Flax seed soap

Nelli Avetisyan Reinvents Medieval Armenian Soap-Making Traditions


LOS ANGELES — When I met Nelli Avetisyan for the first time, my hands were covered with blisters and cracks while I was navigating the endless cycle of washing my toddler’s hands, frantically eliminating the bacteria and dust that she could get while crawling. Nelli examined my damaged fingers, which looked even worse because of scratching, and handed me a cream-colored soap with a carved picture of a goat on it. “It’s a Bezoar goat,” she specified. Catching my puzzled look, she added, “It is good for your hands. Just apply it on them and leave it for half an hour, after which you can wash your hands.” My impromptu “appointment” led me to the journey that Nelli Avetisyan went through which ended with her relocating to the US and turning Avetisyan Artisan Soaps into a permanent business.

Bezoar goat soap

It all started with the concern that grew in Nelli, a pharmacist professor at the Yerevan State Medical University and later at Yerevan State University, about finding chemicals in the water, including traces of medications. “In Armenia, the process of the use of medication is poorly executed. The doctors prescribe it, the pharmacists sell, and the patients use as much as needed or even wanted. But what happens to the rest of the medication that sits in the drawer or expires? No one bears responsibility for that. There are medications that do not disintegrate in thirty years and stay in the water until it reaches the fields of crops absorbing into the soil,” she explains. Nelli found out that fish farming also uses hormones.

A set of different soaps

“All the sewage from the hospitals fall into the river Hrazdan. That river nurtures the entire Ararat valley. Besides, all the fishponds are located on both sides of the river. The farmers use a lot of hormones that go into the same river. No one thinks about it!” exclaims Nelli.

In the early 2000s, for seven consecutive years, Nelli did her own research, testing the water by utilizing private labs and her own resources. “I found out that the fishmongers often had fish with two heads, which they carefully cut off and served to the consumers. That was another proof of the hormone use in these farms,” says Nelli.

Twinleaf gift set

Her research provided little concrete results, but she was determined to prove what she was convinced of. When her students at Yerevan State University had to prepare their graduation papers, Nelli acted strategically: she divided the work between them and got a permit to use the labs at the Academician Emil Gabrielyan Scientific Center of Drug and Medical Technology Expertise. The results came in – and they were positive. One screening of the Getar and Geghanist rivers as well as in Lake Yerevan showed from 2 to 5 mkg/liter progesterone and hydrocortisone. “We mainly tested the waters in the fish farming area and found huge amounts of antibiotics and hormones used to stimulate the growth of the fish,” says Avetisyan.

Nelli also discovered triclosan and other chemical compounds used in soaps and detergents known as carcinogen, present in those findings. Since it did not look promising that the bureaucratic system would make major improvements, Nelli decided to use her own knowledge and the skills of a pharmacist and create a unique formula of soap – at that time the only one in the country.

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In her historical house in Arabkir that once was a home for repatriates from Greece in the 1940s, Nelli started her natural soap production. “Soapmaking had a profound meaning for me: My goal was not only producing soaps but also expanding the nature of pharmacology, ” adds Nelli. This time Nelli went to the Matenadaran, the repository of ancient manuscripts in Yerevan, to look for the old recipes used in soapmaking in medieval Armenia. She found out about the ingredients to treat eczema used by 15th century Armenian physician Amirdovlat of Amasia. Through various trials Nelly eventually recreated the soap of the physician, wrapped it in special packaging relating the story and its significance, and introduced it to consumers. “My goal was to teach people about Amirdovlat of Amasia and that we had a tradition in soapmaking dating back many decades,” she says.

Tork’e, a specially developed biodegradable packaging

Nelli didn’t stop there. She went from village to village and gathered information about soaps that our ancestors used to make. That’s how she found out about Lousik who used Armenian green clay to grow hair in Martuny village in Gegharkunik province. Reformulated soap with this green clay naturally rich with silver is now in Nelly’s soap collection for hair growth.

In 2015 at the conference of the Certification of Organic Products held in Yerevan, Nelly met with the grandson of Satenik, another local follower of a folk medicine of Gegharkunik province who was famous for her technique of flax oil compression, which was an important part of the folk medicine in Armenia. Nelli incorporated the recipe in her own production and introduced the reinvented flax seed soap, paying tribute to Satenik.

“Being a pharmacist helped me develop a more scientific approach to soapmaking techniques and gave them a therapeutic effect that was widespread in medieval Armenia,” adds Nelli.

Avetisyan Artisan Soaps creates products from pumpkin, thyme, chamomile, mint, coffee, hemp, lilac and other natural vegetables and plants, never using any artificial flavors or colors. They help different skin conditions and are also made for everyday use. The company also produces cold-pressed oils and makes its own base for soaps and other products, unlike other companies which buy a commercially made base. Nelli went even further and manufactured a special biodegradable packaging called tork’e in which she wraps her balmy and colorful soaps.

Nelli Avetisyan at her booth at the Ginifest International Wines and Spirits Festival in Santa Monica, California, November 2022

In 2016 at the Armenian Folk Life Festival in Smithsonian Institute in Washington, Avetisyan Soaps were a sensation. After the event, Nelly decided to move to California and establish her soap production here by participating in many SoCal Etsy events, various farmer’s markets and festivals, and by being one of the first members of the Buy Armenian Marketplace. Avetisyan Artisan Soaps starting in 2022 had a permanent stall at the Downtown Burbank Cultural Market, a unique artisanal weekly event that Hilda Avanessian founded with the goal of bringing together over thirty vendors from diverse cultural backgrounds.

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