Today I'd like to post about the "top artisans" of this year, 2016. Not only those that have brought remarkable performance to shaving software, from soaps to aftershaves, or all these incredible scents... But those that have refined the state of the art[isan] in the market with packaging and presentation, collaboration with other artisans or have worked extremely hard to bring us our simple joys every morning...
But this won't be a traditional top ten list per se - I will start with the top five - and finish with the bottom five. Those that have lost focus, disappeared into the ether entirely or those that have added needless #drama through questionable business practices.
I'd rather focus on the positive, so have included some honorable mentions on the plus side. You may not agree with me on some or even all of these... And that's okay. There is a huge list of wet shaving artisans out there and we can't list them all here...
But we appreciate each and every one of them!
Top Five Shaving Artisans
- Barrister and Mann (#barristermann) - Will (and his family) behind the well-known (and well-loved) brand of B&M take the number one spot this year, which may come as no surprise. They have literally taken the artisan shave market to the next level (again). Just this year alone they have revamped their packaging to include much higher quality containers, all new (and stunning) artwork and made their already excellent soap even better with the new "glissant" formulation. As if that wasn't enough, and after nearly two years of dedication and very hard work - launched Barrister's Reserve - a new line of advanced aftershaves with a keen eye on preserving discontinued or forgotten scents that are as true as possible to their originals.
- Mickey Lee Soapworks (#mickeyleesoaps) - They've always had a very nice set of offerings in both soaps and aftershaves but near the end of last year improved the formulas. This year they've improved both the packaging itself as well as the labeling, which is being professionally printed and fully waterproof. They've kept their loyal fans hooked by re-releasing favorites as well as introducing unique and lovely new scents. Finally, there's the people behind MLS, Eric and Sam. While Eric is deployed, often for months at a time in the Navy - Sam works tirelessly to keep everything rolling. Not only that, they moved from one side of the country to the other and didn't miss a beat... And we couldn't appreciate it more.
- L&L Grooming (#landlgrooming) - While they appeared on a lot of people's radar over the last year, things really took off at the beginning of July when Scott announced the new bison tallow formula. It quickly became quite highly regarded by all that tried it, not to mention the aftershaves as well. Then there are the scents. Also broadly enjoyed, they're of high quality, long duration and yet still unique in this crowded space. Another point worth making is the extensive collaboration they've done with our next artisan.
- Chatillon Lux (#chatillonlux) - From the beginning, Shawn has been making a name for himself with truly unique, complex and high quality scents in a well-rounded range of offerings including aftershave, toner and salves. Focusing on scents rather than soaps, they've collaborated with other artisans that offer excellent soap bases to make some bombastic combos. They've also been collaborating with the shavers of the community, releasing several custom batches; one for a Facebook group and another for a forum.
- Tallow + Steel (#tallowandsteel) - They quickly established themselves by offering products with high quality organic ingredients in bases that perform superbly and also managed to remain totally unique. Right out of the gate, the ingredients were top notch as was the packaging, label design, website and product photos - but also offered nice touches, like the logo "branded" into the soap. There's also the collaboration between Ryan and Chatillon Lux using one of their scents for a Reddit group soap.
- The Holy Black Trading Company (#theholyblack) - Those that remember the early days may remember the complete meltdown of the company. That might've been the end of them, but owner Stefan was determined to come back - and not only did he do that, he made things right by his early customers. Teaming up with his brother, they brought the company up with even stronger branding, introducing some truly unique, quality products and scents as well as being involved in the various communities and appearing at meet-ups around the east coast. In the words of L.L. Cool J - don't call it a comeback. This is a whole new THB.
- K Shave Worx (#kshaveworx) - The team of Kevin and Kelly have been burning the midnight oil in bringing their Etsy brand into the spotlight over the past year. Originally they made fairly simple scents for their soaps and aftershaves, but as of the last couple of months have really gotten more complex in both their scent offerings and label designs. But even from the beginning, their packaging and labels have been simple, clean and effective. They do extensive collaboration with a particular wet shaving group, providing the custom scents for them - and have appeared at several meet-ups around the east coast as well.
Bottom Five Shaving Artisans
- OneBlade & Blades Grim - Tied for this position are two razor brands. The former came out with an overpriced, even more overpriced and insanely overpriced versions of the same flawed razor that they likely knew was such and regularly offering highly discounted "sales." The latter didn't even have to come out with a razor first before the shit hit the fan. Yup, that one's done before it even began. Both are of questionable ethics and customer service.
- RazoRock (Italian Barber) - While always providing an inexpensive product with decent value, the performance was never standout and the scents fairly weak. We can forgive that, given the prices. But the sad part is the vendor behind the brand, Italian Barber has been embroiled in somewhat questionable business tactics which hasn't done either a favor.
- Crown King Shaving - Was supposed to be the refined, retail-friendly arm of PAA but out of the gate was destined for failure. Scents that didn't fit the theme of its namesake, packaging design that didn't either - which changed constantly. While the soap formula has its fans, most seasoned shavers are nonplussed. Everything a retailer... Doesn't want to see. The CK website disappeared as of November 1st and just forwards to PAA now, where it feels like it should have stayed in the first place.
- Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements - Back in the day, How to Grow a Moustache had some good buzz and really unique, quality scents like The Beach and Cavendish. Alas, there was quite a kerfuffle and the shakeout led to what is now PAA. Interesting, the "Phoenix" part - it's a double entendre of sorts, as you could take it to mean their relocation to the Phoenix, AZ area - or the rebirth of the brand, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Unfortunately, this bird is in flame-out mode. Instead of spending time developing quality scents, a shotgun approach of seemingly bi-weekly releases of mediocre ones (and clones) is employed with countless packaging and formula changes, cross-contamination with the CK brand and no shortage of continuing drama. The soap base called Synergy 3.x wasn't really an improvement either.
- Tiki Bar Soap - It's hard to fault Amanda for what's become of Tiki Bar Soap for the numerous problems that caused the site to essentially shut down for months. But promises of returning in September didn't pan out. Nor did October. November isn't encouraging either with a new "buy back program" for soaps that have weakened in scent and developed "stearic spots" with a fresh new promise of "coming soon!" Truly hope this works out but it's probably a case of "too little, too late" at this point.
Well. This post was certainly... A conversation starter. Far and wide across the shaving continuum. I've seen a large part of the response on Reddit and Facebook and some forums. The majority agrees with my list, at least for the most part. There were no shortage of comments though, from both camps. So I'd like to take a moment to address a few of the major themes.
Don't get yourself in a lather that your favorite artisan did (or did not) appear on my list. There are quite literally about 100 artisans out there, most producing some really good stuff. I can't list them all in a top five or ten, clearly. I had to make hard decisions about who to include and who not to. That said, let's talk about how I chose them.
This list is for 2016. I focused on events occurring this year. I had a different list in 2015.
For the top five, I favored artisans that produced top quality software, have made the most or biggest improvements to it, have been the topic of conversation a lot, the quality of their website and social media presence, their approachability, how they interacted with others, namely other artisans and how responsive they were to us, their customers. Older, more established artisans were on my previous list, so I leaned more towards newer ones for this year (with perhaps, the exception of B&M). Our youngest, Tallow + Steel is only five months. Come back next year and the list will likely look quite different. Besides, even if I picked five artisans randomly - somebody would still find issue. These things are subjective.
Okay, so the bottom five. It was not to "stir the pot" so to speak. The shaving community, like any close knit one - sees its fair share of drama flare up every now and again. So those that were at the center of these got the most attention... Especially when it comes to ethics. Yes, these are small businesses, even friends and neighbors. But they are still businesses. Like deleting negative reviews, it's not fair to those that don't know better - or to the business. They cannot change if they perceive nothing is wrong (or choose to ignore it). I don't wish them ill will, I don't have an axe to grind. Heck, I didn't even make this stuff up - where relevant, I provided links to where the controversy occurred so you can do your own research. I didn't put them on this list... They did.
In closing... This is my list, that I compiled for my own reasons. You are free to make your own. I stand by what I wrote.
FWIW, five artisans have reported increased sales (and web traffic) due to this list so far...
It seems I'm not so crazy after all. The r/Wetshaving Reddit group has nominated a bunch of artisans for 2016. They've even discussed and set up a Straw Poll... As you can see from the following image, it looks nearly identical to my list above - only one artisan differs (who makes hardware; I focused on software) as does the order (different criteria over many people):