It's that time of year again... The list for 2016 last year proved to be the most popular post of all time! Today I'd like to post about the "top artisans" of this year, 2017 - both good and bad. It was a banner year with a huge list of releases. 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...
This won't be a traditional top ten list per se - we'll start with the top five - and finish with the bottom five software artisans. Those that have lost focus, disappeared into the ether entirely or those that have added needless #drama through questionable business practices. Why include a bottom? As the French writer Beaumarchais once said, “Without Freedom to blame, there is no flatterer's praise.” I've expanded the honorable mentions, added a dishonorable mentions and a bonus section for hardware. You may not agree with 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...
But we appreciate each and every one of them!
The list for 2016 was pretty clear, but there seemed to be a little confusion on criteria and what not, so check that out for more information. It's not an all time best/worst list (just 2017). It also favors the most well known movers and shakers in the artisan space. There may be better (or worse) artisans out there, but if they're more obscure then they didn't make the list. As for this year, the criteria hasn't changed but both the list of artisans and the nearly endless releases made it hard to narrow it down. Unlike last year, we waited a bit longer so that the typically busy fall releases and holiday releases could be considered as well.
Top Five Shaving Artisans
- Chatillon Lux / Declaration Grooming (#chatillonlux / #landlgrooming) - Chatillon Lux has the advantage of focusing on one thing primarily; scents. Each is unique, high quality and enjoyed by many and runs the gamut from aftershave and toner to balms and EdT. Another particular standout for the brand is the collaboration with other artisans, including Wholly Kaw and Storybook Soapworks as well as participating in special events like Movember. Declaration Grooming (formerly L&L Grooming) was by far the largest collaborator with three incredible releases over the summer (and a few amazing ones of their own) - all exceptional and well-received, but Rose Santal wins the show.
- Barrister and Mann (#barristermann) - This year's releases from Barrister and Mann included re-releases of old favorites and continued expansion of the Barrister's Reserve line, but the runaway hit was no doubt the bombastic Fougére Gothique with its ostentatious hardware options and even a T-shirt. A collaboration with the SFWS group brought us Citricuyá and a Reddit group Adumbrare. The holiday releases of Eventide and Promises are closing out the year in grand style. The perfumery behind the scents, strong branding and quality bases ensured a repeat showing this year.
- Tallow + Steel (#tallowandsteel) - Tallow + Steel made our list last year for coming up, guns blazing. The revamp of the entire lineup (literally) for 2017 saw strong improvements to the soap and aftershave bases, packaging and branding/artwork. There was even a Limited Edition release over the summer called West Coast IPA. The scents are quite unique (for better or for worse, but we like them) as are the bases to set them apart from the crowd.
- Wholly Kaw (#whollykaw) - Wholly Kaw has continually improved their offerings, from the soap base to the packaging and branding as well as releasing new product categories (e.g. deodorants and EdT/EdP). The donkey milk soap base is one of the best on the market currently and the new airless balm containers are small, easy to use and classy. The branding makeover looks professional (though it's starting to stray a bit of late). The scents can be a bit hit or miss, but there are some strong favorites including an amazing collaboration soap with Chatillon Lux.
- Chiseled Face/Groomatorium (#chiseledface) - While the Chiseled Face releases have been essentially non-existent, the release of soaps in the various Zoologist Perfumes fragrances have been a big hit, despite their $37 price tag. Though to be fair, the fragrances go for $125 each... The artisan has also revived a former (and defunct) artisan you may remember from last year's list, Tiki Bar Soap - and helping out Los Angeles Shaving Soap Company. Plus offering hand-tied, made in the U.S.A. brush knots under the name Landmark Essentials. All while establishing a new, 6,000 square foot headquarters and retail space in Ontario, California.
- Storybook Soapworks (#storybooksoapworks) - Not even a year old, the first product, Elysium - was an immediate hit. Some special editions made a showing over the summer and the latest offerings included a collaboration with Chatillon Lux to bring Le Foret de Liguest soap to the masses, but Coffee Spoons is also fantastic. Offering matching aftershaves, the bases are solid on both and the branding is strong. There were some availability issues at first, but that seems to be behind them. Definitely looking forward to seeing what comes next.
- Oleo Soapworks (#oleosoapworks) - Slightly older and coming up on their second year, this artisan came on strong over the last and taking names. Releasing products not just under their own brand, but also Ariana & Evans as well as custom requests, the scents are of a good quality and strength. Xocolātl was a particularly nice, if limited release. They offer a full product line, including shaving and bath soaps, deodorants, moisturizers and now lip balms. The bases are solid, and with a little refinement of the branding and packaging, could go far.
- Wickham Soap Co. - Underrated and perhaps a little less known on this side of the pond, as they're based in England. The soap bases have shown themselves to be solid, and the scents are unique and quite nice. The most popular seem to be Club Cola and Magnum, both regularly praised. Further sealing the deal are full lines of soaps, aftershave balms, face and bath soaps... Complete with clean, professional packaging and branding.
Bottom Five Shaving Artisans
- Big Easy Soaps - The brand that never was. Starting off by selling "test batches" - it only went downhill from there. Not liking the critique, he deleted his account on Reddit but not before abusing people there (and having made misogynistic, racist and hateful comments). Then there was the incessant spam on various Facebook groups (resulting in the ban hammer coming down hard). This artisan even questioned established artisans for their formulas and help improving his own... When it (obviously) wasn't forthcoming, attempted it through a third party. Needless to say this was not received well.
- Based Shaving Supply - To even mention this "artisan" would be to give them too much publicity, but needs to be included. The entire premise of the brand is a heaping helping of "WTF?" and chock full of legal and moral issues and outright questionable thinking.
- Mason Boutique - Back in September, it was announced that they'd cease making shaving software after two years. All well and good, it happens. But a nine minute video that came along with the announcement was... Interesting. Needless to say, it was not well received (and removed in short order; but see below). Blaming customers for not buying their products despite their marketing efforts and Maggard Razors (indirectly) for not expressing interest in carrying them (the product branding and pricing just didn't reflect the market). Then there's the sneaky start to making shaving soaps in the first place followed by repeated fumbles (e.g. leftover lye in the soap). Finally, in the latest bizarre move, to secure a custom Brushguy brush, you'll need to pay .003 Bitcoins (currently ~$42) - with only the one shape offered.
- The Shaving Shop & The Club - Merged but not quite renamed... Pick one or the other and be done with it. Happening just after last year's list went live came one of this market's biggest implosions, dubbed The Passiflora Horror. Intended as a collaboration, it went from bad to worse in a real hurry and ended up with two camps, each taking sides (where it largely remains today). At first, the club sounded like a good idea; buy in on the membership and you get free shipping. Now all you get for your $26/year is 20% off. Both offered exclusives though... Which are largely Oleo Soapworks and Stirling Shaving Co. bases with clone/dupe fragrances from DUA/Alexandria and elsewhere. So instead of paying $16, you're paying $18.50 ($14.80 with the discount, while you work off the $26 buy in). There is nothing particularly "artisan" about this, and the proprietor seems to enjoy taking all the credit.
DUA Fragrances were definitely used in earlier releases... We say "earlier" because that relationship has come to an ugly close as of about a month ago. The trouble really came to a head over a Halloween soap release (claiming it was a Xerjoff copy when it wasn't). But it seems this has been brewing since at least the summer of 2017 when, frustrated by the lack of attention Mahsam of DUA was giving to the nascent club, and cutting the fragrances with other oils (which didn't go over well) the owner went behind his back to source other fragrances - from an ex-partner of DUA no less, by the name of Hany from Alexandria Fragrances. Read more in our "What is Ariana & Evans?" article.
- Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements - This list probably wouldn't be complete without PAA included. Most recently, while the artisan certainly tries (and they have done good things); it's perhaps a bit too much - with nearly 20 releases this year alone (many of them clone fragrances). Each of those is usually accompanied by incessant advertising on forums and social media (e.g. nearly 10 ads per day in the HTGAM group and on Google+). The current offerings include no less than 51 PAA and 26 Crown King soaps and aftershaves. Then there's all the truly bizarre apparel. We'd rather see the artisan take this time and energy and focus on fewer, quality scent offerings instead. Besides the whacky branding and twigs in the aftershave, the biggest "WTF moment" had to be courting the Boy Scouts. If there's any doubt they belong here; judge Erik Hodge's reaction (EDIT: which has been oh-so-predictable). If you need more proof, here's what a very popular vendor had to say recently on why they don't carry the brand anymore:
We used to, but dropped him him 2014 for multiple business related decisions. I don't think going into them in depth is helpful and just continues the drama.
But, to give you an idea -- he is a polarizing vendor that is banned from nearly every online forum and discussion group except Facebook. I'm sure you can understand that if that's his public record, that there was also a few things happening behind the scenes as well.
We choose to spend our dollars with companies with ethical, honest roots that continue to elevate wet shaving through tasteful advertising and business practices.
I'll divulge just one of many reasons we let him go -- his constant stream of new products was extremely difficult to keep up with. It was a purchasing/inventory nightmare, and our customers were constantly asking us whether we were getting his new stuff. Frustrating for both us and our customers. His business model has continued down that path, in fact even worse than before, with new scents dropping every 2-3 days.
- Italian Barber - A last minute addition... As it's clear that Italian Barber (who squarely made last year's list as well) is up to their usual standard of service in this most recent, shining example as they harangue an innocent mom over damaged goods. The best part is in a response where they state that "We have a clear shipping policy that all alcohol and glass is ordered at the customers risk" (so essentially everything, and it's on you). Also worth pointing out that Barrister and Mann went above and beyond in terms of customer service and offered a complete replacement (for an issue that wasn't even his) rather than offering to refund "a small percentage in accordance to the amount missing." Says the mom, "Now that's how you run a business."
Bonus - Hardware Artisans
- Brushmakers - Lowborn Supply (#LowbornSupply), Wild West Brushworks (#WildWestBrushworks), That Darn Rob (#ThatDarnRob) & TurnNShave (#TurnNShave) - though there are numerous others. These four in particular are prolific; releasing new creations on the daily or at least bi-weekly. Beautiful and unique resin pours, fine craftsmanship with the designs and finishes and offering popular knot options. All while doing so at reasonable (even excellent) prices. Wolf Whiskers is also tearing it up with totally custom brushes - for a price (and a wait).
- Timeless Razor (#TimelessRazor)- They have established themselves quickly, offering very capable shaving machines available in whole or individual parts and optional stands. Perhaps not quite up to the same finishing standards as Wolfman Razors but also priced reasonably and available day in and day out. They started out with stainless steel, available polished or later matte, then added titanium (matte only) and most recently, a lovely bronze. Customer service is outstanding as is their 30-day return policy and to boot, they listen to feedback (and act on it).
- Blackland - Another razor company, they established themselves with the original Blackbird in both an apropos and novel black oxide finish, and recently released the new Sabre - while adding or offering numerous finish options for both. Both razors are unique, bold designs proving to be popular.
- Maggard Razors, West Coast Shaving & Bullgoose Shaving Supplies - These vendors offer a wide variety of products, including their own branded hardware and software. Granted, the latter is mostly contracted to various artisans, but the hardware is fairly unique. Either way, all three make getting a hold of stuff quick and easy for the masses at affordable prices and without drama (unlike some that made last year's list). They deserve a shout-out.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen! The top and bottom artisans of 2017, with some (dis)honorable mentions and hardware. We didn't put these artisans in the top - or the bottom. They did. Either by excelling in various ways... Or failing. There is quite literally a huge list of artisans out there, and while we can't list them all - let's see what the next year brings. If it's anything like the huge list of releases that 2017 brought, it'll probably be even harder to decide.
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Like last year's, this list too has received an incredible response - and has become an eagerly anticipated annual tradition, it seems. After only a couple of days it hit 2,500 views and 590 Facebook shares (and still going). Naturally (and predictably) there are a handful of people that have taken offense. Sometimes it's hard to hear a dissenting opinion, even when it's the truth - and speaking of which, some have suggested that there are untruths in what is posted above. Beg to differ. The information here is common knowledge and/or correct to the best of our knowledge; links are provided wherever possible to cite sources. Of course, if something was missed or incorrect, feel free to contact us so that it can be corrected... Though so far, not a single person has.
Some updates to the list... One artisan was removed from Dishonorable Mentions who's inclusion became questionable after ongoing discussions with multiple people, including the artisan. More details were added to another artisan that remains firmly in the Bottom Five Shaving Artisans. This list is set to become the #5 most read post on the site any day now (and it's just over two weeks old). To say it has had some... Impact... Would be an understatement.