Exploring Charme d’Orient, an Authentic Hammam in Paris
When the first cold days of autumn set in under the glorious yet deceivingly-sunny Parisian sky, it seems like the only places where one can find the shelter of a warm embrace is at a Parisian cafe or one of the city’s glorious hammams.
For as long as I can remember, a morning of absolute pampering has been the tradition that my girlfriends and I have enjoyed when the temperature outside starts to drop. For those unfamiliar with this great tradition, hammams, also known as “Maurish baths” or “Turkish baths”, were developed in North Africa and Middle East during the Ottoman empire. Today, they represent the pinnacle of relaxation and luxury– and Paris is mecca for some of the world’s best hammams out side of the Middle East.
Hammams were initially created as a true body and soul cleansing retreat, one which required an atmosphere of deep calmness and relaxation, steam vapors, and dimmed light. It is probably the most ancient public bath tradition, yet hammam culture only emerged in France during the 20th century, at which point it instantly became the symbol of the exotic beauty and wellness tradition– a place for women constructed by women.
Although men can also enjoy this pampering tradition, hammams are single gender experiences; the spas are never mixed. The rituals’ immediate success and association with Paris is linked to its intrinsic virtues: by diffusing a humid heat, which is often infused with eucalyptus essential oils, a hammam treatment enables the body to regenerate through the elimination of stress and toxins. A true one-stop experience for achieving a new, lighter self!
The architecture of hammams is often a source of yet another aspect of wonderment: each is most commonly composed of three large rooms of varying temperatures that are decorated in mosaics and stones– design components that reveal the artistic richness of its origins. The experiment begins in a vast vestibule called camekan. The tellak or masseur then accompanies the visitor in the main warm room, the hararet. This room usually has a dome and small windows, which creates a relaxing half-light. The adventure ends in a visit to the sogukluk, or cold room, which serves as a transitional space for coming back to reality. Finally, one will always end the experience with a hot mint tea made of fresh mint leaves and a few oriental delicacies such as baklava or lokums (also known as Turkish Delight).
Paris has many wonderful hammams, but the closest to my heart is undoubtedly Charme d’Orient. Opened a few years ago, it is now an institution, where all the products are made of natural ingredients, prepared on the spot for your treatments and wonderfuly packaged, from the rose and alun stone body scrub to the full hammam experience: black soap, rhassoul, and oil. From the moment you step in this temple of femininity, you are bathed in a glow of calmness and kindness. The main ingredient to this magical, sincere, and gentle atmosphere is Yasmina Zerroug, its founder.
When I met Zerroug for the first time, I understood instantly why this place was so special – her soul seems to be made of the softest fabric, filled with unlimited kindness and the most mischievous sense of humor. Below, GC sits down to Zerroug to discuss the origin of the Charme d’Orient brand, and why it fits so perfectly into the emergent wellness scene in Paris.
GC: How did the “Charme d’Orient” adventure begin?
YZ: I think the day I decided to create a wax using honey and lemon is the day the adventure truly began. I was disappointed with the hot beeswax hair removal methods often used in Paris. I didn’t know what I was doing at first but it was instinctive and gradually I figured out how to create the perfect wax. I liked the comfort, softness, and natural feeling of this ancestral technique.
I never thought I’d work with cosmetics or be a beauty therapist: I studied literature and Spanish and always had my nose in a book! My love of reading and history was a determining factor because, when I studied Cervantes, I understood that our tensions can be cured by love, sharing and giving. Massage’s loving gestures are a perfect example since they soothe tensions and pain.
GC: What were your sources of inspiration?
YZ: They’re very personal. I started with memories of the welcoming atmosphere of my childhood in a big house in Setif we shared with families of different religions. Also Yves Saint Laurent, who was born in Oran, inspired my vision of beauty and elegance.
The adventure was also guided by my nostalgia for the golden age of Oriental beauty and my admiration for the mythical Scheherazade, a symbol of strength and beauty!
GC: We sense an enormous amount of kindness and authenticity in your approach and are overtaken by a sense of well-being as soon as we enter this peaceful, cocoon-like haven.
YZ: It’s true; kindness enriches and structures this adventure each day. It offered and continues to offer me a relationship to others as well as an incomparable world… I’ve always made it a point of honor to transmit kindness to my team and in my trainings. This is the approach we have with our clients; we welcome them with love and tenderness.
GC: So guided by your passion, you decided to open your first wellness center…
YZ: Yes, in 1995 I opened my first skin care institute. This space constituted a key moment in the adventure since it led me to express myself, create, and share. Here I could develop my passion, perfect my use of quality materials and understand the extent of their benefits. I also developed my skin care range and products like the “instinctive massage”. I wanted the institute to become a space for well being that enhances the senses and offers relief.
After a few years and a growing business, I wanted to find a space where I could also propose the pure hammam ritual in a way that mixed tradition with modernity. We found this perfect, marvelous space with stonewalls and vaulted cellars in the Marais in Paris and Charme d’Orient was born. My son Sofiane did the interior design and decoration with enormous sensitivity. He found things in flea markets: the traditional rugs that hang from the ceiling, the buckets that frame the window, the antique doors hung to the treatment room ceilings that make them secret yet surreal spaces. He also found over a ton of Alun stone to build an imposing yet calm wall that transports you from the entrance into a secret garden inhabited by minerals and plants. I’m very touched and pleased when our clients are in awe as soon as they enter the space!
GC: How did you develop the products you have today?
YZ: To preserve my values, my whole range consists of 100% natural products without preservatives. This means that clients are guaranteed to benefit from the techniques used. Everything is handmade in France out of raw materials from North Africa and each ingredient has an added value. After perfecting my wax, I developed a white mask, a rhassoul powder, and black soap. The royal jelly used in the white mask has conserving virtues that are so high quality it doesn’t need extra preservatives. Rhassoul, a mineral with extraordinary properties, is traditionally used to purify the skin in a hammam. This very fine clay powder, blended with warm water, cleans the skin, tightens the pores and softens the skin from head to toe! Along with the oils, this is THE secret to soft skin [in the Oriental tradition].
GC: And what about the extraordinary oil collection you’ve created?
YZ: I wanted the gesture of hair removal to end with a pleasant, natural fragrance synonymous with absolute relaxation. I got the idea when I thought about the intoxicating odors of a souk in Tunis where the great perfumers meet. I wanted to modernize ancestral knowledge by developing my own palette of naturally-perfumed oils. I began with traditional oils: orange blossom, argan, rose, amber, jasmine and created my own blends using a base of pure, 100% natural oil. I also wanted to propose oils with amazing properties like prickly pear seed oil, which is an exceptional skin care product because of its anti-radical properties– or nigella (black cumin) oil, which calms and softens irritable or eczema-prone skin.
GC: How can you explain the enormous success of Charme d’Orient? Why has it become such a phenomenon of well-being?
YZ: There’s no doubt about it, my clients have participated in my success. The Oriental experience was so unique that requests for my products multiplied rapidly. This encouraged me to participate in specialized trade shows and organize trainings worldwide, so I developed Charme d’Orient internationally. Today our catalogue has over 150 products, all developed with natural ingredients, and we export to over thirty countries.
I also think the adventure seduced many people as it is a universal art for women of the world… an art without borders that is close to the divine.
GC: From start to finish, what does a Hammam ritual involve?
YZ: To discover how incredibly soft your skin actually is when brand new, you can take these simple steps to complete your hammam ritual at home:
Fill your bathtub with hot water and let the bathroom steam up. You can add some eucalyptus or orange blossom bath oil to recreate the oriental atmosphere, and a lit candle or two can also help…Prepare your Charme d’Orient Rhassoul by mixing three spoonfuls of powder with warm water and set aside.
Apply the Charme d’Orient Black Soap on your moist skin from head to toes, but be careful not to touch your eyes, and slide back in your bath for 10 minutes. The black soap will prepare your skin by softening it and opening the pores for the scrub treatment.
Scrub vigorously with a kesa glove by making large [circular] movements. You will literally see your dead skin forming and falling off of your body as you go. The whole process should take up to 10 minutes.
Rinse with warm water and apply the Charme d’Orient Rhassoul on your face and body, relax for another 10 minutes. This untreated and naturally-dried clay has the unique ability to both nourish skin and even out skin tone.