By Robin Ewing
Charles A. Roberts calls himself “the world’s first shave master.” He also calls himself the founder of the modern wet-shave movement. And he sometimes calls himself Chaz, usually when he’s signing off an e-mail or autographing labels for his homemade skin-care products. Now he wants to call himself King.
King C. Gillette was a traveling salesman born in 1855 in central Wisconsin. He made millions when he invented the disposable double-edge safety razor. The story goes that he was tired of trying to shave with a dull straight razor on dangerously swaying trains, and thus, The Gillette Co. was born.
Born 100 years later, Roberts speaks reverently of his mentor. He also hopes to make millions in the shaving industry. He is convinced of a long-overdue awakening in the luxury-shaving market and is looking for subjects.
“I’ve always seen myself as a successor to King Gillette,” he says. “No one else has done for shaving what King Gillette did until I came along.”
Roberts and his wife Jean Roberts sell men’s shaving equipment, men and women’s skin care products and high-end soaps and candles out of their South Austin boutique Enchanté. For Roberts, shaving is “the jewel in the crown.” He preaches the practice of wet shaving – meaning with a brush, cream and water – and hosts personal shaving clinics to teach customers the Roberts Method of Wet Shaving. The RMWS is a philosophy of traditional barber-shop shaving with a new-age twist that Roberts calls the “third revolution.”
A small businessman in an American market dominated by giants, such as Gillette, Roberts is trying to carve out a niche in the shaving industry by appealing to the rising interest in men’s high-end grooming. Through the Internet, Roberts reaches out to an audience of men obsessively devoted to shaving. He wants Austin to be the center of his kingdom.
“Fortunately, I’m able to alleviate the misery of the men who arrive at my door, refugees from the typically poor instruction of clerks who knew nothing about shaving,” he grandly writes in his self-published Internet essay “The Art of the Shave.”
Three years ago, Roberts’ shaving philosophy culminated in 12 essays collectively called “Shaving Graces,” which he published on the Enchanté Web site. Though the concept of wet shaving isn’t new, the RMWS goes further by incorporating meticulous instructions, a shaving-cream wetness scale, modern razors, hand-blended aromatic skin-care products and encompassing it all, a sense of well-being and satisfaction wrapped up in the entire approach.
“In its purest, most refined form, wet shaving ignites the motive power of the ‘higher man’ like the power of love inspires the songs of poets,” he writes in his essay “Wet Shaving and the Search for the Perfect Shave.
Roberts’ face is a testament to his business. Glossy and strangely moist – like a freshly printed photo – it calls out to be touched. “Charles is nearly 51 years old and he looks fabulous,” Jean says. “I think it’s because of all the water.” His large gold and tortoise-shell glasses, short-sleeve button down tucked into khaki pants and boisterous enthusiasm for nearly any subject – including philosophy, marketing, Tutankhamen’s tomb and, of course, shaving – lend to an aura of youthfulness.
Roberts likes to talk. He is open and friendly, his hands moving as he speaks, and his customers often linger to finish conversations on various topics. He is fond of metaphors, similes, analogies and long, animated stories involving foreign accents. He compares his teaching style to Socrates’, shaving to fine cooking, journalism to archeology and himself to George Bernard Shaw’s “unreasonable man.” He once wrote an essay comparing wet shaving to the triumphant return of the Republican Party.
In the back of Enchanté, there is a small bathroom where Roberts holds his clinics. Today, James Cavalcante, a young business manager at Intel Corp., has flown in from Sacramento, Calif., for his first tutorial in the Roberts’ method. This is the sole reason for his trip.
Dancing over a sink full of water and stripped down to a sleeveless white undershirt, Cavalcante peers earnestly into the small mirror. Shaving cream is flying. It’s dripping off Roberts’ shoes, clumped on Cavalcante’s pocket and chest hair and stuck to the walls, the floor and the mirror. Water is splashing. Roberts has a towel draped over one shoulder, and he bounces back and forth shouting, “Good job! Keep going!” with “Oh Man! Boom! Boom! Boom!” like a zealous basketball coach wanting to jump in the game. Then he does. He deftly grabs the chrome, double-blade razor away from Cavalcante. He positions his hand gracefully on the end of the short, shiny handle, and starts shaving Cavalcante’s face in surprisingly rapid strokes. Cavalcante freezes as the razor glides quickly and smoothly up his neck, over his jaw line and across his cheek. Roberts doesn’t stop talking. “An arc cut is one of the hardest cuts to do, but boy, it gets the job done.”
An arc cut is when the razor travels the longest line possible across the face starting from the ear and crossing the cheek. Roberts has outlined the different types of cuts on three pages, labeled Form 1, Form 2 and Form 3, taped to the wall above the toilet. Each features a hand-drawn face – ultra-masculine with a strong pointed jaw, high cheekbones and bald head slightly reminiscent of Yul Brynner. The face is divided into quadrants with thick black arrows to show the proper cut lines to be executed at the proper stages. Under the nose, the arrows point straight down, a north-south cut. Others are more curved, a transverse cut, or a long sweeping arrow, an anchor cut. So when Roberts says, “Do a Form 3 third quadrant primarily on the transverse” or “Combine a first, second, third form cut,” the pupil knows exactly what to do.
But it’s the brush, not the razor, which is the focal point of Roberts’ philosophy. The brush is the vehicle for hydrating the skin, softening the hair and reducing friction to eliminate ingrown hairs and razor burn – all of the things that can happen when using an electric razor or cream from a can, Roberts says. The brush, which Roberts says must be made with the finest badger hair available, known as silver tip, can run up to $600 at Enchanté.
“If Shakespeare had been a wet shaver, he would have had Hamlet addressing a badger brush, not a skull,” Roberts wrote in his essay “The Function of the Shaving Brush.”
Cradling a stubby faux-ivory-handled brush with velvety bristles, Roberts proudly presents the “Manchurian” – a brush he jointly developed with A Simpson & Co. based in England. “This is classified as the world’s most powerful water-ejecting shaving brush,” he says.
His hand sliding up to choke the bristles, Roberts demonstrates proper form. “I call this the muzzle grip,” he says. According to Roberts, the muzzle grip lets water fully flow into the brush through a created shaft, or “bucket.” The water is so important to his concept of shaving that he often calls the RMWS the hydro-facial. “Muzzle it off, pop that breach, let it flow in the lower chamber,” he says, lovingly demonstrating over the sink.
Suddenly, Roberts points to Cavalcante’s neck – shaving cream is running towards his chest. “Scoop it. Dump it. Scoop it. Dump it,” Roberts chants, motioning with his hands for Cavalcante to reuse the wayward cream. “It’s like white lava. Chase that thing like a wild animal,” he instructs loudly.
There are two stories about how Roberts first became interested in shaving. The first, sounding slightly rehearsed, is that 10 years ago he stumbled across a magazine advertisement for a chrome-plated, ivory-handled Warwick sensor razor, and the rest was history. “People now will say that was one of the biggest events to happen in American shaving since King Gillette hammered out his first razor in 1904, because I was transported,” Roberts says. “We struck oil I guess.”
The second story, flowing naturally in a later conversation, is that his stubble made his infant daughter scream. “I felt like there was something wrong,” he says. “I couldn’t get close to my daughter until my beard was a week old. I knew something had to change.”
Jean remembers when their daughter, now 11, was still in diapers and could already recite the name of Roberts’ favorite shaving cream, George F. Trumper. “He was already a fanatic,” Jean says. Now his morning ritual takes about 20 minutes. “Every morning he walks out and says ‘Feel my face. Look at my shave,’” she says.
Roberts has coined a set of jargon for his craft: “higher man” is someone dedicated to the perfection of his shaving experience; “shaver agonistics” is the self-loathing of men in relation to shaving; “cutlery” or “steel” are razors; to “load” is to expand a brush or cream with water; “release” is water leaving the brush onto the face; OT means old traditional shaving; OTL is old traditional luxury; NT is new traditional.
“There’s a craftsmanship to this,” says Cavalcante as he steps from the bathroom into the shop. The haphazard clumps of shaving cream are gone, and he is neatly dressed, his face shining. He is holding a black travel bag and is leaving for the airport in a few hours to return to California. “I’m the kind of guy that when I’m learning a new golf swing, I fly out to learn from the master,” Cavalcante says. “It’s really inspiring talking to Charles. He’s clearly an expert on this.”
Roberts spreads the word via the Internet, and a small handful of followers are heeding the call. “Ninety-five percent of this has been hammered out on the Internet,” Roberts says. Blogs and bulletins on wet shaving, such as the Fedora Lounge, mention Charles Roberts. Chat groups discuss his methods. Not all of it is flattering.
One member of the MSN group Wet Shavers posted, “I still disagree that Mr. Roberts has had a huge influence on modern wet shaving. Very few people in the U.S., or worldwide, have ever heard of him or his techniques.” One of the reasons for this, the members argue, is that Roberts touts his own tutorial system and the expense of a trip to Austin for a clinic is not practical. With an entire Enchanté shaving kit costing $600 to $1,200, Roberts’ customers tend to be wealthier shave enthusiasts. “We get mostly professionals,” Roberts says.
Adam Mendelson, a pupil of Roberts, established a Web site last January called “The International Magazine of Wet Shaving” with method-shaving FAQs, a discussion forum and shaving articles.
“I am greeted on the phone by a very zealous man, who speaks of these mythical Simpson’s silver tip brushes,” Mendelson says of his first encounter with Roberts. Mendelson says he originally learned Roberts’ method over the phone but then flew to Austin from Virginia to attend a clinic. “I had learned quite a bit over the phone, but made enormous leaps and bounds with a clinic or two,” he says.
Roberts refers to Internet conversations about his shaving method as something akin to a “biblical exegesis.” He is fascinated by the Internet and its power. A few years ago, before he posted “Shaving Graces,” he wouldn’t go near a computer, says Jean. Roberts’ has such an aversion to technology he won’t use a cash register in the store – receipts are handwritten. “Now every time I get up from this chair, he’s on it (the computer),” she says.
Quoting obscure philosophers, economists and long-dead novelists, Roberts likes to muse on the social problems of shaving. “We have two generations of men who don’t know how to shave,” he says. He considers it his mission to teach them. “The misery of this type of shaving – the suffering is unbelievable. The upper skin tissue is destroyed – permanent erosion, permanent skin infections and permanent ingrown hairs.” Roberts says his shaving system is the cure.
Roberts is diving into a huge industry. Gillette brought in sales of over $10 billion in 2004, with over $4 billion of that just in razor sales. To make a place for himself, Roberts is jumping onto – he would say leading – the growing subculture of men’s wet shaving.
And the industry is growing. Market researcher Packaged Facts, based in New York, reported over 1,000 new men’s grooming products from 1999 to 2003. Spas, such as Austin’s Aziz Salon and Day Spa, are seeing such as growth in male customers they are adding “gentlemen’s” packages to their list of services. Specialty shaving stores, such as the Art of Shaving in New York, are making a name for themselves on the Internet.
It’s the tutorial system that sets him apart from the crowd, Roberts says. “A passionate teacher can make it electrifying,” he says. A former high-school English teacher in Arizona before moving to Austin in 1997, Roberts craves human contact. He longs to be important, to be larger than life and to make a difference. He says teaching his shaving method fulfills this need.
But Roberts needs a local manufacturer to be profitable in the business of selling shaving. Most of his products are imported, a big problem with the current weak dollar. He is looking for someone to make his personal skin-care products in Austin.
Roberts envisions a world in which professional “shave masters” graduate from two-year training schools to learn formulation, hair care, facials, the Roberts’ method of shaving, metallurgy, chemistry, anatomy, business, marketing and the method of cutting, knotting and mounting a shaving brush with the right grade of hair. He also envisions Austin as the focal point of the “revolution.” “I’m like a father confessor. People call me everyday to talk about shaving,” he says. “I want to found this as an enduring legacy.”