Special for the Armenian Weekly
It seems as if soap making has become all the rage in Armenia. There are olive oil soaps being sold that come from Syria, locals making ones with different ingredients to sell at Vernisaj, Syrian Armenians making them locally, Jordanian-Armenians selling Dead Sea mud soaps, and shops in the center even carrying soaps with “vegan” and “no animal testing” written on them. Rewind to the autumn of 2011, and the choices were much more limited. To be fair, my perspective then could have been skewed, as I lived with a host family and did not explore much beyond nearby shops and supermarkets; yet, even my local friends seemed to know only of the imported Russian soaps that smelled like pine trees (in a bad way).
I reluctantly accepted the sad truth that soap making was not big in Armenia, and began using soap that dried out my skin, made me smell like a car freshener and feel like a reptile.
In 2012, I found myself at a fair with my volunteer placement and noticed a colorful table filled with different sized and shaped soaps, which set off my “home-made” spidey sense. I quickly left the stand I was meant to be watching and ran over to meet Nelly Avetisyan of Verde Pharm. Full of warmth, information, and samples, Nelly told me she had been a pharmacist for more than 30 years and began focusing on making soaps locally in 2009. She didn’t sell to shugas or most shops because her products needed some basic care and could not be left out in the sun, which explained why I hadn’t seen them around.
She had soaps meant for the hair infused with oils and herbs, soaps meant for the body, as well as lotions and therapeutic soaps meant for skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema. She focused on using local ingredients and actually grew many of the herbs herself in her garden—and let me know she even had an aloe vera plant! After asking me questions about my hair and skin type, she suggested a thyme-based shampoo and kindly gave me some other samples to try, such as her St. John’s Wort soap. While I was never reassigned the job of watching tables again, I had an invitation to see Nelly’s home and garden.
I arrived to her house just outside of the center, and she gave me a tour of her laboratory-style working space, as well as her garden full of different plants and herbs. As we sat inside, Nelly told me how she studied water contamination while she was teaching, and how it was during this time that she became aware of all the dangers of synthetic materials—and became inspired to use her education to do something else.
“Being a pharmacist is very important for this type of work,” Nelly said. “You need to know that the roots, stems, seeds, and leaves of any given plant can have different uses and there are different ways in which they should be processed for soaps.” She had initially used pig oil as a base for some of her soaps, but made the decision to keep her products “green” (hence “Verde”) and therefore plant-based.
While Nelly’s grandmother had also made soaps, she knew Armenians must have stories of soap-makers in our past, as we are an “old race and soul.” She studied the work of the “traveling physician” Amirdovlat Amasiatsi from the 15th century, as well as Mkhitar Heratsi, and realized that Armenians did in fact have a history in this regard. Nelly became determined to continue in their footsteps, and make soaps for therapeutic use with traditional Armenian wellness recipes.
Nelly wants to create an Armenian brand that is known and recognized internationally, but she said it was “important to be successful locally first.” Almost all of her ingredients are local, with very few exceptions such as cinnamon, and her aim is to always have her soaps connected with pieces of Armenia—wherever they may end up. She also uses them to preserve Armenian history. “There was an attempt to change the name of the Armenian bezoar goat to the Anatolian bezoar goat in the Red Book,” she told me. “The goat is a symbol for us, as when there is lightning it is said to go the top of the mountain ‘harvadzi dag’ in order to save the herd, and I named my goat’s milk soap after it to immortalize it. While the milk itself is not from the bezoar goat, as they are notorious for being impossible to catch, I still wanted to dedicate mine to it and personalize it, while preserving a piece of our history.”
Nelly showed me more of her wide selection of products, and said she aims to keep in line with the seasons, so it was no wonder she had jars of sour cherries, apricots, and sea buckthorns to use in her new soaps. She showed me some she had created for pregnancy stretch marks, cellulite, dandruff, insomnia, stress, different skin conditions, as well as a lotion for pain relief that had over 25 active ingredients, including cloves, lilacs, and essential oils. While she has made it her mission to remain organic, she has yet to have certification due to the expensive cost; she knows, however, that in order to sell to many cities outside of Armenia, the certification will eventually become necessary.
I asked Nelly what other plans she has, and she said she would soon create an aluminum-free deodorant as well as cold-pressed oils. (At this point, we almost finished each other’s sentences talking about how the flax seed oils sold in the drugstores in Yerevan were completely rancid. Luckily, she said she would remedy that with her own oils.)
Before she makes anything new, Nelly always asks herself, “What sets you apart?” Her answer tends to be that her products are contributing to alleviating an ailment by natural means, and raising awareness of Armenia. She said that while many are obsessing about Dead Sea products, she is currently waiting for Vana Lich salt since “we have our own version.”
So while the “soap situation” in Armenia has gone from limited to almost overwhelmingly abundant, Nelly’s locally made and therapeutic products—combined with her expertise, advice, and interesting stories—have won my heart, skin, and hair. I was also happy to find out that she had already heard of and talked with Hovig and Vrej, and when their olive trees bear fruit, will make olive oil and olive leaf soaps!