In the fall of 2011, Stan Hickam was a radiology technician in a small town in the rolling, rural Northeastern corner of Tennessee with an innocuous hobby: He collected old, corroded Gillette razors that no one wanted anymore, cleaned them up, and sold them on eBay. Unbeknownst to Hickam, the world of manly men at that time were discovering the virtues of vintage shaving gear with rapidly growing gusto. His razors quickly sold, he refurbished even more; they sold at even higher prices, and before he knew it Hickam had a new business on his hands.
After his 30-something son-in-law told him exactly what you'd expect ("You need a website"), his business started gaining attention. Under the catchy name "Above The Tie," Hickam and Matt Cole (the son-in-law) started to sell not only refurbished Gillettes but also select shaving accoutrements: packs of double-edge razor blades (which the old razors all require); tubs of old fashioned shaving soaps; and fine brushes made with badger hair, which he had made under his own brand name.
As business grew, and Hickam kept refurbishing more razors, he noticed some patterns in the ones he liked best. On some, the razor's head was curved so perfectly that its surface grabbed skin as it slid over your face, lifting it slightly so the blade could cut stubble almost below skin level. Some were adjustable, allowing a person to vary the shave's aggressiveness (based on skin type, beard thickness, extent of growth, facial curves, or any other variable). Some, called "comb razors," were made with a row of little teeth below the blade; the combs tend to leave a touch more shaving cream behind, which creates more glide. Some were made in three parts, which the shaver took apart and re-assembled with every blade change — a system that yields a very stable device but it's fussy. For greater convenience, some were built as a single, multi-part mechanism, with "butterfly doors" that open with a mere twist of the handle. Unfortunately, none of these razors possessed all of these attributes in one tool.
A box of the vintage Gillette razors that inspired Hickam's designs. Most of these are the adjustable models made in the late 1950s, which take a single, old-style, double-edge blade. They are considered by many to be the apex of Gillette’s razor designs, yet in their day, they sold for a mere $1 apiece. Today, these old razors have become so popular that some of the rarer models can sell for upwards of $400 after they've been shined up. | (Courtesy Todd Oppenheimer/Craftmanship)
All of which raised a question in Hickam's mind. "Why don't we just make some of our own?" When he went looking for a machine shop to do it, he ran into a series of obstacles that taught him a lot about why razor designs, and manufacturing in general, have declined so dramatically in the U.S. Just for starters, he discovered that the engineering capabilities for making a sophisticated, double-edge razor are virtually extinct.
The price of novelty
In the 1970s, when Gillette moved into the more lucrative market of multi-blade cartridges and throw-away plastic razors, the company started selling off most of its manufacturing machinery for double-edge (called DE) shaving gear. One reason for the company's new direction, aside from the market's tendency to mistake novelty for progress, was the fear of competition. By this point, many of Gillette's innovative patents had begun to expire. So if they were to maintain the lead in men's grooming, they needed to convince consumers that the concept of "new and improved" was real.
The building to the right is Hickam's warehouse — a rural cabin in the Southwestern corner of Virginia that has been in his wife's family for four generations. It was originally built in 1783 by her great great, great great grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran named Abraham Fulkerson. | (Courtesy Stan Hickam/Craftmanship)
To facilitate the process, Gillette and other razor manufacturers became experts at a kind of consumer shell game: As soon as customers became accustomed to a new model, and returned to stores to buy replacement blades, they discovered that their razor had just been discontinued in favor of a newer system. The new model was of course built for cartridges that were better, smoother, faster — and, of course, loaded with even more blades. In 1998, for example, Gillette released the "Mach3" (signifying its three blades), which was soon followed, in rapid succession, by the Mach3 Turbo, the Mach3 Turbo Champion, the M3Power, the Mach3 Power Nitro, the Fusion Power Phantom — the list goes on and on. Gillette's advertising claims for the M3Power were so extravagant that a U.S. District court blocked Gillette's ads, calling them "literally false."
Whenever this cascade of innovations has come up for discussion in the various internet forums devoted to traditional shaving gear, the commentary gets pretty biting. In 2012, for example, when Schick released its new, five-blade "Hydro 5 Power Select," one participant commented as follows: "I think the next innovation should be a shotgun shell that's packed with DE blades, then you pack them in a 4-10 shotgun and shoot yourself in the face. Bam! Insta-Shave."
Some of what makes the traditional shaving crowd so grumpy is the price of today's multi-blade cartridges: $3 to $4 apiece. By comparison, the finest DE blades in the world cost no more than 50 cents apiece, and most sell for a mere 10 to 20 cents each. In a bit of commercial irony, the best DE blades today are made in countries not generally regarded as industrial giants — places like Russia, Poland, Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt. How can these countries make such high-quality blades? They were first ones in line when Gillette got rid of its old DE equipment back in the '70s and '80s.
To make this irony even more painful, each cartridge's manufacturing cost, a Gillette insider once reported, is less than a dime. That amounts to a mark-up of 4,750 percent. Partly for this reason, many traditional shaving loyalists have begun hoarding packages of DE blades, fearing the coming of what they call a "shavepocolypse." This is the day when Third World countries have so thoroughly embraced the West's throw-away habits that the only blades on the market will be multi-blade cartridges — or Bic's disposable plastic razors.
Should that day ever come, it would wreak havoc far beyond your pocketbook. Just in this country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some two billion disposable razors already end up in the landfill every year. Add in our cans of shaving cream — a full case of which would not equal what a traditional shaver can get from one good tub of shaving soap — and the environmental costs to today's methods of grooming become staggering.
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Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the timeline of Gillette products. It has been corrected.