Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Helena Rubinstein & the Merino
More than a century after the event, it remains unclear exactly why Chaja Rubinstein, 23, fled her native Poland and took lodgings with her uncle Louis Silberfeld, a shopkeeper in the hamlet of Coleraine, in the west of Victoria. Some say it was to escape an unwelcome suitor. Whatever her reasons, it turned out to be a smart move for the “haughty and difficult” daughter of a Crakow egg merchant.
She arrived in 1894, with no money and little English. Her stylish clothes and milky complexion did not pass unnoticed among the town’s ladies, however, and she soon found enthusiastic buyers for the jars of beauty cream in her luggage. Spotting a market, she began to make her own. Fortunately, a key ingredient was readily to hand.
Coleraine might have been an “awful place” but it did not lack for lanolin. Sheep, some 75 million of them, were the wealth of the nation and the Western District’s vast mobs of merinos produced the finest wool in the land, secreting abundant grease in the process. To disguise the sheep oil’s pungent pong, Rubinstein experimented with pine bark, lavender and water lilies.
She also managed to fall out with her uncle. After a stint as a bush governess, she got a job as a waitress at the Winter Garden tearooms in Melbourne. There, she found an admirer willing to stump up the funds to launch her Crème Valaze, supposedly including herbs imported “from the Carpathian Mountains”. Costing ten pence and selling for six shillings, it walked off the shelves as fast as she could pack it in pots. Now calling herself Helena, Rubinstein could soon afford to open a salon in fashionable Collins Street, selling glamour as a science to clients whose skin was “diagnosed” and a suitable treatment “prescribed”.
Sydney was next, and within five years Australian operations were profitable enough to finance a Salon de Beauté Valaze in London. Then came Paris and New York.
Tiny in form, dictatorial in style and famed for her parsimony, Madame Rubinstein roamed the globe, directing her ever-expanding empire and feuding with Elizabeth Arden. When her portrait was painted by William Dobell, she thought it “rather too much of a caricature”, although that didn’t stop her endowing a travelling scholarship for Australian artists.
Chaja Rubinstein never returned to Coleraine. She died in 1965, Princess Gourielli-Tchkonia, her business valued at $60 million. Her initial associates, the merinos, are believed to have all been eaten.