Plisson has long been known (since 1808!) for making fairly unaffordable luxury style badger brushes for shaving and other cosmetic purposes. A few years back (mid 2013), they began to offer a 22mm synthetic for roughly $55, licensed to the L’Occitane brand for sale in their stores and online. This brush replaced an awful earlier generation synthetic previously offered by the chain.
The wide availability (every high end mall in America!) and semi-reasonable price point, along with the much higher quality of the licensed Plisson, coincided with the surge of interest in wet shaving then beginning to develop, and these brushes were widely recommended on various shave sites and bulleting boards. The brushes, equivalent to Plisson’s “Size 12” were 22mm (knot diameter) X 56mm (loft height) and were originally branded as Plissons and later became branded as “L’Occitane Cade.” Availability began to sputter and eventually after a few months in 2014 when most stores ran out and the brush was not available online, Occitane re-released the brush for the price of $30, and eventually by early 2015, the brush was unavailable again.
Plisson now sells this model on its own site for a higher price than Occitane’s final list and Occitane sells the brush as part of a luxury shaving kit, but it does not appear to be available separately.
Why rehash all this old history? There apparently was an immense amount of “instant nostalgia” for the Occitane / Plisson in 2015. The original Occitane brush was loved by many because it was very soft, and excelled at paintbrush lathering along with a (perhaps too) readily available splay. It was an excellent face latherer, provided one did not mind a fairly mushy backbone (i.e no massage or exfoliation) but was not quite so strong for bowl lathering due to its compact size and mushiness.
It was (IMO) a good, though not great brush, that was widely available at an excellent price and offered a buyer a high quality synthetic, much better than Omega synthetic cheapies, and far more attainable than a Muhle synth. The design could be improved, and some artisans set out to do just that.
Some intrepid J. Peterman type tracked down a synthetic brush fiber supplier in China that claimed to be able to create something very close to the Plissonesque fiber and was willing to sell this fiber to other companies in bulk, provided a very large quantity was ordered.
So the challenge facing our Raiders of the Lost Fiber were twofold: piece together a big order, and improve on the original design to remediate its issues while keeping its strengths.
The group buy consortium was pieced together from various online wet shaving retailers and some soap makers. The group members then took individual approaches to make their own knots from the fiber and place them in handles (or some just sold the knots without handles, enabling the buyer to use a different handle.) These strategies were meant to address the floppiness issue mentioned above, which could be mitigated by bigger diameter, higher density of fiber, shorter loft or some combination of all these approaches.
Today we’re looking at two examples of what the individual artisans produced; specifically a 24 X 56mm Crown King (the “Checkmate Suave”), $37, (aka Phoenix Artisan Accouterments) and the Stirlng Soap 26 X 63mm (“Kong”), ($23). How do these brushes compare to the original Plisson / Occitane 22mm and how do they rank in terms of value when compared against modern synthetics of both greater and lesser cost? This will be a parallel review of the two brushes, as they have many elements in common, though the differences will be highlighted when necessary. [Editor’s Note: Please see the end of this article for some additions and clarifications]
Crown King http://crownkingshaving.com/ is the newest corporate identity of Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements (PAA), founded in 2014, which in turn is the result of the consolidation of two other companies, How To Grow A Moustache and Petal Pushers, both of which date back to roughly 2012. The history of this evolution is complex and controversial to some extent, but I will not dwell on the topic here, as it is fairly irrelevant to the quality of the product being considered. The company produces soaps, DE razors, colognes, and other grooming products in addition to its brushes.
PAA Founder Erik Hodges / “Douglas Smythe” has been featured in Forbes and the Crown King brand is apparently designed to offer a smaller selection of more commercially viable products that could be (hopefully) sold in big box retailers. The vegan friendly synthetic brush line is a useful step in that direction. The “Suave” is sold at various brick and mortar retailers around the country, but apparently is only available online directly from the maker.
Stirling Soap http://www.stirlingsoap.com/ was founded in 2012 by Rod & Amanda Lovan, and remains an online only presence for the most part. Founder Rod apparently handles much of the shave soap scent design and has a sort of mad scientist approach to soap making and has radically revised his formula base several times since he started making the product. He is also very much an experimenter and is willing to offer products that are both “scents” (smells like Polo, smells like Aventus, etc.) and “Scentsations,” i.e. oddball mixes that aim to recreate everything from a forest fire in Texas to Napoleon’s favorite cologne (warning: The Emperor was not known for his highly cultivated olfactory taste!) to Ben Franklin’s pantaloons. Ron will also make custom ordered scent recipes in his base, and then sometimes will put them into full production.
Stirling has branched out into bath soaps, colognes, and most recently, hardware such as inexpensive DE razors, and the Kong brush that is the subject of this article. They have recently also begun to offer lip balm (!) and skin care products. Stirling is known for its low prices and (increasingly) high quality shave soaps.
Priced at $37, the Crown King (CK) 24mm Checkmate is the second largest synthetic sold by the company. They offer both larger (26mm) and smaller (22mm) versions of this model, along with a different synthetic line altogether, the “Duro” models which are considerably stiffer and scratchier, meant to simulate artificial boar rather than artificial badger. CK also offers various handle types, along with a metal handle that uses detachable brush heads.
The 24mm Checkmate Suave with the “Teddy Bear Knot” (hey, I didn’t name it!) is noticeably shorter in term of loft compared to the Kong, but the taller handle offsets to a large degree so the two brushes are about equal in height. The Checkmate appears noticeably denser on superficial visual inspection, and the sizes of the two brushes when looked at from above do not seem to be much different.
The Crown King site has this to say about the product:
“The Checkmate is a rather handsome piece of shaving hardware; a solid brush, a good weight, great balance and feels extremely comfortable in the hand. The Suave Synthetic Teddy Bear Hair knot will be reminiscent of a certain other brush on the market currently but quite denser, larger, and more tightly packed, plus set deeper to provide more back bone. Then there is the Faux Antique Ivory handle, a truly striking feature, a more elegant touch you would expect on a much more costly brush.”
The verbiage, though maybe a tad overwrought, does cue you in on the main selling points of this model: soft tips, though with high density, large knot, and a deep setting of knot in handle for (allegedly) firmer backbone. The handle is worth additional comment as it is very nicely designed and balanced, and looks very attractive in its faux ivory sensibility. (The various other handle options offered on the site are quite nice as well.)
The 26mm Stirling “Kong” ($23) has far fewer options. The handle is a Henry Ford Model T special; any color and material you like, as long as its black resin. Kong has a 22mm brother offered, but there are no other variants in the Stirling brush lineup yet. The Stirling site product description is far less ornate:
“Synthetic fibers have never felt so good. Super soft tips with a sturdy black resin handle.”
Note the ominous absence of any mention of backbone here. The literary types would call this “foreshadowing!”
It’s apparent that Stirling is aiming to be the value leader here, and they certainly succeed in giving shoppers a cheaper synthetic option that aspires to wear the Pseudo-Plisson Crown of Inexpensive Synthetic Value. The comparably sized 26mm CK product costs close to 60% more, so Stirling wins the price point floor mark, but how do they match CK in terms of quality? Read on…
First, let’s talk handles. Each company more or less achieved their goal here. Stirling was interested in giving users a durable and usable handle at minimal cost. I would guess 90% of the manufacturing budget for the Kong went into the fiber and knot assembly, and the remainder went into sourcing an inexpensive resin handle. The black handle has a simple logo on it, and is large and relatively un-articulated.
The broad contours and wide base are tough for smaller hands to hold for long periods, but the handle allows positive brush control at all times. It is not especially attractive, and is not as comfy to use as handles from Shavemac or Simpson, but then this product costs much less. I would rate this handle as a solid B, not especially innovative, ergonomic, or attractive, but no real functional defects either, especially given the price point.
Crown King, by comparison, went for a more high-end feel. The elongated and subtly curved Checkmate handles does indeed make the handle appear to be a chess piece, and the faux ivory effect is visually appealing, but probably will not fool anyone into thinking this is the real thing. Still, the aesthetic interest is a nice touch, and I personally found the tapered base made the brush easier to precisely direct and less fatiguing for the hand to use during a longish shave. I would call this an A-; a second raised surfaces on the handle near the top to give the user a choice of a high finger rest would have been ideal.
Neither brush has any odor or shedding issues, and both had no issues with poor quality or irregularly shaped fiber shafts, but none of this would really be expected in a competently assembled synthetic brush.
The visual density of both brushes is greater than the smaller Occitane / Plisson, the CK 24mm noticeably and dramatically so, and the Stirling only somewhat so. (The Stirling knot is significantly larger than the Occitane, but the density of hair in the knot is probably maybe only a third or so greater by my estimate. Crown King looks to have at least 50% greater density, again by rough visual guesswork.) Neither brush gains or loses points for this, as both are certainly attractive enough and look a lot more aesthetically pleasing when viewed from above than say a Semogue 830 or Vulfix Grosvenor.
Both of these are excellent quick latherers, and need minimal soaking (a minute or less is fine) and nominal water shake-out before loading (2 shakes will do for both). Surprisingly, the narrow pointier bulb shape of the CK and the larger somewhat floppier and higher loft of the Stirling both proved equally effective in loading hard (Tabac) and moderately hard (Barrister & Mann) soaps. Each needed roughly 20 swirls to load enough product for a three pass shave from a soft soap (Catie’s), maybe another 10 swirls or so to load up harder examples. Both also worked very well with the usual “large almond” size of shave creams (GFT Eucris & St. James Cedarwood & Clary Sage).
None of the fuss and drama of loading dense badger, none of the extended soak needed to produce non-abrasive boar. As long as you don’t shake out too much water, these brushes are extremely capable tools that can be used to create excellent and quick lather. Scores are A for both brands.
Bowl / Face Lather: The longer and more ergonomic handle of the CK makes bowl lathering more efficient despite the smaller bloom. The Stirling has a bigger bloom but the much higher loft and shorter handle make this one tougher to use to create bowl lather especially if you use a heavy touch or have smaller hands / fingers.
The same trend is seen in face lathering, with the more ergonomic handle and more precisely focused shaft of the CK allowing greater precision and comfort during the process. The Stirling is reasonably competitive here though, as its bigger knot and bloom enable one to cover more facial real estate at once. As long as you are not looking for too much backbone (see below) the Stirling works fine as a face latherer, though you do occasionally end up with lather where you did not intend for it to be.
In terms of scoring, I would say the Checkmate is an A- as a bowl latherer, and an A as a face latherer. The Stirling is a B- as a bowl lather instrument and a B+ for face lathering.
Face Feel: Both brushes and soft and pillowy, not scratchy, but also utterly incapable of exfoliation scrubbing. The CK has low to moderate efficacy as a massage device, while the Stirling is not at all mission capable for that task. I tend to like soft face feel, have no need for exfoliation, but do like the occasional massaging action if I want it, so I would score the CK as a B+ and the Stirling as a B for this aspect.
Synthetics exist that can give both soft feel and firm backbone (e.g. Kent Infinity, Muhle) so I do not feel these relatively low scores for the two contenders here are too harsh. Both brushes are considerably improved over the Occitane Plisson, which was as soft but also immensely mushy and all too easily splayed. I would give the Occitane a C+, so both Stirling and Crown King have improved on the original model by firming things up a lot.
Lather Application: Both are great, and both are pretty similar in performance, so I have little to say here. Both store a lot of lather and release that lather very easily and quickly. There is no need to add water during a pass, and a little swirl at the beginning of each pass and some controlled splaying action quickly releases enough product to cover the whole face for the next pass.
The “emergency lather” drill I perform on my chin, due to the lather there having been clipped a bit and / or thinned out by the time I get to it in each pass, where I try to get a thick, hydrated layer of cushioning foam on the chin quickly and without adding water, produced a testimony to each brushes capabilities.
Both brushes can do circular motions and paint brush strokes effectively, and both offer easily modulated splaying capability, in which the user gets exactly what he is looking for; no unintentional splaying in mild circular motion and no reluctance to compress when more force is exerted. This is where these synths beat the more rigid Muhle, Omega, and Kent synthetics, which all tend to be more reluctant splayers, and, as stated earlier, both of these more recent innovations surpass the original model, the Occitane Plisson, which splayed far too readily.
Scores of A for both here.
The 24mm CK feels like a firmer brush, due to its lower diameter to loft ratio (1:2.33) and higher knot density. The Stirling’s bigger knot, lower fiber density, and higher diameter to loft ratio (1:2.42) makes it floppier than the CK, and, frankly, floppier than I would like it to be.
The floppiness of the Stirling makes it a worse bowl latherer, a worse face latherer, and an inadequate massager. The Stirling is about as floppy as a Parker Pure, with the WSP Silvertip Prince being a bit firmer in feel. A Whipped Dog HMW badger is much firmer than the Stirling and is roughly as good as the CK in backbone. The Shave Revolution HMW (reviewed here LINK) is substantially firmer than all of these.
As mentioned, the Stirling is by no means the wand of mush that the 22mm Occitane brush was, and the sheer volume of added fiber makes it more versatile than that brush. The Kong’s softness, ease of lather creation, retention, and release are all facilitated by this great big knot, but a shorter loft and / or higher density in the core might well have retained all these benefits while offering perceived backbone equivalent to Checkmate.
The Checkmate does not lag in any of these other attributes, while also offering the precision and versatility of a moderate amount of backbone. Of course, the Crown King also has more than a 50% greater price attached as well…
Bottom Line: Checkmate gets a B, Kong a C+ for this category.
Clean Up Ease and Durability
Another great joy of synthetic brushes is how easy they are to rinse out and clean; plus the synthetic fiber is break proof, so feel free to shake em a bit and buff them against a moderately hard surface a few times to get the liquids out. (Not too hard with the shaking or the buffing of course; though the “hairs” won’t break, violent torsion can indeed separate knot from handle, so don’t be overly ham-fisted.)
Besides the quick and easy cleanup, the neat thing about synthetic fibers is that they do not retain odors over time, so you don’t have to worry about scent overlap from one product to the next as you see (or smell!) occasionally with boar or badger and some strongly scented products. (Nuavia Rosso & Stirling Port Au Prince, I’m sniffing at you!) And no shedding of course.
Easy A for both products here.
“Clockwise From Upper Left: Muhle, Stirling, Kent, Crown King”
Kent Infinity Silvertex ($25): The Kent is much firmer than either the Kong or Checkmate. It retains enough lather for three passes though, despite its much smaller loft and knot. The Infinity is more of an artificial boar than a synthesized badger though, as it is quite springy and is not readily splayed. The Kent has a marvelous handle and makes a great travel brush, but the “bulb” is thin enough so as to be called a “shaft” really, so the Infinity looks kind of wimpy sitting on the shaving tools shelf.
Both the Kong and Checkmate look more impressive, and though all function pretty similarly, my guess is that most synthetic buyers want attractive soft brushes rather than skinny firm simulated boars. The Kent is great for backbone uber alles fans, but those folks would be better served by considering a good comparably priced boar (like the Semogue 830, $24) or even a much cheaper boar (Omega 10049, $11) instead. The Infinity is the answer to a question that not many are asking, and IMO, the Checkmate and Kong will probably make low to mid range priced synthetic brush shoppers happier than the Infinity would.
Muhle 35 K252 Silvertip Fiber XL Brush ($100): Much beloved in the smallish world of synthetic brush connoisseurs, the Muhle SF series does not just imitate badger, it seems designed to imitate Simpson Best Badger, i.e, soft tips with above average backbone. The 25mm model is the top of this line, and it does indeed simulate a Simpson well.
Compared to our much cheaper Crown King and Stirling competitors, the Muhle will indeed win the contest, as it is just as easy to use as the two Plisson imitators, just about as soft, and has all the backbone a non-masochist needs. Of course at 2.5 times the price of one competitor, or close to 5 times the price of the other, we would expect this, in the same way that we would expect the New England Patriots to triumph handily over your local high school JV league team.
However, if that hypothetical JV team scored a few touchdowns against the Patriots, even though the young lads ultimately lost, that would be a triumph of sorts, and the fact that the Checkmate and Kong can offer some similarities to the costly Muhle (lather creation, retention, delivery, cleanup) is an equally impressive feat for these smaller, far less costly alternatives.
I certainly cannot question the excellent value of the Stirling Kong. For a third less money, it easily surpasses the Occitane brush to which its fiber is similar. It also is probably the finest synthetic brush on the market for below $25. If you don’t want to break the bank, and do not want to buy a boar brush or a really mediocre badger, the Kong is a great choice.
Alternately, if you own a lot of small brushes and want a 26mm monster, the Kong also offers a lot of excellent cheap thrills. A little more density, a little lower loft, and a somewhat better handle would give Kong an A rating, but I am not sure if all of these could have been achieved at its price point.
However, a lower loft could certainly have been designed easily and inexpensively enough from the manufacturing standpoint, and that simple fix would have made Kong a better brush in many ways. Hence an A- score will be given.
The Crown King Checkmate is harder to assess. While a nicer brush than the Stirling, it’s somewhat higher density, nicer handle aesthetics, and somewhat better ergonomics do not clearly justify a 60% higher price.
$40 is approaching the level of some decent entry level badgers, and is about 33% higher than the excellent Semogue Owners Club Boar.
Should you spend your $40 on the Checkmate? This is a judgment call and depends on your perspective. If you are rough on brushes, do not want a steep learning curve in lather generation, or do not want to take the time to break a boar in, the Checkmate becomes a better option. Compared to both the Kong and other “species” of brushes, the Crown King option appears to be stalemated, if not actually checkmated…
Value score is a B- for the Checkmate.
If you want only one shave brush, like the synthetic option, do not want to spend mad Muhle money on the venture, and do not want to consider the other comparable inexpensively priced options mentioned in the “Value” section above, the Crown King Checkmate is an excellent choice.
However, the value question raises its ugly head, and both novices and collectors have many better options in both vegan and organic examples. Even compared to the Kong, many buyers might find the considerable savings and comparable capability of the cheaper product very compelling. The build quality and careful design of the Checkmate give it some retort, but not an overwhelming one. I’ll give the Checkmate a B+.
Conversely, if you collect brushes and want a “beer and pretzels” brush, a hulking monster that is fun to use if not exactly refined, the Sterling Kong is good cheap fun. It also makes a great Christmas gift for the new wet shavers you may know, as it definitely looks like it costs more than it does, and if you don’t need much backbone and like softness and ease of use (in short, like most new wet shavers do…) Kong under the Christmas tree would be appreciated. However, the compromises needed to reach the low price point are noticeable upon reasonably careful scrutiny (the handle, fiber density) and one easy and inexpensive fix that could have been made to improve the Kong significantly (shorter loft) was not made for inexplicable reasons. (Shock and awe effect of a really big brush I guess?). Maybe Kong 2 will swing for the bleachers, but for now, I’ll give Kong a B.
Sterling and Crown King both offer variants of these designs as described in the intro, and Shave Revolution, Chiseled Face, Fine, and Italian Barber all offer similar fibers in various different permutations and at various prices, so explore a bit online, but (IMHO) I feel these two brushes more or less define the genre of “Plisson-like” brushes currently available. If soft, relatively cheap, and artificial as descriptors strike your fancy, you would be hard pressed to go wrong with either, assuming you don’t need a lot of backbone in your shave brush.
You probably shouldn’t buy both, unless, of course, you have some sort of acquisitive disorder… or if you are doing a comparative review, which is quite normal and socially acceptable! ☺
- He points out that the current ~$30 online price has been in effect on the 24mm Checkmate since November of last year. This reviewer paid $40 at a brick and mortar store in October of 2015 for the product. If only he had known!
- Mr. Smythe is the co-founder of PAA, along with Frances Towle, not the founder.
- PAA/CK was not part of a group buy for the knots used in his brushes. The company states it independently sourced its own fiber for the brush project.
- PAA states its Crown King brushes are carried by certain online vendors in addition to being sold by brick & mortar companies and through the Crown King website.
- Crown King states one reason for the higher price of its Checkmate brush is that the brush is assembled in the US and not overseas. It is not known where the Stirling brush is assembled.