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All aboard the scented Portuguese train


Jennifer Barton,

In row upon row they sit: beautifully wrapped confections in delicious pastel shades of lemon, violet, powder blue and pretty bon-bon pink. However, despite the sweet aromas drifting through the Ach Brito store in Portugal’s picturesque Fajozes, these aren’t candies or cakes. They are the scented soaps that the company has been making since 1887; a product that, along with the soaps made by Confiança, make the country a destination for the cosmetic obsessive. Made using century-old milling techniques, hand-wrapped in vintage-inspired packaging, a Portuguese bar of soap is a little piece of history with an luxurious look, scent and feel.

Portugal’s soap story begins in 1887, when the country’s first soap-making company, Claus Porto, was founded by Germans Ferdinand Claus and Georges Schweder. In 1918, the company was purchased by Achilles Alves de Brito, one of the brand’s employees, and renamed Ach Brito. Ach Brito soaps are renowned for the special milling process used to produce them; the soap is churned seven times to expel air and create a creamy texture and longer-lasting aroma. A natural drying process also ensures the soaps keep their fragrance and consistency. Ach Brito’s world-renowned soaps (the company also produces collections under the Claus Porto label) sit alongside the company’s other covetable toiletry products, which include cologne, candles and shaving cream.

According to Catarina Portas, founder and owner of A Vida Portuguesa, which stocks a nostalgia-lover’s dream trove of Portuguese products that retain their original packaging and manufacturing techniques, Portuguese soaps such as those from Ach Brito are peerless in terms of product and presentation. ‘Everything about the soaps makes them stand out – their beautiful vintage packaging from a centenary archive, their quality, their natural ingredients and hand-wrapping,’ she explains.

The soaps in the range include everything from classic Pedra Pomes, an exfoliating pumice soap, and Musgo Real soap on a rope, to delicate violet- and rose-perfumed soaps and wax-sealed soaps featuring richly painted illustrations of dancing duos on the packaging. ‘They last for a very long time, way longer than the average supermarket products, are more environmentally friendly and great for one’s skin,’ says Portas. ‘Ach Brito is a prime example of a brand that managed to reinvent itself while remaining faithful to its history.’

A Vida Portuguesa also sells soaps from one of Portugal’s other top brands, Confiança, founded in 1894, when most of the country’s perfumes and cosmetic products were still being imported. Confiança continues to produce its unique soap collections today as a part of Ach Brito.

Saboaria Portugueza, founded by Rosário Mota and her husband in 2006, is a thoroughly contemporary soap and bath products brand that continues to reap inspiration from the past. Made using only vegetable bases and tried-and-tested production techniques, Saboaria’s soaps are triple-milled and feature the same emphasis on quality, scent and wrapping as those of the country’s older soap makers.

Portuguese soaps use the power of the visual (symbols, patterns on packaging) and the olfactory (scents at Saboaria are selected according to current market trends; the brand is currently enjoying success with its vegetable extract line, which is extremely popular in Japan). ‘Understanding the power of our vision and smell to evoke emotions, we always focus our product development on a thorough research of ancient and traditional typical Portuguese history symbols, trying to transform them with a cosmopolitan, relevant and modern look,’ says a spokesperson for Saboaria. For example, the traditional Portuguese tiles that cover walls, houses, palaces and churches come alive in Saboaria’s gold and blue Azulejo packaging, with the soap’s aroma evoking the citrusy scent of the classic Portuguese garden. The company’s Carícia (Caress) collection captures the scent of lavender, Portugal’s national flower, in stylised Art Deco packaging.

‘Portuguese soaps are unique in the way we manufacture them – there is a know-how accumulated and transmitted through generations that allows us to say that our soaps are different,’ explains Saboaria’s spokesperson. ‘The formulations, the triple-milled way of doing it, the ingredients, the quantity of fragrance we use; these are all details that make all the difference between Portuguese soaps and those created elsewhere.’

Portuguese soaps offer an emotional experience. These portable emblems of the past, reminders of Portuguese traditions and craftsmanship, are valuable tokens that eager consumers are bringing into the future by introducing them to the next generation. Success has never smelled so sweet.

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