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Razors – The End of the Evolutionary Road?
So you’re a man, and razors are part of everyday life for you. Apparently you spend an astronomical five months of your life shaving. And this has been going on for millennia, from Neanderthal man to the iPhone toting modern man, shaving has a fascinating evolutionary story, but have we reached the end of it?
For the adventurous among who like a cave painting, there’s scrawny images dating back 100,000 BC showing men with “technologically advanced” lack of facial hair. Seemingly, cavemen plucked their stubble out by gripping the hair between the jaws of a couple of animal teeth. We’ve not seen these cave paintings, but it does paint an image of a forlorn toothless pet looking on as his master strips his face of facial hair while the little mite is wondering how he will next chomp into his grilled dinosaur. Fast forward some 30,000 years ago, and ancient men has finally worked out how to fashion crude tools into rough razors to make the task understandably kinder.
Things moved on some more 5000 years ago. Those ingenuous Egyptians believed that body hair was shameful and unclean, and frankly had to be sacrificed for the greater good. They didn't stop at facial hair either; they even shaved their bodies. They took a slice of bronze or flint and sharpened the edge into a blade for stripping hair from the skin. For thinner hair body hair they used muslin cloth dipped in beeswax and waxed it off completely.
It came to the ingenious IKEA inventing Scandinavians to sort razors out. More specifically the Danes who 3000 years ago left in Danish graves, razors in leather carrying cases with etched bronze blades and carved handles. Obviously, a prized item of some value if they thought it merited a burial.
Jumping forward to 200 years ago, and the razor morphed into a pocket knife rather than a straight blade, perfect for better control and certainly less cuts – also known as the cut throat razor with its characteristic monkey tail and hollow blade favoured by skilled barbers of the wild west.
These remained popular until the turn of the 20th century, when King Camp Gillette - yes that's his name - invented the safety razor. A piece of engineering genius. In fact, the old Super Speeds from the 1940’s had a set of clever unfolding butterfly doors to push the blade through. They gave an incredibly close shave too. These razors are still considered to be amongst the finest ever made, and now prized by razor collectors.
Over the last 30 years we have seen the invention of the system razors with their multiple titanium coated blades armed with aloe vera lubra-strips. Touted as the pinnacle of speed and safety, the system razor is now sold in more places in the world than any other razor. And Gillette is undoubtedly the global leader, pushed into every corner of the world, aided by a mammoth marketing machine and some sharp marketing guile.
But what next? There’s surely a limit to how many extra blades can meaningfully be added for a closer shave, how many angles a razor neck can contour into, how much it can be motorised with a couple of batteries.
Some men are not sold on the multi-blade systems and are reverting back to double edged (DE) razors. Maybe it’s down to cost, system cartridges are certainly expensive, or down to just wanting to go back to the ritual and skill of an old fashioned shave knife. We have seen lots of interest in old fashioned razors (notably Merkur and Muhle) for a more authentic shaving experience. Some are even reverting to cut-throat razors for the ultimate in control and a closer shave. These traditional razors require more skill, more deftness, and in the case of cut throat razors, a few drops of blood too. Maybe that's part of the allure of these razors – you are required to learn a skill, not just any skill, a blade handling skill.
A few years ago we jumped on a plane and jetted off to Merkur in Germany. They have been making DE safety razors and cut throat razors for over 100 years. They survived world wars and recessions. We put this down to their craft first approach, okay the factory is also savely nestled in a neighbourhood surrounded by un-bomb-worthy houses. They still have machines with wooden stools worn down by the sweaty butts of well skilled craftsmen. Their craftsmen still hand polish blades, which in this day and age of computer controlled fabrication machinery efficiently stamping out one identikit razor after another was a real surprise. Of course we tried their razors and become converts.
We wondered how many others would trade in their system razors for old style razors, or even dispense with the shaving process altogether and go back to growing a beard. A few years on and with beards now so prevalent in London, it looks like we are seeing men retrace a few steps back along the evolutionary road...