Violet Mkhitaryan’s lab could easily be mistaken for a pastry chef’s kitchen.
A giant jug of rose water from Bulgaria sits on a shelf. Glass pots of pungent chamomile, peppermint, and fenugreek line the counter. A colossal 18-year-old aloe plant sits ceremoniously in a corner, its spiky appendages stretching out over Pyrex bowls of creamy concoctions. In a back room are containers full of dried flower petals, minuscule black berry seeds, and assorted herbs and grains.
This is where Mkhitaryan spends her Mondays: formulating creams rich in oil to soothe irritation; gentle shampoo and lotion for newborns; stretch-mark balm loaded with oils rich in vitamins A and E.
The rest of her days are spent at her tony Coolidge Corner spa, Violet Skin Boutique, which opened in 2009. (Before that, she was on Newbury Street.)
“Everyone thinks about the liver and heart and lungs. Skin is the biggest organ with a very important function — it protects the entire body,” Mkhitaryan explains. “The skin is a mirror of what is happening inside with your organs.”
Mkhitaryan is her own best advertisement. She has creamy skin. She does not have wrinkles or puffiness under her eyes. She enthusiastically broadcasts that she’s 62. Her twin daughters Rousanna Gevondian-Curvelo and Susanna Nassar, 37, are partners in the business. Both hold MBAs and nursing degrees. They intended to have careers in hospital administration, but soon saw a flaw in the health care system.
“Being in nursing for eight years opens your eyes. It’s based so much on prescribing medicines; it doesn’t view a person in a holistic way,” said Gevondian, who worked at Boston Medical Center, among other hospitals. “I was working around the time that people were just starting to talk about natural and organic food and lifestyles, but there was nothing going on in the spa field yet.”
Mkhitaryan’s products are natural, small batch, and fresh — so fresh that some must be refrigerated.
She is equal parts beauty consultant, old world preservationist (her grandmother taught her about the moisturizing powers of flax seeds’ omega-3 fatty acids, and more), consumer advocate , and public health evangelist.
Some have been so inspired by the results of Mkhitaryan’s work that they’re actively spreading her gospel. Last April, Montaha Al Suwaidan, 30, opened Violet Kuwait after being impressed by how her sisters’ skin improved with Mkhitaryan’s treatments when they studied in Boston.
“There are many spas in Kuwait but none of them specialize in natural products and services,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Mkhitaryan is currently in discussions with another former client, who returned to her native Ethiopia. When she opens her Violet shop in Africa, Mkhitaryan says she will go there to train her.
Mkhitaryan was born and raised in Armenia, where her aunts, grandfathers, and cousins were doctors. She went to school for biochemistry, but became increasingly interested in aesthetics, which had long been a hobby inspired by yogurt rubs her aunt used to teach her.
For four decades she’s been applying her biochemistry knowledge to her studies of vintage Russian cosmetology books, many of which offer diet and lifestyle instruction as well as what Mkhitaryan calls “gymnastic” regimens for the face and neck that activate muscles and keep wrinkles at bay. She says many of her remedies are based on cosmetic traditions from Eastern Europe, Russia, France, Tibet, and elsewhere.
In a day and age where you can hardly walk five blocks without passing a chain drug store featuring numerous moisturizers, soaps, and toners, it can be easy to look askance at natural remedies. But the catalog of ingredients on a bottle of a brand-name moisturizer might give a shopper pause. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA is not authorized to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of certain color additives. According to the FDA’s website, “In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.”
In recent years consumer advocacy groups have raised questions about chemicals in personal care products.
Meanwhile, the sales of so-called natural personal care products increased by 11 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to Kline & Company, a consulting and research group, though a single standard has yet to be established for “natural” certification.
“Many consumers in the US natural personal care market find it difficult to distinguish between the truly natural and pseudo natural brands, and are further confused by the several certification symbols available on different products in the marketplace,” Nancy Mills, consumer products industry manager at Kline, wrote in an e-mail. “The need for one particular standard grows as the fast-growing natural personal care market is crowded with products with words like herbal and natural, which do not have any legal definition.”
Meanwhile, Mkhitaryan is toiling on a line of peony and lily products for spring and a probiotic-rich kefir mask derived from a Tibetan mushroom. She’s shipping her products to clients in Greece, Moscow, and Canada, working with Children’s Hospital to donate eczema cream to the cancer ward, and preparing to open a Hingham spa in May.
“If your skin looks good, you’ll have a good mood, good energy, you work better, you’ll have a nice, beautiful social life,” says Mkhitaryan, with characteristic effusiveness. “It’s unbelievable. I feel I help make a comfortable life for people.”