One Clock Blog

Object Story: The Safety Razor

At OneClock we believe the things we handle, use, and rely on daily should be the best designed things we own. Not only should these objects be made to endure wear and tear without frequent maintenance—and look good doing it—they should also utilize their capacity to bring real meaning to everyday living.

It may sound counterintuitive, but we have the most intimacy with utilitarian objects. Kitchen and dining utensils, pens and pencils, personal grooming items, garden tools, doorknobs and handles: these items know our touch best. And when done right, these objects’ at-hand functionality is so beautiful nothing else is needed. If a brush of ornament or style adds to an object’s appeal without impinging on its purpose, fine. But sometimes, good design just lets the thingness of the thing be the thing.

Which is why the resurgent interest in safety razors has caught our attention.

A Close Shave

If you’re initiated in the world of curated lifestyle media, you know that gone are the days of self-lubricating shaving implements donning turquoise or pink plastic armor from bulbous handle to blade. Instead, it’s back to the basics for this most intimate of tasks.

Safety razors, with their sleek metal armature, thin, sharp blade, and weighty handle, are steeped in over a century of history. The razor carrying the story—and the one you almost certainly have in your mind’s eye—was designed in 1900 by King C. Gillette. Now a landmark name in the world of body hair, Gillette took a close look at how he and those around him were keeping up with turn-of-the-century shifts in facial hair styles and saw an opportunity to simplify.

The safety razor’s name differentiates it from its predecessor, the straight blade, which was a big leap from prehistoric seashell epilation, but still proved a risky endeavor when used outside of a barber shop. The straight blade, the 1762 invention of French cutler Jean-Jacques Perret, was unwieldy for the home groomer and needed routine sharpening to keep cheeks and chins coiffed. Struggling to find ease or comfort with his daily hygiene routine, Gillette honed in on the implement’s leading edge. Why not design a device where only that piece, the blade’s razor-sharp tip, was replaced?

Gillette’s first safety razor was an easy-to-grip handheld tool with disposable flattened steel blades that slotted into a cartridge with a toothy guard that acted as a barrier between skin and blade. It came onto the market in 1903, bucking tradition and impressing engineers; according to Gillette’s website, the disposable blades were “so thin and so strong they were deemed impossible to forge by MIT-trained scientists.

In the century since, Gillette has gone on to make incremental changes to the original—adding personalized settings and adjustable angles for differences in hair thickness and anatomical contours, introducing twin-blades (then triple and quintuple, becoming a punchline), pivoting heads, responsive springs, and yes, even baked-in lubrication and heat.

But it’s Gillette’s unfussy, early-on designs that are drawing today’s followers. What’s the appeal?

Comeback King

Maybe it’s how it feels.

All-metal safety razors made from steel, brass, titanium, or copper have a heft, a presence in the hand. At the philosophical level, that’s a good feeling for those of us who are trying to stay grounded in a world that’s afloat. A safety razor is the antithesis of virtual disembodiment. It’s used on the body and has a measurable body of its own.

That heft has a mechanical purpose, too. The weightiness of a safety razor helps in all matters of follicle folly, maintaining consistent contact with the skin, keeping wayward hairs in line, and generally lessening the chance of slips or nicks. A safety razor’s use does require some learned finesse, offering an element of mindfulness to your morning routine.

The feeling is confidence-inducing, writes simple living guru and blogger Erin Boyle in her bare-all how-to: “Multiple blades and plastic guards found on modern cartridge razors cause undue irritation in the form of bumps and ingrown hairs…a closer, smoother, and all-around superior shave can be had with a far simpler tool. If it’s not already clear, I count myself among the enthusiasts,” she writes.

Or maybe, it’s about what it saves.

For the eco-conscious consumer, safety razors are about as close to heaven as you can get. Vintage safety razors can be easily restored for continuous use (see RazorEmporium’s resources for doing so here) while new off-the-shelf versions provide a low- to zero-waste option in the face of countless plastic derivatives.

For those who don’t want to seek out the antique, there are plenty of contemporary safety razor makers, like Leaf Shave, Oui the People, and Carbon Shaving Co., as well as longtime cutlers like Merkur Shave and Edwin Jagger. (See the best-ranked options on the market, as selected by notable barbers, on The Strategist.) You should never, or very rarely, need to replace the safety razor apparatus itself, only the blades, which are easy and economical to replace and can be recycled through proper metal sharps collection services.

Or could it be the timeless distillation of the design itself that is captivating today’s shavers? Body hair hasn’t changed that much in the last century, and neither, really, has razor technology. Having run the gamut on features and optimizations, the age-old models—uncomplicated, easy to use, and precise—continue to hold their archetypical appeal. We want the time-tested ingenuity and engineering that has seen generations through countless shaves.

It’s beautiful, it works. Nothing else is needed.