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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Turn Up the Heat : Scented, Edible Oils and Balms Are Spicy Surprise From Ancient Past

February 08, 1996|JULIE TILSNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What you need for this St. Valentine's Day is something new. Something kind of exciting.

Or better yet, something old. And really exciting.

One Westlake Village company has taken a 1,100-year-old concept and turned it into a business that has been satisfying the romantic whimsies of couples since the 1960s with body oils, massage creams, fragrant balms, honey dust, scented bathing salts and gels. All natural. Most flavored and edible.

"They're designed to enhance intimacy between couples," said Kama Sutra company founder Joseph Bolstad. "And they've got a thousand-year history behind them."

History indeed.

The idea hails back to 8th century India, when artists carved temples celebrating the act. It was then that somebody wrote a book and dedicated it to Kama, the Hindu god of Love.

This tome described in tasteful but complete detail every possible method of lovemaking known to the masters of the day. As part of its instruction, the book made note of the multitude of special oils and balms that could be used to increase pleasure between a couple. This book became known as the Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana.

The book went down in history as a classic, the original and most tasteful of sex manuals. But its spirit was reincarnated, so to speak, during the Summer of Love.

In 1968 Bolstad was a young graphic designer in Los Angeles. One day his friend, a young writer named Hal Hauser, came stumbling into his studio after a long and creative weekend with his girlfriend. "Joe," Bolstad recalls him saying with a grin, "I've got a great idea for a business."

Oil of Love, a water-based, aromatic and flavored massage oil, was born. It tasted slightly of cinnamon and would heat up on the skin when massaged in. The only appropriate name for an oil of this sort, the men reasoned, was an echo of the ancient book of love: the Kama Sutra.

The timing certainly couldn't have been better. This was the era of free love, of love-ins and peace rallies. And with its Indian-influenced design, the product fit easily into the scene. Young women in Indian saris and "bindi" on their foreheads would peddle the Oil of Love to head shops, to be sold alongside incense holders and pot pipes. "It was a lifestyle concept," Bolstad said.

And it worked. The Flower Power generation was ripe for sensuous body products that celebrated their newfound freedoms. As the '60s melted into the '70s, demand for Kama Sutra's product continued. Today Kama Sutra products can still be found at your neighborhood head shop, but also at some 5,500 retail stores and in catalogs nationwide and beyond.

The company says the typical Kama Sutra buyer is a woman, age 25 to 45, in a long-term relationship who is attracted to such upscale erotica as its honey dust--a finely ground talc that tastes lightly of honey and comes in a red velvet pouch with a handmade feather duster. Or maybe she likes the "Weekender" kit: an attractively packaged sampler of core products like the massage oil, pleasure balm, honey dust and bath gel.

Bolstad's timing has continued to be good. Kama Sutra has been around long enough to see a renewed interest in body products that are 100% natural and not tested on animals. It was already a strongly positioned brand name when scented oils and massage creams became mainstream, in part due to the growth and popularity of chains such as the Body Shop.

When aromatherapy products hit the market a few years ago, Kama Sutra again found itself in front of the curve, and expanded its existing line of scented massage oils to include herbal bath salts and candles. "We saw the popularity of aromatherapy coming," said Bolstad, "So we spent several years working with experts in that world before coming out with our own products."

But don't expect Kama Sutra, with only "several million in sales" a year, to even try to compete with huge chains. "We have our own little spot in the world," said Bolstad.

And with St. Valentine's Day approaching, he's hoping that people in love will stumble upon that world, and learn a little ancient history.

* To find a shop selling Kama Sutra products near you, call 495-7479.

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