Now enjoying a new lease of life, freshness and purpose, Benamôr is the oldest Portuguese cosmetics company. It’s products are perfect for the month we celebrate Valentine’s day.
“It’s one of the oldest recipes in the cosmetics world, outdone only by Nivea cream, which dates back to 1923,” says Pierre Stark, holding the iconic art deco tube of Benamôr face cream. It was created in 1925 by a mysterious apothecary who made ointments based on natural ingredients, all Portuguese, from rose to lemon, aloe vera to almond oil, which were sold in the pharmacy, then in a perfume shop on Rua Augusta, in Lisbon, and later in all the drugstores in the country. Grandmothers used Benamôr and the company’s most famous client, Queen Amélia (1865-1951), lent her name to Rose Amèlie, the face cream Pierre is currently holding. Like the hand cream and gordíssimo body cream, this product never went out of circulation. The Nally laboratory and factory that produced such cosmetic jewels resided at number 189 Campo Grande, where 200 workers produced various creams, perfumes, make-up, even blush and a suntan lotion that proved popular.
Pierre knows what he’s talking about. Son of a dermatologist, he spent 20 years at the cosmetics giant L’Oréal, working in product development, marketing and market management. He came to Portugal in 2002. After meeting his wife, he started dividing his time between Lisbon and Paris. One evening, at a dinner, his friend Catarina Portas, who owns the Vida Portuguesa stores, told him about “an amazing hand cream that almost nobody knew, which was the alantoíne”. He did a bit of digging and discovered “a fascinating story”, testing it in different countries and in Paris: “In addition to being visually and emotionally appealing, it had great cosmetic capacities and the functionality that makes great brands. I didn’t need anyone to tell me it was going to be a success. And it was.” He bought the company in 2015 with Filipe Serzedelo, and the brand was relaunched the following year with 16 products using the original formulas (90% natural ingredients, no mineral oils or oil derivatives, a minimum of preservatives). “Our products are vegan, except those with egg extract and beeswax”. And the aluminium tubes, which were originally created in 1927, have been made more sophisticated for a selective market by the same Portuguese company that has been their supplier since 1936. “Besides preserving the qualities of the product, aluminium is the most recycled material in the history of cosmetics”.
In the recently opened shop at LX Factory, where we talked, leafy plants rub shoulders with the different items in a bright industrial setting, where the new refill and recycling area for 500-millilitre packaging is housed. Customers fill their bottles and leave the old one, which goes back to the factory. There also travel sizes available. “This is a place for creative and modern people who are ecologically minded”. Everything is thoroughly thought through. Each new Benamôr shop “has a cultural and symbolic connection with Lisbon”: on Rua dos Bacalhoeiros it’s more family friendly, where soaps are bought by weight, while the one in the Príncipe Real neighbourhood is skin-coloured, like a “bombonière inspired by the queen [Amélia]”.
Today, there are eight recipes and around 50 products divided into various ranges that have expanded and even inspired Companhia Portugueza do Chá to create flavours for each of the olfactory families, sold exclusively in the shops. Benamôr is also found in selected perfumeries, such as Perfumes & Companhia, where “they’re one of the most popular ranges”, and top establishments, such as El Corte Inglés or Printemps, as well as concept stores, like Merci, in Paris. They currently trade in 15 countries, “mainly European and the United States”, and the online store that opened in 2019 already accounted for 5% of sales at Christmas. “The trend for top-quality historical brands is global. People want to go back to things they trust. It’s all about buying based on values and traditions of authenticity, generosity and honesty, and Benamôr’s sophistication stems from that. Brands with a history are few and far between, and one with this longevity is unique. And the fact that these products are designed by hand is testimony to this care. The tubes are filled by hand using an incredible technique. And the people who do it are often the grandchildren of previous employees.”
This vintage quality is an important part of the success. “Talking to customers, I’ve realised that we convey a sense of purpose. The people who buy Benamôr feel they’re contributing to something, and people expect it from us more than any other brand. I love this analogy of ‘Ben’ – of bem-estar [well-being], this physical and moral state that also comes from the sensorial nature of the products – creating a connection that makes sense” with “love”.
by Patrícia Barnabé
web design & development 262media.com