thickened emulsion in a mere moment. It is left to cool until the next day, when the jars are filled by hand.

Our visit stretches into late afternoon. Father Samuel asks us whether we’d like to stay to attend Vespers, the day’s next prayer service. In the pause before we respond, he assures us that he will “be happy if you stay and happy if you go.” We agree that going seems a good alternative.

Our departure is delayed, though, when it is discovered that a female member of our entourage is locked in the visitors’ bathroom. Solemnity is out the window as visitors and monks alike, all laughing uproariously, dash back inside to rescue her. I hear Father Samuel shouting instructions through the door.

Feeling like a bull in a china shop, if only by association, I decide to wait outside; there will be less risk of getting in trouble. I am also craving a quiet moment. Other than the church service, the much-discussed silence and contemplation have been in short supply. Seeing an open field, I set off for a brief walk, careful to lower my eyes and say nothing when I pass a young monk mowing the grass in a windbreaker and baseball hat.

A light rain is falling, a moody mist covers the landscape. Just then a thumping beat crashes into my reverie. A gospel choir? Fearing for my sanity, I walk in its general direction, which seems to be the front of the monastery. Getting closer, I can make out a woman’s voice and the words she is singing: Life is a mystery. Everyone must stand alone. I hear you call my name.…

This reminds me of one of the day’s more irreverent moments. Someone asked Father Samuel exactly where he’d been and what he was doing in his late twenties (he said he wasn’t even a practicing Christian at the time), when he heard the call to become a monk. He had been a good sport but quickly gave the standard response we received each time he chose to ignore a question: “I’ll answer that in a few years when we are friends.”

Meanwhile, I have solved the musical mystery. It is Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” from 1989, the same year communism collapsed in the Czech Republic. Its source, I see, is a repair truck, summoned from the outside world to fix something at the monastery, its door open, motor running, and radio blaring: When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer, I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.…

Jean Nathan wrote about Guerlain in the November/December 2008 issue.