Pinch of Thai, a spoonful of British, a smidgen of German, a large dollop of American and just the merest influence of Italian: mix, stir and serve up Virginia Bird, creator and owner of Sabu-Sabu natural care products.
An elegant Bird, salt-and-peppered hair wound high on her head, clad in a breezy homespun type outfit, leads a trail of elusive scents as complex as her heritage in her wake. As she walks us around her Mae Rim domain (a stunning paddy-view facing Spanish-style hacienda home, a showroom featuring hundreds of her products, a clean and pleasant factory-cum-workshop, an adorable herb garden and the exclusive sanctum of her lab) gentle wafts – floral here, musky there – tease and send the fifth sense into overdrive.
“It was around eight years ago, when I was in the furniture exporting business, that a client from abroad asked me to source him some soaps to give away as Christmas gifts,” Bird begins, interspersing Thai with English; then English with Thai. “I went to visit factories producing soaps, and was simply horrified. They were using tap water as soap bases and mixing them in aluminium vats! Do you know that the skin absorbs fifteen times more into the body than ingestion? It’s really important to know exactly what you put on your skin. So, I decided to make the soaps myself.” Thus began the spark which was to ignite a passion which has become obsessive. After all she admits that “it’s probably more than an obsession, I can never stop creating, if I do I will just die.”
It turns out that not only is Bird gifted at creating a massive range of body care products (to date, over one thousand) which are all made from natural ingredients and are 100% chemical-free, this passion was in actual fact in her blood all along. “My great-grandfather was Henry Alabaster, who arrived as a British diplomat at the court of King Rama V, and eventually became a royal advisor, founded the national museum in Bangkok as well as being royally bestowed the Thai surname Savetsila – Thai for alabaster,” she explains. “Fifteen years ago, I inherited some of his old documents, and discovered a recipe for a skin ointment which he had actually registered in England in 1876. Even though this recipe was always on my mind, I just didn’t know what to do with it. Then, a few years back, after I had begun to make soaps (sabu in Thai), I was wandering around Baan Tawai when I spotted an antique alabaster mortar and pestle bowl (featured in accompanying photograph) which was from Rama V’s era. This was just too serendipitous, so I snapped it up, took it home, dug up the old recipe and worked at emulating it. Since we have launched The Alabaster Ointment, I have had feedback from so many people as to its miraculous properties _ curing haemorrhoids, minor skin irritations, boils and all sorts of wounds. It is a wonderful feeling to bring my great-grandfather’s invention to the twenty-first century.”
Sabu-Sabu’s range of products is staggering. Soaps, lotions, shampoos, anti wrinkle creams, sun lotions, scrubs, hair repair, insect repellent, natural remedies, lip balms, candles, baby care…even less sexy items such as home cleaning and pet products. “I have always loved cooking,” says Bird, “and this is like cooking too! I love nothing more than sitting in my lab all night trying to come up with a remedy for someone’s problem, or rising to a challenge from a friend or client, and the most rewarding aspect of my work is not a big sale, well, that is good too, but it is when a customer returns to tell me that I have helped them, that they feel better, that they are healed. I draw on centuries of proven knowledge of herbs, and other natural ingredients from around the world. Research is key to my job and it leads me to great discoveries and allows me to create really exciting modern products which are rooted in nature.”
“The big brand names often use completely unhealthy chemicals in their products, some even add additives; why do you think some women are constantly putting on lip balm?” explains Bird as we walk round her showroom, a potpourri of scents engulfing us – intoxicating oak moss, feminine jasmine, dewy orchid with the occasional whiff of biting pepper or pungent rosemary. “Most of the time, companies producing soaps, lotions, and other body care products, just buy a vat of base mix and simply add in their colour or scent. I study these ingredients – there are websites which publish all ingredients that go into brand-name products – and take out all the chemicals, then try to create my own recipes. What we do, no one else in Thailand does. We use pure distilled water as a base, costing up to ten times more than drinking water, and we create our own essential oils from available ingredients in Thailand, as well as source the best ingredients from around the world – musky sandalwood from India, liquorish-fresh fennel from Slovakia and citrusy neroli from Turkey, for instance. I make soap and other products the old fashioned way, handmade, the way it used to be made, the way it should always be made! There are no short cuts, no chemicals, no animal testing and no cost cutting. We test our products on family and friends, but there is never an issue as we only use natural products which have been proven to be safe, and we clearly label everything, so if you are allergic to seaweed or peanuts, for instance, you can be forewarned.”
Sabu-Sabu clients include members of the Thai royal family, suppliers to international cosmetics brands, five star hotels and spas, as well as a number of celebrities such as Juliette Binoche, a regular customer.
“I get most of my inspiration from the nature which surrounds me here in Mae Rim,” muses Bird as she looks over her two rai of chemical-free, but scent-infused, land. “But I also get many ideas from friends and family. My daughter, when living in New York, had a bedbug problem. I stayed up for days and nights to finally create a spray for her called Formula 3. It has been approved by Mahidol University as the most effective known dust-mite and bedbug repellent in the world! A friend of mine was also about to treat himself to a session under the knife with Brazil’s famous Dr. Ivan Pitanguy to celebrate his 60th birthday. I sent him an anti wrinkle cream, which is now in my Giovane line, and he cancelled his appointment with the plastic surgeon! Till today all his friends still think that he went to Brazil…”
Bird keeps meticulous notes on everything: clients’ ailments, preferences and allergies, as well as knowledge on thousands of ingredients from around the world. Like an alchemist’s lair, her laboratory is filled with ointments, herbs, beakers, test tubes and notebooks brimming with information.
As I, ahem, nosily open bottles of scented hand creams, spray on mosquito repellent, sniff a jar of lotion and apply lip balm from Sabu-Sabu, I realise that Virginia Bird pours herself into every product she makes, instilling them with integrity and her great love of nature. She may think of herself as a cook, but she is also a healer, a gifted artist and a spokesperson for mother nature.