Since the coronavirus crisis began in France, our computer and TV screens have been with barraged with public health missives. The Alerte France ads feature a four-pronged plan to “protect yourself and others.” The first step, “wash your hands very often,” has made good old-fashioned soap the best anti-viral weapon – especially due to the drought of antibacterial gel. Consequently, the emblematic savon de Marseille – an olive-oil based soap that makes use of Provence’s green gold – is more popular than ever, turning the city’s savonneries into unintentional ambassadors of public health.
One of them, Savonnerie Fer à Cheval, has been particularly prepared for the role. The company’s president, Raphaël Seghin, explains: “Having lived in Asia for 25 years, I have experience with epidemics.” So when his Asian contacts warned him about Covid-19, he implemented an action plan in mid-February – a time of pre-confinement calm, even though the country had just recorded its first virus-related death.
Raphaël stocked up on masks and gloves for his staff. At the end of February, he began taking their temperature each day. But when he forbid the bise, France’s customary cheek kiss, his employees looked at him quizzically. They were bombarded with mixed messages: On TV, the government was telling people to stay at home and not work, while according to their boss, they were essential workers, (although he did his best to reassure them that their safety and health was his utmost concern). Fortunately, in his spacious factory, soap making doesn’t require the closeness that put workers in American meat production at risk.
On the business side, Raphaël increased production like other Marseille savonneries. Fearful that brick and mortar resellers would shutter, he boosted his website’s bandwidth and directed the marketing team to up social media and online advertising. “We could quickly redirect those clients that would normally shop at stores to our site,” explains the savvy businessman.
Fer à Cheval is one of the founding members of the Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille (UPSM), a collective of Marseille’s long-standing savonneries formed to protect their heritage suds. Copyright issues plague Savon de Marseille. Soap manufacturers across the globe can freely use the name. A German company behind the supermarket brand, Le Chat, somehow owns the savon de Marseille trademark. And Petit Marseillais soap is actually made by the U.S.’s Johnson & Johnson. “90 percent of savon de Marseille isn’t really that,” laments Raphaël.
To prove Fer à Cheval’s authenticity, he obtained an EPV (Entreprise du Patrimioine Vivant – Living Heritage Business) and an OFG (Origine France Guarantie – Guaranteed From France) accreditation. His primary goal is an IGP, France’s geographically based designation for artisanal goods. Soap makers across the country are in a lather over the same legal battle, complicated by their different opinions on how savon de Marseille should be delineated. The four UPSM members – Savonnerie du Midi, Le Serail, Marius Fabre, and Fer à Cheval – are united in their definition.
Firstly, the savon de Marseille must be fabricated via the procédé marseillaise, a five-step, 10-day process created by maître savonniers (master soap makers) centuries ago. After the soap is boiled in cauldrons – the reason for its long shelf life – it is washed in salt water to remove the lye. Next, it is poured in molds, cut into blocks or cubes, then turned numerous times to expose each surface to the salty Mediterranean air.
Secondly, though the recipes vary between each company, the soap must contain natural ingredients only: oil, lye, water and salt, with a composition of at least 72 percent vegetable oil. The green cubes come from olive oil, a Provencal staple, while coconut-based copra oil imparts a creamy hue. Although it has a huge environmental downside, palm oil can also be used, but coloring, preservatives, perfumes and animal fats are all forbidden. So while tourists buy fragrant purple and pink bars freckled with dried lavender buds and rose petals for souvenirs, they aren’t technically savon de Marseille.
Lastly, the soap must be made in Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille’s département (Marius Fabre is in Salon-de-Provence while the other three USPM members are Marseille-based.) Soap has been manufactured in the Mediterranean city since the 14th century, no doubt influenced by a similar version that arrived by sea from Aleppo, Syria, also famed for its oil-based soaps. After King Louis XIV’s 1688 edict that declared savon de Marseille must be composed of olive oil not butter, the industry boomed.
“It’s our civic duty to help,” says Raphaël, who was shocked by how much the front line lacked basics like soap.
The port city was perfectly primed to be a soap-making capital, thanks to its abundant oil mills and proximity to Camargue salt. In 1900, 60 percent of jobs in Marseille were connected to the soap industry, which churned out 180,000 tons of soap a year. The Great Depression, the invention of washing machines, and trends towards shower gels collectively washed away the soap industry. Once numbering more than a hundred, now Bouches-du-Rhône has only five savonneries left.
Multi-purpose savon de Marseille brims with benefits. Hypoallergenic, biodegradable and economically long lasting, you can use the soap for both personal and home hygiene. The shavings and liquid version are apt for washing delicate clothes, removing stains and repelling moths. There is even an old wives’ tale that claims it soothes rheumatism symptoms if you tuck it at the foot of your bed!
Doctors recommend the curative cubes for treating skin irritations and soothing sunburns thanks to its super concentrated formula. Hence its heft: Average size cubes are three times heavier than classic bars of soap – so be careful of your toes if you drop one in the shower. In the Covid-19 era of frequent hand-washings, the gentle savon is ideal since it doesn’t dry skin out.
Since the pandemic started, Fer à Cheval has donated to Marseille’s marins-pompiers (firefighters), hospitals, non-profits that help the homeless, and retirement homes. “It’s our civic duty to help,” says Raphaël, who was shocked by how much the front line lacked basics like soap. The conscientious executive also recognized that unlike many local businesses that had been forced to shutter, his company was in a relatively good position.
That was not the case before he arrived. Marseille’s longest-running savonnerie and its parent company, NCDSM (La Nouvelle Compagnie des Détergents et du Savon de Marseille), were on the verge of bankruptcy. Raphaël, his brother Yannick, and his father came to the rescue in 2013. Lured by Fer à Cheval’s patrimony – which had been overshadowed by NCDSM’s detergent and base soap production – the Belgian entrepreneurs invested six years in product development and marketing, giving the 150-year old soap a second wind.
The savon de Marseille is having a renaissance worldwide, influenced by recent trends for natural, local and heritage goods. When Raphael searched for #savondemarseille on Instagram in 2013, “only one in ten products were authentic.” Now, one in two are the real deal, a sign of the soap’s comeback. And, now that pandemic is part of our daily lexicon, there’s no stopping these iconic cubes.
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