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Splitting Hairs

Every Day's a Close Shave in the War Against Whiskers, Especially for the Men--and Women--Who Test Gillette's Newest Innovations in Razors

June 14, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Here at World Shaving Headquarters, hundreds of human guinea pigs are shaving in the name of science.

Each day, they enter this tightly guarded building--a sort of Pentagon for the war against whiskers--and explore new frontiers in anti-beard technology.

It's a world of sharpened steel, foam-slathered flesh and oddball trivia.

It's also the nerve center of Gillette, the razor-blade conglomerate founded 95 years ago by an eccentric bottle-cap salesman who thought competitiveness was evil and who dreamed of a utopia in which 60 million people would live in glass-domed apartment complexes near Niagara Falls.

Instead of a better world, however, he settled for a better shave. The headquarters is his legacy.

Inside this sprawling factory, in a cluttered room hidden from the roar of machinery and smell of steel perfume, the unshaven masses begin arriving. About 200 men and 30 women--all Gillette employees--pass through the lab on any given day.

The men lather up in a row of computer-equipped cubbyholes that looks like a single-story version of "The Hollywood Squares." The women shave legs and underarms in a bank of six private shower rooms around the corner.

Some have been testing products for decades. Roger Jenness, who says he began with Gillette's aging Blue Blade in the early 1960s, has since subjected his whiskers to more than 30 years of innovations: from silicone-coated Super Blues to chromium stainless steel, from crankable-edge Techmatics to tandem-blade Trac IIs, and from swivel-headed Atras to rubber-finned SensorExcels.

The improvements have been dramatic, he mutters through a foam-covered face: "Today, it's almost impossible to cut yourself."

Jenness has also been around for Sensor's still-under-wraps successor and more than a few flops.

"For every 10 things we try, only one works," says Thomas Gallerani, vice president of shaving technology.

Among the rejects: razors made of wood, blades in the shape of wire and a pre-Sandinista contraption known as the Contra, which had two facing edges--like a potato peeler--to allow shearing on both up and down strokes.

The shaving lab is designed to weed out the problem cases. "We have all sorts of equipment to measure a razor blade's sharpness, coating and alignment," Gallerani says. "But the most sensitive instrument is the human face."

With that in mind, the company also employs 2,700 off-site shavers who test products at home.

But it's the in-house lab that offers the most sophisticated evaluations. Here, researchers can count razor strokes, clock the length of de-whiskerization and observe split-face shaving, in which dueling products are tested on opposite sides of a subject's face.

Shavers then peck at computer score pads to rate such factors as comfort, nicks and cuts, and spreadability of shaving gel.

If it sounds a little obsessive, try visiting Gillette's British research center. Scientists there--armed with "hair response rigs" and 3-D electron microscopes--have paved the way for a bizarre array of shaving statistics.

Among other things, they've determined that dry beard hair is as tough as copper wire of the same thickness, that the average man spends 140 days of his life removing 27 1/2 feet of facial hair, and that a whisker is 70% easier to cut after being soaked two minutes in warm water.

The British have also developed the "whisker-cam," a razor with a tiny video camera, which films the shaving process close-up.

How does all this microscopic analysis pay off? Do pivoting heads, spring-mounted blades and lubricated strips really make that much of a difference?

When a reporter admits to shaving with the 1977-era Gillette Atra, jaws in the research lab nearly hit the floor. It's like confessing to shaving with a clamshell.

"You're three generations behind," gasps company spokeswoman Michele Szynal. "We have to get you into the '90s." (They did, and an improvement was noted.)

Gillette isn't the only entity to take implements of whisker destruction so seriously.

No. 2 Schick operates a test lab in Connecticut--and in a few countries, Gallerani says, shaving equipment has sometimes proved more valuable than cash: "The only things they consider stable are gold and razor blades."

*

The quest for the perfect shave has preoccupied mankind for eons.

Cavemen hacked off their beards with clamshells and sharpened rocks, archeologists say. And ancient Egyptians fashioned primitive razors from copper and gold.

At first, the idea was purely practical, says facial-hair historian Russell Adams in his book "King Gillette" (Little, Brown & Co., 1978): During hand-to-hand combat, long whiskers were a liability, a handle the enemy could grab onto and then flail at his victim with a knife.

In Russia under Peter the Great, beards were actually taxed.

But shaving technology advanced slowly.

It wasn't until the Crusades that medieval sword smiths devised steel razors. And it was 1893 before safety razors began to be perfected.

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