The Soap Maker of Yerevan

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.

Nelly Avetisyan of Verde Pharm (photo: Allegra Garabedian)
Nelly Avetisyan of Verde Pharm (photo: Allegra Garabedian)

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.

Nelly had been a pharmacist for more than 30 years and began focusing on making soaps locally in 2009.
Nelly had been a pharmacist for more than 30 years and began focusing on making soaps locally in 2009. (Photo: Allegra Garabedian)

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.

Nelly's laboratory-style working space (photo: Allegra Garabedian)
Nelly’s laboratory-style working space (photo: Allegra Garabedian)

“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. (Photo Allegra Garabedian)
Nelly wants to create an Armenian brand that is known and recognized internationally. (Photo Allegra Garabedian)

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.

Nelly has made it her mission to remain organic. (Photo: Allegra Garabedian)
Nelly has made it her mission to remain organic. (Photo: Allegra Garabedian)

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!

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Lena Tachdjian has been living and working in Armenia since August 2011. She has a degree in philosophy and is a certified nutritional practitioner, having graduated with honors from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. She blogs about nutrition and travel at http://thetravelingchamelian.blogspot.com. She writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

13 Comments

  1. I like your article and wish her all the success but what kind of a business person living in Armenia would consider providing information about her business on het website verdesoap.com and her fb only in Russian, no Armenian, no English, only Russian. This is the kind of restricted mindset that prevents people becoming competitive in the market. She has given no consideration to all those potential customers both in Armenia and Diaspora who do not understand Russian.

    • Dear Diasporan Friend:
      Thank you very much for your comments and constructive criticism. I so wish you were equally strict in all matters….Perhaps we would have had a stronger Armenia then….
      The website you are referring to in your comment belongs to a business in Russia. The company that created the website is our representative in Russia and the site was created solely for the Russian market. Our company website is currently in the development process. For now you can establish contact with me either through Facebook or at 099 90 53 87.
      YES! YOU ARE RIGHT!!!!! What Kind of a Business Person…..?
      You must at least be insane to be a humble University professor and invest in a business in a country that has such a small market. You must be insane to worry about the honor of your motherland more than about your personal income. Yes!!!! You must be insane if you are trying to put Armenia next to the powerful countries, inform people about our prominent scientists and tell the world “Armenia was, is and will always be there”.
      And our only expectation from you, my Dear Friend, is to show your support to your fellow Armenian entrepreneurs, who still have the power to create regardless of their hard and sad reality, who worry more about the honor of their country rather than their own well-being and who still live in their MOTHERLAND and guard it so selflessly.

  2. Authorities should use these unique soaps in Armenia’s hotels. This will be good advertising, for soap exporting businesses!

  3. Nelly sounds like such a lovely person, and a perfect ambassador for Armenia. Her soaps look wonderful—I can almost smell them. I have purchased items from Armenia on e-Bay, which I’m sure most entrepreneurs are familiar with. Nelly is correct in wishing to develop her home market first. A friend of mine here in the US recently purchased a very “famous” egg white soap from Belgium. My friends in Belgium had never heard of it! In any case, soap can be very expensive, even when you have no idea what’s in it. I think many people would be interested in these beautiful soaps, given Nelly’s extensive knowledge and training.

  4. This was such a nice article to read, and I wish Nelly all the success in the world. Reading her above comment, I am also proud of her patriotism, she is an example for all of us Armenians to follow no matter where we are. So God bless you Nelly.

    I thought I might add a tidbit about Armenian soap. From the region of Cilician Armenia, from the time of king Tigran or before we have had a soap from the region made from laurel oil and olive oil or simply ‘laurel soap’. This soap has become famous as being “from Syria” so they are now calling it “Aleppo soap” or “ghar soap” (of course taking any Armenianness out of it as usual, even though the soap existed in “Syria” before the region became Arabized and Islamized). My opinion is thus, this soap is of Armenian origin, and hopefully one day the right research will be done to prove it conclusively.

  5. Very impressive! Good job and many more interesting ideas :)
    It doesn’t matter what language you use to advertise what you are making. What’s more important here is the fact that she has so much passion for what she is doing. And of course let’s not forget she is doing all of this in you country, with very limited resources and possibilities…

  6. Thank you Lena for making us all aware of Nelli’s green soap enterprise in Armenia and I wish her further success. I am a big fan of natural soaps having gotten hooked about 10 years ago when a friend of mine introduced me to handmade soaps made by a co-op in Afghanistan that was formed by a Canadian to help the locals utilize their exceptional natural products. I live in Germany and use only handmade, artisan soaps from local soapmakers and pharmacists as well from the south of France, when I travel there. Once you use the real thing you will NEVER go back to commercially made soaps, even the expensive, elegantly packaged ones. You really feel the difference immediately. And, yes, you may pay more than a commercial bar or liquid, but soap lasts a long time and the benefits far outweigh the small extra cost. The expensive brands are all puff. I can’t wait to try Nelli’s soaps and wish her much luck.

  7. Fantastic article she ought to write a book I’d buy it I would also hope she when she gets things together could make a brochure of some kind with her products and prices even if I had to pay for the brochure as it would have to be sent I wouldn’t mind and I would buy from her to have a piece of Armenia I was so jipped out of my Armenian culture and heritage my family died when I was very young Good Luck to this charming woman

  8. Dear Nelly,

    Thank you for your great work and your great spirit!
    You are offering a unique high-quality product, and I believe your brand should be known all over the world. So many people will benefit from the miraculous effects that your soaps have. Being all natural your soaps prove that there is nothing more healthy than the natural ingredients. I have seen the phenomenal effects of your soaps on my skin and hair. Your products possess a true ongoing value for the customer. Moreover, I see how much care and effort you put into each and every of your products.
    From my end, I will do my best to make your brand popular in the region and country where I live, and will be happy to see your business prosper not only in Armenia but also all over the world. The high quality and exceptional effects of your products make your brand perfectly competitive in the international marketplace.
    I am impressed by your entrepreneurial spirit, your creativity and enthusiasm!

    Best of luck,
    Nane

  9. Dear Nelly,
    I was actually looking for Hrat/soap and came on the Armenian Weekly site.The reason I was looking for this soap was a present of my eldest daughter. She recently visited Armenia and she braught me a wonderful piece of soap and I was interested in its origin. Although it was not your product, reading this article was really interesting, not just about the product but also about the maker
    Nelly, it is so good to read about you and your skin products. You must be an intelligent person with your hart on de right place. I wish you luck and for good products there is always a market!

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