For many of us, our childhood interests end up driving our adult pursuits. For Ramie Gulyas, it was her passion for lotions, potions and products that inspired her to launch The Alchemist’s Wife, an apothecary at 917 Chicago Ave. – inside Follow Your Nose pets.
“As a kid growing up in a small town downstate, I saved my allowance money to buy bubble bath and perfume from the Avon lady or saved up for when we went to St Louis to a big department store,” Gulyas remembers.
“I loved playing with my grandmother’s collection of perfume bottles and jars of creams and lotions. It was fascinating to me.”
Gulyas later went on to work for prestige brands of cosmetics, bath, fragrance and body care products and advanced her career.
“I learned so much, but I also figured out what I would have done differently,” she explains, adding that in the 1980s and 1990s, there wasn’t much interest in more natural products or more sustainably sourced ingredients and packaging.
When her son was born in 2005, he was allergic to almost everything, she says. “He had extremely sensitive skin, and the biggest issues for him were the ‘supposedly’ fragrance-free products that had an artificial masking scent added,” she says. “Fragrance was even added to disposable diapers back then.”
With her background in products and ingredients, Gulyas says she could easily decipher the ingredient panels, but as she searched for all the products you need for an infant such as laundry detergent, baby bath products, lotions, diaper creams, etc., she says was frustrated at every turn.
“If I liked something, they would change the formula or the store would discontinue it,” she says.
Tired of hearing her complaints every time she went to the grocery store, Gulya’s husband jokingly reminded her that she knew how to do it herself. And in 2005, The Alchemist’s Wife was born.
Not really an alchemist
While Gulyas’ husband, Dave, helps her with production, he does not, in fact, turn metals or glass into gold. Instead, the inspiration behind the company name came from Nicholas Flamel, the Alchemist who is featured in the Harry Potter books. (He actually was a real person, too.)
As Gulyas explains, Flamel’s wife, Perenelle, was also a real person who had buried three husbands before marrying Flamel. With her acquired wealth, Flamel opened a shop in Paris in 1389, selling poisons and perfume to the Royal court. In his spare time, he also tried fruitlessly to conjure up precious metals from ordinary elements and rocks with the philosophers’ stone.
“Perenelle worked in the background of their little shop, selling herbs, making soap, oils and creating remedies for the neighborhood sick such as poultices, ointments, etc., while her husband was on his quest,” Gulyas says.
“I think that for centuries, most women’s contributions were left out of history books, while they did the work behind the scenes, they were given little credit, Perenelle being an example. Flamel died in 1418 and is buried in the Musee de Cluny while Perenelle seems to disappear after her husband’s death.
“There is no record of her, and many believe it is because she was searching for the Fountain of Youth which grants immortality. I’d like to believe she found it.”
The Alchemist’s Wife storefront offers a large variety of skin and hair products, both fragranced and not. There is a natural fragrance bar of about 230 fragrances that can be added to Gulyas’ unscented products such as lotions and shower gels or also can be blended to create custom perfumes.
“I wanted to be able to offer ‘true’ unscented products for people with sensitive skin or allergies but have customizable options for everyone else,” she says. “I knew for 25 years that was something I wanted to build a business around.”
For inspiration, Gulyas says she draws on the history of fragrances and beauty and she often references that in her product line.
“Cleopatra who was arguably the most famous woman of her time and considered the most beautiful, took baths daily filled with milk and roses, but there is science behind her beauty rituals,” she explains.
“Our Goat Milk Bath Soak uses the same idea, lactic acid exfoliates and softens dry skin, lavender reduces inflammation and redness, roses hydrate and soothe. It’s excellent for people with eczema because it helps heal the skin and reduce the discomfort.”
Gulyas will change up the products with the seasons, for example, she prefers lighter lotions in the warm weather. She also is adding anti-aging products because ingredients and efficacy matter when it comes to aging skin. She also has formulated a new CBD bath salt and has more CBD products in the pipeline.
Responsible and sustainable
Gulyas believes strongly that beauty products must be sustainably sourced and cruelty free, and the company is Leaping Bunny certified. All of the products are palm oil free, sulfate free, paraben free and phthalate free. They also meet the higher eco-certification standards set in the EU for ingredients and preservatives and she uses natural fragrances and essential oils, no synthetics, and certified organic ingredients when available.
Gulyas sources her ingredients from all over the world and says she prefers to work with small, independent suppliers she trusts and who share the same values. She uses locally sourced honey, goat milk, herbs and dried flowers. Her shea butter is sourced from Africa, her Monoi oil from Tahiti and her lavender comes from France.
“Our candles are beeswax instead of soy wax because soy is heavily sprayed with pesticides and when you burn a soy candle you are burning the pesticides and breathing it in,” Gulyas says. “Our Laundry Powder is mineral based so it is surfactant free and safer for the water supply as well as highly concentrated so you use less product, and it is packaged in a rice paper bag.”
Finally, for packaging The Alchemist’s Wife uses very few boxes, opting instead for containers that can be refilled or reused. If customers bring in their clean, dry, empty containers, we can refill them or recycle them for future use, she says.
The Alchemist’s Wife storefront opened in June 2015 and it has been expanded. The products can also be found at Raven & Dove on Central Street, on Etsy and online and at local artisan markets.