Rolls-Royce motor cars are the poster child for expensive, pretentious automobile brands. They aren’t the fastest (certainly) and they may not even be the best (depending on how you define that). They clearly are a symbol of conspicuous consumption, and they’re exclusive – having dealers in only the wealthiest locales. At the other end of the spectrum may be a car like the Toyota Yaris: thrifty, unpretentious in the extreme; but it reliably if not stylishly gets one to his destination, and is readily available at your nearby Toyota dealer.
Williams Vs. Martin de Candre
I would consider Williams brand to be the Yaris of shave soaps. Unpretentious, inexpensive, no frills, merely a most basic item and readily available at many local retail stores – usually pharmacies. The oft-venerated brand of shave soap at the other end of the spectrum – the Rolls-Royce, if you will, of shave soaps – may well be the Martin De Candre (MDC) marque from France. For 200 grams (about seven ounces) of MDC, you will pay either $79 or $89 (depending on the fragrance you choose) plus shipping costs. Ignoring shipping costs, its average price is $84 for 200 grams. Williams, on the other hand, can be had for $1.50 (perhaps even less) to about $3 at a retail store . So I’ll roughly estimate the average cost of Williams to be about $2.25 for 50 grams. Therefore, 50-grams of Williams comes in at USD$2.25 and MDC at USD$21.00. So,neglecting shipping, MDC is almost ten times more expensive than Williams!
My Shaving Process for the Comparison
For weeks I alternated the use of Williams and MDC for my daily shaves. Here’s the process that I used for all my shaves:
Every shave began with about a half cup of water in a re-purposed Greek yogurt container. I would pop this in my kitchen microwave and heat for a minute. (The #5 plastic used for these containers, polypropylene, is heat resistant and excellent for microwave heating, dissolving or melting purposes.) I would then walk my hot water into the bathroom for my morning shave.
I used an Omega Syntex brush for all my shaves. I would fully immerse the brush bristles into the water, draw it out, wait a couple of seconds for the excess water to drain out, then give it a single downward shake to remove additional water clinging within the knot. Then I would load the brush with soap by swirling the Syntex in the soap container. I would generally swirl the warm brush on the soap until I felt a slight increase in swirling resistance, which indicated that there was enough soap in the brush to make a rich lather.
The soap containers were also re-purposed Greek yogurt cups. The somewhat unique aspect of my shave soap use is that for a very long time I’ve re-used lather. A few years ago after my daily shave, I started squeezing the excess clean lather from my shave brush back into the soap-storage container and let it dry. I found that not only was this a thrifty habit, but it also made loading the brush with soap easier in subsequent shaves. Then later, from a vintage printed Gillette shaving tip, I acquired the habit of not even rinsing the excess lather from my shave brush and simply hanging the lather-filled brush to dry over night. (For the next shave, I would lay the side of the dried-lather brush in my damp, cupped hand to wet the wispy dried-lather remnants so they didn’t fall off or float away on some minor air current.) This practice of not rinsing the brush after the shave worked very well for those periods when I would use the same shave soap for many days in a row. If I changed soaps and didn’t want to mix fragrances, then a return to my previous process was called for, which was squeezing out excess wet lather and rinsing the brush clean before hanging to dry.
So because I was switching between Williams and MDC daily, it was obviously necessary to use my older squeeze-and-rinse brush process after every shave.
Once my brush was adequately loaded with soap, I would make lather directly on my face; I don’t typically use a dedicated lathering bowl – an accessory that I abandoned years ago as unnecessary. I also did not do anything to prepare my beard prior to the initial lathering – no hot water splashes, no hot towels, no pre-shave wash.
Then after my initial face lathering, I would take a few seconds to lay out my additional shaving gear: dry wash cloth, razor with blade already inserted from the previous day, a square of toilet tissue, and blade wrapper with pencil for recording the day’s shave usage.
That done, I dipped the shave-brush tips back into the warm water, and face lathered again right on top of the previous lather. Then I was ready to shave.
My razor-stroking is different from the standard recommendations. I use reciprocating shaving strokes – that is, rather long buffing-type strokes. This tends to re-spread lather onto a just-shaved area. I also shave in an anti-raking direction, meaning that instead of shaving into the lathered area so that most of it is removed during a pass (as one would rake leaves off a lawn), instead I shave away from the lathered areas, which tends to leave relatively more lather on the face. This combination of buffing strokes and anti-raking pattern leaves sufficient lather on my beard to allow multiple strokes (from multiple directions) in any given area of my beard. This means that I often remove more beard than most others do following a single lather application. Therefore I generally only lather twice during a close shave. After the second-lathering shaving is complete, I make final clean-up strokes after simply adding water to any remaining lather on my face; this is adequate to shave safely while being able to feel areas that are not smooth enough to satisfy.
A Word About Water
The water in my area is hard, meaning it’s full of minerals (but not iron). It tastes pretty good (unlike distilled water), but isn’t optimal for slickness. Anyone who has showered in both hard water and softened water knows the dramatic difference in slickness between the two.
So for this shave-soap comparison, I shaved for a couple of weeks using my hard tap water to make lather. Then I purchased a gallon of distilled water (because it’s mineral free), and used that for my daily shaves for another couple of weeks.
Throughout the entire testing period, I rinsed the used lather and stubble from my razor using tap water, and then dipped the razor into the warmed water for shaving comfort (for the warmth, that is).
My Observations: MDC versus Williams
It should be noted that both soaps were stored for (at least) weeks in the open air (within a drawer). This caused them to lose moisture and fragrance, becoming firmer and with a weaker bouquet. I note this because the soaps may lead to conclusions different from mine, when the soaps are fresh from their factory packaging.
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Regarding the specific aspects of soap performance, I considered ease of loading the soap onto the brush, which can be impacted by soap’s consistency – that is, a hard puck versus some softer formulation due to water content or the use of some amount of KOH (potassium hydroxide) during the soap-making process. I also considered the ultimate creaminess and richness of the lather and the difficulty of achieving that ultimate state. Because I have rather long shaving stints for a given lather application, the time that the lather stayed adequately moist was also something that I observed. And finally, the slickness of the lather was something I noted – both during the main-shaving phases of the first and second lathering as well as the post-lathering clean-up strokes just using water added to any residual lather.
Before I share my observations, I must add a word about perception. As a university-trained dietitian, I have a lot of training in science. This includes experimentation and observation. I was also university educated in marketing prior to my dietetic training. Marketing students are schooled in the sciences and arts of polling, marketing research, observation and perceptions. The net take away from all my experience is my understanding that it’s very hard for human beings to be objective. Their preferences, aversions, and opinions in general are often (usually, almost always) prejudiced. These prejudiced opinions regarding products (in this case) are influenced by personal experience, previously received information from others (including misinformation), pricing, packaging, and other factors.
So even though I’ve tried to be objective in my observations, because I knew which product I was using as I shaved, my experience could be shaded by that knowledge. That said, the following are my observations and best attempts to be objective:
- Soap performance in hard versus distilled water: I didn’t perceive and difference in any aspect of soap behavior or performance related to using hard versus distilled water.
- Ease of loading the brush initially with soap: All the trials were with warm water, and there was no significant difference in brush loading that I could perceive between the two soaps.
- Ease of face lathering: Both soaps began with watery and thin lather that ultimately became adequately creamy and rich. The MDC may have achieved that final, usable state a bit more quickly. However, the difference (if any) in the time to get there may be measure in seconds, not minutes.
- Quality of ultimate lather: The MDC may have produced a slightly richer lather. If so, not much. If I took the extra seconds to work the Williams into its best lather, I found that to be rich and creamy as well.
- Moisture retention of the lather: The MDC gets the nod here, but only by a nose – and probably not significantly. Because I make a lot of razor strokes after a given lather application, I did push the moisture-retention capabilities of both soaps. The bottom line is that for both soaps I often had to dab on some additional water into the final remnants of lather, or simply dip the brush tips in the water and add a bit of lather for the final strokes of any given lathering phase.
- Slickness of the lather: Both soaps were slick. I haven’t perceived any significant difference.
- Residual slickness for added-water clean-up strokes: Both soaps had very good slickness, when simply adding water to residual lather for final clean-up strokes.
As an admittedly jaded and cynical former marketer, I have learned to distrust price as an indicator of quality as well as brand image as representative of actual reality. That said, here are my conclusions in my weeks-long evaluation comparing MDC and Williams, respectively (and arguably) the Rolls-Royce and Toyota Yaris of shave soaps.
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I have concluded that image isn’t reality in this case. A kind, fellow wet shaver provided my MDC sample as a premium option – the best, if you will, peerless among shave soaps. But that was not my experience. I found very little difference between “the best” shave soap and one of the most humble.
Bouquet aside (and there was very little difference once both had aired out for a time), I really didn’t see enough difference to justify using one soap over the other – except for price, of course. Would I pay 10% more for MDC? Only if I really liked the fragrance. Would I pay twice as much for MDC? Unlikely. Would I pay ten times more for MDC? Not a friggin’ chance.
I must say that this comparison test has caused me to view Williams shave soap in a new and more respectful light. I had previously relegated it to a place with the also-rans, the not-quite-worthy soaps. But I was wrong. Yep, Williams is inexpensive. Yep, Williams doesn’t have a fashion-designer bouquet. Yep, you can often purchase Williams at your local drug store beside Aqua Velva and Gillette after-shave balm. It isn’t pretentious. It isn’t exclusive.
But Williams (from the corner store) is, for all practical purposes, pretty much as good as Martin De Candre (from the continent – spoken in a haughty voice and with nose in the air). And when I look at the value, Williams seems to be far superior – just my hard-headed, practical-yankee two cents.
Have you tried both Williams and Martin de Cadre shave soaps? What do you think? Leave a comment below!
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