What goes into the world’s most famous moisturiser?

It was the first super cream and, more than 20 years since it launched, is still a bestseller. But more impressive than that is the story behind it. Frankie Graddon explores the cult of Crème de la Mer

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By Frankie Graddon on

It’s 1995, the Macarena has just gone viral and Brad Pitt is named the sexiest man alive by People magazine. Toy Story has made history as the first computer-animated film and Pogs are all the rage. Estée Lauder Companies, the beauty conglomerate that owns Clinique and, of course, Estée Lauder, has just bought a little, unknown Californian brand and its sole product – a jar of skin cream.

A year later, Saks Fifth Avenue holds the exclusive launch of Crème de la Mer and introduces the world to the first luxury “It” cream. Selling for over $100 per pot, it caused a global sensation, garnering a cult-like following almost instantly with a roster of A-list celebrity fans including Angelina Jolie, Victoria Beckham and Madonna. Most famously, Jennifer Lopez was rumoured to buy the cream in bulk and slather it all over instead of body lotion. In 2000, it launched in the UK in Harrods – cementing its status as the most famous moisturiser in the world and paving the way for other “super creams”, with humongous price tags, to come to market.

Now stocked in over 50 countries, it has become the Christian Louboutin shoes of the beauty world. Iconic and aspirational, everyone has heard of it, be you 22 or 82, living in London or Llandudno. With no less star appeal than when it launched (Kate Hudson is the current face of Crème de la Mer – she apparently became a fan after her mum, Goldie Hawn, gave her a jar of cream for Christmas), the cult of La Mer is as strong as ever. So, what’s it all about? I took a trip to Melville, Long Island, to the Crème de la Mer lab to find out.  

The beauty industry is full of weird and wonderful tales – it’s part of the magic, not to mention the marketing – but the story of how Crème de la Mer came to be is perhaps the most fantastic of them all. As La Mer legend has it, the iconic cream was created by a rocket scientist called Max Huber during the 1970s in San Diego, California. After suffering fuel burns to his face and unable to find anything to heal his skin, Huber created his own cream using locally found sea kelp (or seaweed). The winning formula apparently took 12 years and over 6,000 experiments to create and was made in a fish tank in his front room. He called it Crème de la Mer. A few years later, the Lauder family caught wind of Huber’s cream, which, by that point, had gained popularity on the west coast of America. “In the early 80s, they wanted his cream,” explains Andy Bevacqua, senior vice president of research and development at Estée Lauder. Despite several attempts by Lauder to acquire it, Huber refused to sell up until his death in 1991. His daughter sold it to Estée Lauder Companies four years later and the rest, as they say, is history.

Max Huber's portrait at the La Mer lab in Melville, Long Island

Did Max Huber ever exist? Conspiracy theories – of which there are a few – raise the question. The mad scientist who hit upon a pot of gold seems too good to be true. But, as they say, fact is stranger than fiction. Bevacqua and the La Mer team confirm he was indeed real; in fact, a portrait of Huber hangs on the wall of the La Mer laboratory, along with his original equipment. Scour the internet and you will find a handful of stories corroborating the facts – one involving Linda Wells, an American beauty editor, who witnessed Huber eat the cream in front of her to demonstrate how pure it was. It’s an intriguing story, to say the least, and there’s nothing like a great heritage story to add to a brand’s appeal, especially in this day and age when we, the consumer, are searching for authenticity in an over-saturated market. Add to this a sense of mystery and you’ve got yourself a hell of a lot of shelf appeal.

Mystery is a key component in the Crème de la Mer brand. Take, for example, how the cream is made. The story goes that, when Huber died, he took his cream recipe with him, leaving the Lauder team, including Bevacqua, the task of recreating the exact original formula. And, as Bevacqua tells me, this started a year-long process of pretty unorthodox measures. He recounts the story of when, having difficulties in the early stages of development, his then-boss contacted a medium to ask Huber what they were doing wrong (apparently, they did reach him and he told them it was something to do with the way they were heating ingredients). The team also brought healers into the lab, even having one imprint energy into the tools used in the production process. But perhaps the strangest thing – and something that it still used when making the cream today – is that special sound recordings are played as it’s made. For two hours every day, a recording that sounds much like a rumbling stomach is played to tanks of fermenting sea kelp. This apparently transforms the kelp into what the brand calls Miracle Broth, which is stated to be Crème de la Mer’s star ingredient. Part of Huber’s original method, the thinking goes that the sound waves transfer energy into the broth, making it more active and, as Paul Tchinnis, executive director of research and development, explains, “gives it the power to help heal the skin”.

One of Max Huber's original tape recordings, which is played during the fermentation process

“So many of the things we’ve done will sound weird,” Bevacqua admits, and he’s not wrong. Where you would typically expect skincare to be spoken about in scientific terms, this reference to energy and healers is completely out of the ordinary. But it’s these little mysteries that are the brand’s USP and have helped cultivate a lasting interest in what is essentially a pot of moisturiser.  

But, mystery aside, a product is only going to sell if it performs, and La Mer’s long-standing reputation and loyal customer base (as well as J-Lo et al, there is a women called Countess Lucienne von Doz who is apparently the longest-serving Crème customer, having bought it from back in the days of Max Huber) would suggest it does. So, what’s in it?

As per Huber’s original formula (something the La Mer team are intent on staying true to), the cream’s main ingredient is Macrocystis pyrifera – a common sea kelp that grows in very deep, cold water. This is fermented and and turned into Miracle Broth – a yellowish liquid which smells a bit like sherry. According to La Mer, it’s this that gives the cream its ability to regenerate, nourish and moisturise your skin so effectively. The second key ingredient is Lime Tea, a concentrate made from lime rinds, which gives the formula antioxidants (protects skin against pollution, sun damage, smoking, etc), as well as a slight citrus smell. Bevacqua explains that Huber used to make Lime Tea with pure vodka – of course, this is no longer the case – 100 per cent proof is not permitted in skincare any more. During the making process, it is passed through tiny magnets, which apparently gives the skin high levels of hydration.

A bottle of Miracle Broth

For £120 a pot, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Crème de la Mer contained unicorn tears and stardust, but that’s not the case. The kelp used is a common one that you will find in many other, much cheaper creams on the high street. So, why then is it so expensive? “Because it’s very labour intensive,” explains Bevacqua. After being harvested by hand, the kelp fronds are frozen and shipped to New York. Here it’s turned into Miracle Broth, which is added to the Lime Tea and turned into Crème de la Mer. The entire process takes three months. Each batch of cream is then hand-filled into jars, within eight hours of being made and at 35 to 40 degrees, to prevent the cream from separating. The jars are made from opal glass – the same ones that Huber used back in the 70s. But more than the time and effort that goes into the mechanics of making the cream, according to Bevacqua and the team, it’s the way the ingredients are put together that makes it different from every other product on the market. And thus, the exact details of Miracle Broth’s fermentation process – the most essential part of Crème de la Mer – isn’t patented and never will be. “It’s a trade secret and we’ll never release it,” says Bevacqua.

A pot of Creme De La Mer from the 1970s

That secret might just be the best-kept one in the whole beauty industry. But what is so interesting is that, in the current age of transparency, especially when it comes to skincare (think of brands like The Ordinary and Beauty Pie), there is still clearly an appetite for a product so wilfully mysterious. But I’d suggest that this is where the allure lies. “If we talked about ingredients the same way that every other brand talk about them, then there’s no uniqueness,” explains Bevacqua. “I think that’s what make La Mer special – it is more mysterious.”

Crème de la Mer is still the La Mer brand’s bestseller (the range now comprises five moisturisers, as well as other skin products – all of which contain the signature Miracle Broth). Jars range from £60 for 15ml to a whopping £1,520 for 500ml. It’s tempting to ask whether it can possibly be worth it, but the answer to that is: “How long is a piece of string?” To the millions who do invest in the cult, it surely is. And for one product to still carry all of that cachet, there has got to be something in it – it’s literally stood the test of time. In the ever-growing skincare market (currently estimated to be worth $134.5bn), the idea of an expensive cream isn’t as shocking as it once was. A quick walk around a beauty department and you’ll find several creams in excess of £100, from Sisley to Lancôme. But will there ever be a cream to rival Crème de la Mer? According to Bevacqua, many will try, but “they won’t come close”.



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