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Morocco's acclaimed argan nut oil, used in beauty products and salad dressings, is being produced by human hands.
The price too, has climbed. Fifteen years ago, the oil sold for about $3 in the local souks, Charrouf said. Now, whether you’re buying here or in a chic New York boutique, a liter will set you back at least $30, and often considerably more.
“Like caviar,” she said. “It’s just about as rare.”
One American argan importer called Eden Allure — a two-year-old Florida-based start-up — saw its sales jump somewhere between 25 and 50 percent last year, according to one of the company’s owners, James Moore.
Moore said he isn’t surprised, adding that his Moroccan-born mother has been using the stuff since childhood. “She’s 61 and her hair and skin are just gorgeous,” he said.
Even established cosmetics players are getting into the argan game. Kiehl’s, the high-end New York-based chain of health and beauty boutiques, joined the fray in 2006.
“Someone on the Kiehl's team visited Morocco on holiday and saw local women selling it and using it for their skin and in their hair,” said Roberta Weiss, one of the company’s product-development executives.
Kiehl’s argan-infused salves, lotions and emollients have been selling so briskly Weiss said the company plans to launch an argan shampoo, conditioner and something called “Argan Gold Smooth & Gloss Hair Mist” later this year.
It’s not cheap. Kiehl’s currently offers an argan body oil billed as “Superbly Restorative,” priced at $30 for a 4.2-ounce bottle, which works out to just over $1.19 for each teaspoon of oil. The guys at Eden Allure – who advertise their oil as organic – charge twice as much.
To be sure, the stuff takes prodigious labor to extract. The women at the Tiguemine cooperative estimate it takes 130 pounds of raw argan nuts — two trees worth — to yield one liter of oil. And that amount takes one woman a week of eight-hour workdays to produce.
The women peel skin from each nut, smash it open with a stone, then pick the inner almond-sized kernels from among the broken shells.
For cooking oil, the kernels are roasted over fire. For the cosmetic stuff, they skip to the next step, stone-grinding the nuts into a thick paste which — at Tiguegmine — the women then roll into orange-size lumps, from which they later hand-wring each golden drop.
“It takes a lot of time,” Elattaoui said. “And a lot of strength.”
Despite the workload, the members of the cooperative say they prefer to forego any four-legged help. “Oil made with goats smells like goats,” said Aicha Amsquine, 57, who said she’s been pressing argan nuts for 47 years.
“This way is harder but the quality is better,” she said. “And you don’t have to touch anyone’s crap.”