Slather it on!

Caviar facials leave you shiny and opalescent.

By Debra Ollivier
Published August 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On a swath of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood lies a small, elegant
salon where, for a hefty price, you can get a caviar facial. The Michele
Elyzabeth Salon, run by a diminutive French woman of the same name, is the
only place in town where such facials exist. According to its patron,
caviar will one day burst out of the kitchens and pantries of the world's
discerning gourmands and into the beauty market at large. "Caviar for the
skin is a revolution," says Elyzabeth. "In five years, you'll see caviar in
every beauty product."

The idea of having my face slathered with a layer of opalescent, nutty
black eggs from the belly of a mature, bottom-feeding beluga sturgeon
leaves me feeling both slightly euphoric and a tad queasy. An indulgence
of almost wanton proportions, caviar has always been reserved for very
special, extravagant occasions -- a bacchanalian wedding feast, a lavish
business affair. In short, I will not buy caviar for myself but will
happily, with great piggish gusto, consume it from others. I'm therefore
slightly disappointed to find out that Elyzabeth does not use actual caviar
in her facials ("You would only end up eating it off your face," she
explains) but rather a form of highly concentrated caviar extract. Still,
the alleged miracles of the shiny aquatic eggs, in raw or distilled form,
are taken seriously here, and before I am introduced to caviar with all its
epidermal merits I am given a primer on basic skin care.

"You can put whatever you want on your face, but if you don't clean your
face regularly with facials, nothing -- and I mean nothing -- will work."
Elyzabeth leans forward while a coterie of well-coifed aestheticians
busily work the hair of several early-rising Hollywood patrons. "American
women know hair, makeup and fingernails, but they know close to nothing
about aesthetics, and even less about retarding the aging process," she

Perhaps she's right. Behind me mirrors reflect, in hundreds of
increasingly tiny forms, the receding image of my own aging self. Beauty
care has never ranked high on my to-do list of life, in large measure
because I have never suffered from the pimple fests, acne supernovas and
facial moonscapes that mark the hormonally riotous years of so many
teenagers. Rather, my teenage years were marked by obsessive tanning, for
which my water-leached skin is now badly paying. I have also not escaped
the faint crow's feet and tiny fissure-like wrinkles that mark time's
creeping advance, and have done close to nothing to "retard" this process.

Sooner or later, everyone's skin follows the same route. Every two weeks,
the thickest outer layer of our epidermis, called the horny layer (or the
stratum corneum), sloughs off to reveal a new layer. Ignored, our facial
skin is like a funky screen door after a dust bowl. Freshly steamed and
cleaned, it is a sieve.

What makes caviar so special -- what Elyzabeth says is the scientific rationale for extracting oil from one of the world's most
expensive delicacies and incorporating it into skin cream -- is its
cellular structure, which is strikingly similar to that of skin: 50 to 70 percent
water, with a similar percentage breakdown of lipids, protids and trace
elements. "When you put caviar essence on your skin, you're giving back
life to the cells because of the cellular consistency between skin and
caviar," says Elyzabeth. "If you were to graft skin to skin, you would
renew the skin. It's that simple."

That one of the world's most curious fish produces the world's most
luxurious eggs is one of nature's little ironies. The sturgeon is a
toothless, omnivorous shark-like bottom-feeding sea bed prodder with an
extendable snout and an exoskeletal bony plate. It has been cruising the
Caspian Sea for nearly 180 million years. For centuries, only the roe from
three types of sturgeon could be called caviar: the beluga, the ossetra and
the sevruga. These fish are prehistoric, predatory and prolific. The
massive beluga can measure up to 30 feet long, weigh more than 2,000 pounds and yield more than 15 percent of its weight in roe. Many of them live beyond 100 years.

To watch sturgeon being harvested is to lose your appetite, if only
momentarily, for these precious fish eggs: The capacious, fleshy female is
hauled onto a boat and transported to a sea-bound facility. There, on
marble tabletops that look vaguely sepulchral, its belly is slit with a
colossal knife and a great torrent of viscous eggs comes rushing out of the
sturgeon's exposed roe sack. No matter how disconcerting it is, this
process has not abated the world's appetite for caviar, which has brought
the sturgeon close to the brink of extinction.

That caviar could actually be good for your skin is not particularly
unusual. We've put everything from legume oils and fruit acids to human
placenta in skin cream. And yet caviar is different because it is, in fact,
a dense mass of eggs, each containing the entire range of specialized
materials -- the cells, protective membrane and nutritive elements -- that
produce life. This makes one wonder if any egg (say, from a tuna, a dog or
a human) could be used for the same effect. Be that as it may, the sturgeon
is the only living creature whose eggs have been singled out and consumed
throughout the centuries with almost mythic relish.

At Elyzabeth's salon, as my pores dilate under an insistent shaft of steam, I'm left to wonder if there isn't a metaphysical relationship here. If our skin cells resemble those of sturgeon eggs, could it be that our bodies -- which consist largely of salty
water, which gestate in the early stages of embryonic life in amniotic
fluid that is similar to sea water and which, in fact, develop the traces
of our ancestral relationship with fish in the form of very tiny
gills -- recognize in caviar some vestigial and primordial reflection of
their own sentient, life-producing selves? Could this also explain our
seemingly incomprehensible and prodigious love for caviar, and our
willingness to spend extraordinary amounts of money consuming the little
seafaring ovum?

I do not ask these questions of my aesthetician, who is busy topping off the $95, one-and-a-half-hour facial with a head massage. My skin has been steamed, cleaned, exfoliated, masked and creamed. Unfortunately, the caviar cream itself has been stripped of its "fishy smell" ("Americans don't appreciate fishy smells," Elyzabeth tells me), and I'm left on my own to conjure up the taste of the tiny, briny ovum while I have what seems, for all intents and purposes, like a traditional facial.

It's not. Of the few facials I've had, this is the only one that has left my skin so taut and shiny that for several days it actually radiates health. It glows. People notice. "What have you done to your face?" they ask. Several days later, however, my skin slowly loses its radiant shine and I realize that, short of daily caviar consumption and facial treatments (which would quickly lead to financial ruin), the aging process will keep marching on. My skin will keep sloughing off layer upon layer of dead cells; new ones will rejuvenate my epidermal horny layer but never quite as fast as when I was a 16-year-old girl drinking up the sun. All the more reason to appreciate life's little epicurean pleasures as often as you can.

Before leaving Elyzabeth's salon, I ask her if she actually eats caviar on a regular basis. She steps back and, looking vaguely surprised by the question, replies, "But of couse!"

Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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