Raphael or the cult of the “unique brush”!

A manufacturer of fine brushes since 1793, Raphael, the still family owned French firm, whose headquarters and main production unit are located in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, succeeded during the last sixty years, in collaboration with make-up artists, in becoming one of the key suppliers of major international make-up brands. The company employs around 160 people in France and approximately 460 people in its plant based in Mauritius since 1975. It will achieve this year a total turnover of 30 million euros. One credo “tradition, quality and innovation.” In terms of future investments, the expansion by 2016 of its production capacity in Mauritius. Not that simple to keep manufacturing brushes in Europe while continuing to run a business in a cost effective and competitive manner? Eric Sauer, President and owner of the French firm, does not evade the question. “The fact is, he emphasises, that the Raphael Company is indeed very active and on top of it continuing to win new market shares!” Admittedly, this has not always been the case. And the company’s long history is there to prove it. A superb business founded in 1793 in Paris and who will move to Meulan to include in the 1900s up to 600 people and who was already at the time exporting to Brazil! The opening of a second manufacturing site in Saint-Brieuc, in 1925, was largely due to the ease of supply in bristles coming from pig farms in the region.

Gradually Brittany will also end up concentrating in the 1950s most of the French “fine brush” manufacturers. “The Second World War, however, almost got the better of the company,” explains Sauer. “My father, Gérard, and my uncle, Michel, eventually decided to only keep the Breton plant and to deliberately position the company on the upper end of the market and on exports and by placing the emphasis on an easily pronounceable brand name in all languages: Raphael!”. But also by stepping up the expansion strategy on a new emerging niche, the cosmetic industry. “Remember, explains Sauer, that before the war, women only used powder puffs and sponges.” And it worked! Over the years, the French company will continue to gain market shares and begin to export in the whole world. “At that that time, it can be estimated that we owned 70% of the French market and that we had become the European brush leader.”

But the mid 1970s/1980s marked a downturn. Korean competitors came into play and changed the rules. “We therefore had to review part of our strategy,” explains Sauer. The decision was made to open a production unit at the gates of the Pacific. Mauritius was the perfect spot. But without compromising on quality. “Whether in Saint Brieuc or Mauritius, insists Sauer, we won’t change our high quality requirements. Traditional materials (lime tree wood, nickel-plated brass ferrules, natural hair and synthetic fibres) are selected with the greatest care and assembled by hand, in order to ensure a flawless quality.” An uncompromising level of requirement that will pay off. The company will soon become the official supplier of renowned make-up artists like the creators of Make Up For Ever and later of M.A.C who will become, over the years, icons in the world of professional make-up and who will make of brushes, a fully fledged tool. “In some cases, insist officials in Saint Brieuc, the development of a range of brushes can take up to two years!”

Main investment: craftsmanship!

That is the essence! It takes two to three years to properly train a “pincelière” (the female brush maker) and more than ten years for her to become highly skilled and versatile. You have to see it to believe it. Take just enough natural hair or synthetic fibres, place them evenly in a small cup, assemble them, tie them together… all this at a steady pace and skilfully. “Our investment is before you: a highly trained staff!” insists Sauer. Because to date, we haven’t found the machine that will be able to replace the dexterity of a “pincelière”. “And believe me, there is still a very long way to go before we find one!” Of course, some production phases can be semi-automated, like the fitting of the ferrule on the handle but that’s all…

Brushes are first and foremost an industry of labour. And the only way to remain competitive in the niche of standard brushes is to produce them in areas where labour costs are lower than in Europe. “Hence, our factory in Mauritius can only but continue to grow. This is what explains the increase in its production capacity in the next two years,“ explains Sauer, “but that doesn’t mean that we are neglecting our Breton factory, which naturally positions itself on higher-end markets and the “Made in France”. As for the debate on “natural hair / synthetic hair”, Sauer believes “it has not been settled yet! Each has qualities that the other doesn’t have. Today, natural hair predominates. It will take time for synthetic hair to take over. Mixtures of both are interesting. But you know, the only thing that matters in the end is to offer a make-up artist or the consumer “THE” product they are looking for and which is up to their expectations. We are not gadget manufacturers!”