Fairy godmother of plant beauty: Amanda Saurin, founder of AS Apothecary

The beauty of life stems from the unknown that we face from the moment we are born – what’s going to happen, who is going to shape us up as people and members of society, what trials and tribulations are we going to face? As we get older, we become more selective about things, based on experience, but I also find that letting go of expectations and keeping an open mind when meeting people is one of life’s biggest pleasures. What seems like a chance meeting can grow into a fascinating journey of discovery, both of human nature, as well as the vast knowledge that some people possess and continue to expand. For me, Amanda Saurin, former lawyer, a mother of five, founder of AS Apothecary and the walking and talking encyclopaedia of plants and its benefits and powers, is one of those people.

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Amanda and I met last year, as I started discovering her products, then called ASAP Apothecary, and the more I used products and asked Amanda questions, the more fascinated I became with the woman behind the brand. I went to Lewes, where Amanda lives and works, last year, but spending over an hour in Amanda’s company wasn’t enough. I ventured to Lewes again, now to spend five hours with Amanda, which flew by. Amanda generously not only gave me her time, but also took me to her temporary studio ( the roof was being repaired in her main studio ) and gave me a plant oil masterclass. I felt like a clueless but inquisitive child, whose eyes dilate in wonder at the treasures laid out before her. I listened, I smelled and my fascination and admiration just grew, even when the train was taking me into the darkness, on the way back to London.

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Amanda embodies a true spirit, a woman who genuinely believes in being true to herself. For example she doesn’t wear make-up and when I asked her why, she was almost surprised by the question, saying ‘why change the face, if you have no problem with it’? She is not anti-make-up, no, not at all, but she just doesn’t feel that she needs it, instead she prefers to look after her skin and let it look beautiful naturally. At the same time, Amanda  is consciously engaged to the community and thinks it is vital to who we are – in some ways, local support network in Lewes is mighty impressive and we, city dwellers, can learn a thing or two from people living in rural communities.

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From make-up, Amanda and I jump on the subject of scent and she admits to fidgeting when creating it, however, when she gets it ‘right’, she innately knows it, comparing the feeling to that of an artist painting and knowing when the masterstroke is the last one, making his work complete. When creating something, the secret is to know when to stop perfecting ! After that Amanda focusses of hearing her customers responses to the scent and effect product has on their skin – thus far No.5 seems to be the one that women like the most ( myself included !). For Amanda scent is liberation, not the make-up which many of us wear as a protective shield, like a warrior.

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Amanda has been growing her brand slowly and organically, not just following nature’s natural cycles but also engaging with women, talking to them (something that big brands can’t or don’t often want to offer) and trying to find answers and solutions to women’s skin concerns. By staying ‘smaller’ for longer, the whole process of her work allows Amanda to stay true to who she is, as a plant grower and apothecarist, without compromising on quality and running a truly sustainable brand.

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While raising her kids ( three girls and two boys ), she focussed on creating products like lip and shaving balms, but eventually Amanda’s daughter sat her down and gave her their list, a manifesto of sorts, outlining what they needed from their skincare, namely:

– not greasy, – allowing for easy make-up application after applying skincare, – working well with powders. Amanda listened, took that on board and took a year to create and test, with her girls giving her unbiased feedback. Amanda says that ‘there is so much ego in beauty’ and for her it’s not about that. What matters is peeling the layers, discovering life, people, plants, the world. Recently I was surprised to realise that with age I don’t feel like I know more, I actually feel like there is so much to learn and Amanda is one of the teachers who probably unwittingly reinforced that point for me by saying ‘the more I know, the more I want to learn’ somewhere in the midst of our long conversation.

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Amanda makes all of her products by hand, but when we were talking about her creative process, she mentioned something that made me sit up and realise that I never questioned something quite so obvious. Most of the big brands use machines to make their cosmetics, as they produce lots of products and scale wouldn’t be feasible without automated product liners. However, have you ever thought that in order for let’s say the cream to go through machines, in terms of texture, gloominess etc. it has to run smoothly and not block the machine. In order for that to happen, things need to be added to the formulation – something that suits the machine and not your skin. A good example would be soap-making – if you use cold-press process, then natural glycerin is used. When soaps are made at the factory, glycerin needs to ‘come out’ as it ‘gumps’ up the machine. Also, when looking through list of product ingredients, see if it contains xantham gum – an indication that it hasn’t been fully hand-made. Those are good points to think about when it comes to consequences of what we put on our skin every day – I am still processing that now, several months after the meeting in Lewes….

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Another interesting point that Amanda was open to discuss was the question of price. Amanda’s products are accessibly priced but they aren’t mass market nor are they cheap – the cost might be slightly above the average rate you might be normally paying. I questioned Amanda about it and her immediate reply was that she genuinely loves when people use her skincare and see the difference in their skin. However, she has to be realistic, as she grows the plants that she later uses in her formulations herself – there are costs of seeds, labour, harvesting, distilling – all the things that have to be factored into the product’s price, even before Amanda starts making the actual products. You can indeed buy ingredients in bulk, to make things ‘cheaper’ in relation to the final price of the product, but Amanda doesn’t do that. She prefers to have materials of exceptional quality – that can be achieved when you do things by hand and control every step yourself – that guarantees that you can tell customer everything about your product, in minuscule detail.

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If you look at the size of Amanda’s jars and bottles, containing her products, they are probably smaller than your regular products. However, because of the concentration and power of plants, each jar or bottle lasts you a long time and I can vouch for that as a customer, not as a journalist. You have potency & efficacy and that is better than a large jar that offers quantity over quality and that might end up staying on your bathroom shelf, procrastinating. Plus, it helps to remember that with efficient skincare there is no need to slather a lot of product. Life is in detail and when you speak with Amanda, even the mundane things that you thought you knew become questioned, as you listen and think about what Amanda presents to you as part of the conversation.

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There is another side to Amanda that I dearly love – she has the most wonderful way with words and such is her power of writing, that sometimes I read her blog/journal and wish I wrote so beautifully, movingly, eloquently. When does she find the time? Early in the morning, at 5am sometimes, when the world still sleeps. So, if you like beautiful writing that nurtures your head and your soul, I highly recommend you check Amanda’s online ‘journal’ on her website.

After the hibernation of winter, in February, Amanda starts her ‘guesswork’ on how many and what plants to get & plant. Roses, for example, are bare-rooted plants and before February are in dormant stage, so ‘active’ work starts in March/April. While many of us read magazines and books, Amanda’s weakness is what she calls ‘plant porn’ meaning plant catalogues, which she can examine for hours. She starts with a ‘dread list’ of about 50 or so plants, the ones she really wants to plant but then her sensibility comes to the frontline, via contemplation of things like soil conditions, heat, seasonality, winds etc. and the list narrows down to the ‘core’ ones of ten to fifteen that she simply must grow. At times, Amanda might go beyond that by five or six plants, but that is rare, mostly due to the limited amount of space for planting.

March to October are the crazy months for Amanda and her team. From March Amanda has to do active seeding in trays and polytunnels, then when plants sprout, they go into plant pots and from May they go ‘outside’ ( this year, due to a persistent cold spell, the process is a bit quite different, but that is part of nature’s surprising and unpredictable disposition ). Summer and early autumn are the time for harvest and then things become dormant and reflective again, until the arrival of spring. In April Amanda also tends to go to Cyprus to harvest and distill orange blossom, pink pepper and thyme – for Amanda it is about the unstoppable flow of creativity and engaging with life in joyful spirit – ‘if I get hurt, then be it!’ says Amanda and I believe that wise woman, with a sparkle in the depth of her serious eyes.

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Amanda is one of those women who always rises to the challenge, but interestingly, her collaborations are generally ‘initiated’ by someone else to start with, as Amanda doesn’t ‘consciously look for them’. When she joins in though, she does it with vigour, immense enthusiasm, passion and gusto:

– Glyndebourne Opera House (‘I get to roam the fields and look for plants before the performances, at times listening to the glorious rehearsals in the process’. Amanda uses free-flowering & beautifully scented Rosa Glyndebourne, picking them, then distilling for rose-water and using it to make entirely natural soap and lip balm),

Isle of Harris Distillery ( her kelp waters add something unique to the Gin produced on the island  – a sophisticated, unusual drink that feels like it contains a magic potion and poetry notes that start emerging as soon as liquid touches your tongue. Amanda was invited to visit the island and collect islands plants with local women and kids, who form the foraging team. Botanicals were distilled, macerated & tinctures created – products are exquisite & the candle was incredibly multi-layered – I loved burning it at my desk, while writing, and deciphering it like a code breaker ).

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VRAC ( Pauline Maniere, tea mistress and founder of the brand, approached Amanda to collaborate using the teas. The first one was an Earl Grey Bar, the new one is Ginger & Lemongrass, with ginger supplied by Amanda’s Turkish friends and lemon oil especially pressed for her in Cyprus ).

The Herball ( Michael Isted creates exquisite drinks and cocktails that capture essence and vitality of plants, while Amanda harnesses benefits of plants in every aspect of her skincare. Those two creative masterminds talk, debate and exchange ideas about plants – Michael comes to work on the farm and in exchange for his work Amanda grows the plants he needs – a truly magical partnership ).

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AS. Apothecary products are stocked not just in the UK, including London’s natural beauty mecca Content, but also much admired by retailers and customers and applauded by press in France, where Amanda regularly travels to talk to store owners and customers. Part of that unbridled Parisian pleasure for Amanda is enjoying a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine, sitting outside the cafe or bar, feeling womanly and observing the world go by.

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When we talk about people and relationships, what strikes me is how modern and old-fashioned Amanda is. There are so many changes in the air, so much anger and competitiveness and at times loss of authenticity, yet Amanda is adamant one ‘shouldn’t put people in the corner, don’t humiliate them – a person should always have a way out’. Or an even more meaningful ‘it’s easy to crash people, but rarely helpful. Amanda

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My conversations with Amanda weren’t just confined to the hotel’s reception room, where we drank strong coffee ( a perk of being accompanied by Amanda ) but last time I also ventured to Amanda’s temporary studio, where in the sanctity of her creative abode, we talked about the use of labdanum (a sticky resin that has been used for centuries in perfumery and for medicinal purposes), as well as galbanum (an aromatic gum resin, which is normally acquired by making an incision at the base of the plant and scraping it quickly, before resin ‘lovers’, ants, arrive in a steady stream ). Amanda explained in more detail about particulars of top, middle and base notes ( base, as resin, holds things together ) & memory of smells, which for her ‘are like remembering music’. Resins are a fascinating subject, particularly tree resins, that are trees own ‘healing’ agents that can also help to heal out skin – but not when directly applied! I hope Amanda will do a separate post on her journal about this, as I don’t feel I can do this subject justice.

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You can’t call yourself a gardener until twenty seasons have passed

When winter descends, Amanda loves to walk or travel to places where she can observe dormant plants and reflect on complexity of plant materials – when her kids were little, she loved doing that with them, gently teaching them about the nature and its amazing powers. This peaceful time allows her also to gather strength, think, experiment and get ready to start again, aided by nature’s cycles and different speeds that accompany them.

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While I sat and learnt in Amanda’s studio, she let me slice the soap into bars and talked to me about creation of aromatic flower waters ( money is in the oils, so this is somewhat an enjoyable business side line, requiring peacefulness and patience. She also set up about ten bottles of oils before me, letting me smell each one unhurriedly and then letting me smell the oils that she created – the difference at times is breathtaking and ‘simplistically’ can be compared to wine tasting but with your nose. There is fragility and strength and the magic of discovery, as you smell and try to interpret smells. There is power and memories and the incredible peaceful pleasure of discovery and understanding, in practise, what is behind bottles and creams of skincare – the slow, nurturing beauty that requires patience, kindness and genuine skills that aren’t amassed overnight.

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I also got to try olive oil, that often is in the base of AS Apothecary lip balms and face creams. Amanda sources the oil from her friend in Crete, who presses olives when they are still green. I wasn’t sure of the difference between pressing green and black olives and Amanda explained that black, ripe, olives have more acid and fewer polyphenols – you get lots of oil from them, while green olives are full of polyphenols but you get less oil from them. When you taste it, it coats your tongue and is childishly magical, with a more feminine, delicate taste that lingers on your tongue, giving you pure pleasure and appreciation of the artisanal skills. You can even taste it at the back of your throat and contemplate the power of antioxidants that it possess, nurtures by sun rays and starry nights.

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I have been using Amanda’s products for a couple of years now. They might look simple but when you use them you realise that there is inner sophistication in them, created with unrivalled knowledge of plants, perfect textures ( try Amanda’s body lotion No.6 (rejuvenating & vibrant)- it is unlike any other, not heavy, not too light, easily absorbent yet deeply nurturing for the skin – that is a product that I now have deep affinity to and which for me is like Amanda’s professional signature – even with a mask over your eyes, its texture and feel is unmistakable ). I view Amanda as a good, modern witch, full of powerful knowledge that she distills in her creation, trying to make the world a simpler place with a slower pace of life, where skin is nurtured, the head is held high and the joy and beauty spark from inside. For me AS Apothecary products are unmistakably sophisticated, personalised hand-made gifts that harness power of plants, nature, elements and incredible knowledge mixed with the love gone into its creation.

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For more information about Amanda, AS. Apothecary and blog, please click here

Categories: Beauty & well-being, Interviews

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