The package came in a mysterious black envelope. Under the fold were three slim cuboids spaced evenly apart, their colours dazzled against the black background that held them up. On the left was a black bar with a golden galaxy running across its length. In the middle was a translucent bar that seemed to glow in pastel shades of pink and blue. The third had little cubes of purple crystals embedded in a sea of black. It was not what you would expect from one of the numerous small-batch organic soap makers in Singapore.
These crystal soaps were from Saltwater Atelier, an online independent soap maker. A 27-year-old Miya Chong launched the label last August from her home, and has been taking up custom orders for occasions such as weddings and events, alongside the periodic launches of ready-to-buy soaps on her website.
Chong first came across a melt and pour soap kit in Kuala Lumpur last year. In the kit were "basic soap bars, alcohol, some colours, some little bar cubes, and simple instructions. You chop the soap up, then melt it, pour it into a little container, like a mould, and let it harden. Then take it out, and use it." It piqued her interest greatly, for she previously had little knowledge of how soaps were constructed — a necessity that she used every single day. But Chong laughs as she injects another comment about the soap kit, "They were super ugly. That's the thing about soaps though. When you think of bar soaps, the good stuff are all brown and weird colours."
A little more research online and Youtube tutorials made Chong realise that bar soaps were "more sustainable" when compared to liquid soaps. "The packaging is much more simple, you don't need plastic bottles. With liquid soaps, you take two to three pumps and you finish it up super fast."
Environmental implications aside, Chong noticed that her friends and family baulked at the notion of bar soaps, for they immediately called to mind, dry skin. "Let's say you see soaps — hand soaps, hotel soaps. They are so drying. It turns you off. No one wants to use bar soaps. And it's because when they commercialised it, the [manufacturers] took the glycerin out of soaps." Yet in Singapore, there has been a wave of natural soaps brands sprouting all over. These are soaps that contain the moisturising glycerin, all without the drying foaming agents such as sodium laureth sulfate, and preservatives in the likes of parabens. But more often than not, these healthy soaps come in opaque shades of browns Sodium laureth sulfate and are not the most photogenic objects.
"We are visual creatures. Soap has to look good. I was thinking maybe in Singapore we can restart from design — and the first step is the visuals, the look of it."
Chong quickly realised that there was a trend for beautiful crystal soaps in Japan and the United States. On Instagram, users will find the #crystalsoap hashtag where various makers around the globe share their creations with the community. These are clear soap bars with a real piece of crystal embedded in the core — it may be any crystal ranging from Amethyst, Agate, Citrine to Moonstone. The use of these soaps is largely linked to the practice of crystal-healing and cleansing. To other makers who are not as invested in the spirituality facet of crystals, they create crystal-lookalike soaps. Saltwater Atelier, for one, has an iteration of Amethyst stones.
With her soaps, Chong buys small batches of ready-made blocks of hot process soaps. "You buy the soaps in blocks — the soap base." She gets her clear base primarily from the United States, where it is FDA certified, or from a local maker in Kuala Lumpur. "She uses natural products like coconut oil, saffron oils to make this bar before selling it. She's the certified one." Chong then melts it at home, and injects soap-grade colours into the mould. "You add the different colours that you want to. To create the ombre soaps, for example, you have to learn the techniques." While Chong learnt the swirl methods over Youtube tutorials, she stresses that half the learning is found in her own experiments.
These days, she finds Instagram to be a huge source of inspiration. "Usually it starts from getting inspired by Instagram's fluid art where people mix colours with colours. I then bring the colour combinations into a soap." Chong sketches them out before trying a small batch of designs-in-progress. It is only when she has ironed out the technicalities that Chong begins with a larger batch. Even with that, she melts, pours, swirls the colours, and cuts the edges of every soap by hand. "The soap making is 30 minutes to one hour. The maximum in one day is maybe 20 pieces. With art, you cannot rush. You have to do it slowly. If it doesn't turn out to be how you want it, you have to redo it." A typical order for Chinese wedding favours may run up to 200 pieces. "The maximum I've tried once was a Malay wedding — 300 pieces. That took me two months to do it at a comfortable speed."
To Chong, Saltwater Atelier should eventually be a place where consumers can drop in for soap-making workshops. "My aim is really not to sell the soaps. Rather than selling the soaps, it's to hands-on make the soaps yourself." The process of making soaps has come to be a therapy on its own — a place of intense, undisturbed focus where Chong can express herself freely in swirls of colours. "It's different, satisfying. It's kind of like a therapy."
Subscribe to our newsletter