A few years ago, Angela Jia Kim was cooking up organic skin care products in her Manhattan apartment, using ingredients such as champagne grape seeds, caviar, and truffles. Today her experiments have borne fruit in a pair of award-winning businesses centered in the Catskills.
Om Aroma & Company is located in Shokan, where the products are made, employing local women. At two Savor Spa locations, one in Woodstock and one back in the West Village, licensed estheticians apply Om Aroma creams, cleansers, peels, exfoliants, masks, and mists to the faces of clients with a yen for the natural. “People in this area care about what they’re putting in and on their bodies,” observed Kim’s business partner, Beth Larsen, “and they support locally made products.”
Kim calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur” who had a previous career as a concert pianist. One night, before going onstage, she applied a purportedly natural lotion to her face and broke out in hives. She read through the ingredients on the label and found that most of them were chemicals with unpronounceable names. “One was a preservative made from formaldehyde,” she marveled. “That’s what they use to preserve dead people. They want these products to last 15 years on the shelf.”
She began to experiment with organic substances, curious to see if she could make a truly natural skin care product. The experiments stretched out. “I’m obsessive,” she noted. “You have to be, in order to be a concert pianist.” When she was pregnant, Kim stopped performing and obsessed even more on her products. With baby in tow, she set up a booth at Bryant Park’s pop-up holiday fair. In less than four months, she sold $40,000 worth of creams. She asked her customers where they lived, and the majority mentioned the West Village, so that’s where the first Savor Spa was opened.
When Kim’s husband started hiking in the Catskills, he fell in love with the area. He told her it would make business sense to move her work to the Catskills — and she says he was right.
One day she paid a visit to the Cheri Voss Salon and Spa on Route 212, east of Woodstock at Glasco Turnpike. Kim accidentally left her car lights on and ran down the battery. While waiting for a jump, she had a conversation with Voss’s mother, who mentioned that they were looking for a tenant to operate on the second floor. Kim had found a location for the upstate Savor Spa, which opened last August.
A year ago, she met Larsen, who worked for ten years as a vice president at Sephora, a popular chain of stores selling make-up, perfume, and other beauty aids. “I used to put a lot of chemical-laden products on my body,” said Larsen. “I believe that was the cause of some health issues I was having. A doctor prescribed a hormone cream and said to use a quarter-teaspoon at a time. That amount was enough to shift the entire hormone system. I realized that what you put on your skin goes right into your bloodstream. After that, I went to organics.”
Kim’s experimentation with exotic ingredients was inspired by her mother. “Koreans are obsessed with their skin,” she said. “My mom always had something new sent over by her sisters in Korea. When I came home from college, I would steal her creams. They would have ingredients like gold or silkworm cocoons.”
She uses substances such as pumpkin seed, which is rich in antioxidants, to reduce wrinkles and fade age spots, common among upstaters who spend time in the sun. White truffle extract is high in vitamin B, said to help brighten and soften the skin. She recommends a five-step process for taking care of the skin: purify, tone, hydrate, nourish, and repair, each step entailing a different formula, with variations for different skin types, ages, and activities.
Om Aroma has received praise from media such as the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Self, and Cosmopolitan. Some of the products are pricey, although a little goes a long way. Four ounces of pearl cleansing cream (with powdered mother-of-pearl, champagne grape seeds, rosewater, for sensitive skin) costs $48. Chardonnay body cream, with organic shea butter, is only $20 for 2 ounces. A one-ounce jar of caviar eye cream (reduces puffiness, fine lines, dark circles) goes for $58. However, Kim and Larsen are quick to point out, those drugstore brands that appear to be cheaper are often whipped with water and air to look more substantial. “With our products, you use a much smaller amount, since there are no chemical fillers,” said Kim.
“We have a ‘Green Your Beauty Routine’ offer,” she added. “Bring in your beauty product, and we’ll throw it away and replace it with one of ours at a steep discount. Part of our job is to educate people about what they’re putting on their bodies. We hand out a list of the top ten toxic ingredients to avoid,” from synthetic fragrances to chemicals such as methylparaben.
At Savor Spa, facials provide a chance to relax deeply and let a professional do the work. Nadie Kwait, one of several estheticians at the spa, studied skin care in New York City while working as a teacher for children with special needs. Now a Woodstocker, she gives facials to supplement her teaching income. A typical facial includes a series of applications of creams, an exfoliant, and toners, each round followed by a rest under a warm, moist towel. A gentle massage is part of the treatment, along with individualized skin care recommendations.
“When I work the desk,” said Larsen, “I love it when people come out, and I can see the glow on their faces. We don’t necessarily see facials as a luxury. It’s an investment in your sense of well-being. Our estheticians deliver stress relief — and stress causes wrinkles.”
On Savor Saturdays, the second Saturday of each month, Kim invites speakers on subjects from aromatherapy to how to get a deep sleep.
She employs about ten local residents who help with making the products, shipping online orders, providing facials and massages, and other duties. The flexible hours are ideal for women transitioning back to work after having children. “My dad passed away when I was 13,” she explained, “leaving my mother with three kids to support as a piano teacher. In Ames, Iowa, she couldn’t find a flexible job that would allow her to take care of us.”
When asked if she would ever go back to her career as a pianist, Kim replied, “I quit cold turkey when I was pregnant. I have a Steinway grand at Om Aroma, but it’s not a casual thing — I would have to practice hours a day. It’s not something you can just fool around with.”