When Miya Chong went on an overseas business trip in 2017, she stumbled upon a soap crafting shop and was immediately intrigued by the fragrances and designs.
As someone who has been in the beauty and wellness industry for four years, she felt like she has an acute appreciation for the art and science behind the craft.
She was also compelled to the idea of turning the mundane activity of showering into something more “mindful and holistic”. Moreover, she had just given birth to her first child and was looking for a new hobby to indulge in.
“I purchased a mini soap-making kit and started exploring from thereon when I (returned to) Singapore,” said Miya, who is now a mother of three.
“It was with that kit that I started self-experimentation and exploration with that medium, getting inspiration from Pinterest and other soap makers. I was fascinated (by) how customisable soap (can be) — it was instant magic creating these usable art pieces.”
A month later, she created an Instagram page (@saltwateratelier) to document her soap creations and share the soap-making process. Today, the page has racked up almost 5,000 followers.
The struggles of soap-making
Miya finds it very important to show the person behind the work and be in touch with the audience. Also, by sharing the thought process and ideas, it serves as a way for her to gather feedbacks for improvements.
“By forming this personal brand relation with your audience, the product naturally becomes related to them,” she said.
Just two months after the creation of her Instagram page, she received an order for her very first commissioned work.
“It was for a wedding of 200 people and it was customised to their budget of S$3.80 per piece. It is always a very rewarding experience to work with thoughtful couples and companies to help them customise unique gifts according to their theme and budget,” said Miya.
The 30-year-old had invested S$500 to procure all the basic materials and quickly broke even with that very first commissioned work — this was just two months after delving into this soap-making hobby-cum-business.
Despite the quick breakeven rate, Miya stressed that soap-making is very labour intensive which involves plenty of late nights and man-hours. Moreover, it’s not something that’s easy to pick up as it’s difficult to get the techniques and consistency right in the initial stages.
“I’ve burned many jars of soap before achieving the designs I do today. Also, at the same time, I was juggling with motherhood and my day job while trying to keep up with having more designs and content on my Instagram page,” said Miya.
She is currently working full-time for a U.S. cruise company doing regional business development, marketing and public relations.
Since it is a labour-intensive craft that requires a lot of planning, she has had to unfortunately reject opportunities with large orders in the early days.
As a one-man business, prioritising and scheduling your work is very important. I have also learnt that it is very important to say ‘no’ to certain business opportunities that does not justify your time and effort.
It may seem bad from a business perspective, but with limited resources, it is only the right thing to do to prevent a burnout. Especially when you’re in a craft business that is stirred by passion.– Miya Chong, founder of Saltwater Atelier
It can take up to six weeks
Depending on the design and techniques used, the soap-making process can take as long as two hours, or up to six weeks.
“Different techniques have different formulation, aesthetic and curing/drying time,” she explained.
For instance, the hot process as well as melt and pour technique dries in two to four hours. The latter is widely used in soap-making, but both techniques have the highest translucency, which is suitable for glass-looking soap designs.
On the other hand, the cold process technique takes six weeks to cure and it gets milder as it ‘ages’ and has a creamy finish.
Saltwater Atelier’s bar soaps are priced between S$12 and S$18. Her most expensive product so far however, is a limited launch of Everyday Day Oil (can be used for face, body and hair), which is priced at S$22 per bottle.
All (my) designs are unique in its own way, as it requires different technique and process to to have it look in a certain way. However, in comparison with the usual soap bars, I would say the most unique collection would have to be the Reiki Soap Bars as it includes actual crystals inside the soap.
Users get to keep that piece of crystal as a keepsake item, hence making it a meaningful gift to a friend. Also, every piece of crystal is different with no two crystals looking the same.– Miya Chong, founder of Saltwater Atelier
Besides selling her soaps online, Miya also conducts crystal soap-making workshops. Many “influencers” who joined her workshops shared it on their Instagram Stories, which helped fuel interest.
While Covid-19 is thought to have dampened the turn-out rate of her workshops, Miya said that on the contrary, there was a demand as there was an influx of people picking up new skills and joining workshops amid the pandemic.
Despite the Covid-19 restrictions on the number of people, it has allowed her to conduct sessions in smaller groups so she could better guide them.
Handcrafted soaps versus commercial soaps
Most households in Singapore use commercial liquid soaps, so why should customers change their purchasing habits to opt for handcrafted soaps instead?
For all handcrafted soaps, the ingredients and designs are thoughtfully sourced, formulated and planned by the maker in small batches. It encompasses the artist’s labour of love for health, wellbeing and an eco-sustainable living.
Therefore, soap makers will opt for better ingredients such as oils, clays and botanicals — no synthetic chemicals (are involved), which are widely used in commercial soaps due to its affordability.– Miya Chong, founder of Saltwater Atelier
Bar soaps also reduce the need for plastic bottles. According to Miya, the carbon footprint of a bar soap is 25 per cent lesser than liquid soap.
“On a typical wash, we use almost seven times more liquid soap (2.3g) than bar soap (0.35g). Bar soap also requires lesser energy when it comes to packaging and disposal.”
What makes Saltwater Atelier’s soap bars stand out from other existing brands are its unique designs.
“I believe that we are all visual creatures, and if we have to convey a message or initiative across, the first approach is to garner attention through design.”
Over the years, Saltwater Atelier has received plenty of media coverage across local and international publications such as New York Times Singapore and Harper’s Bazaar, which helped to raise brand awareness. Lifestyle boutiques like LUMINE has also consigned her products at their store.
To date, Miya has also wholesaled her work to Oman, Australia, United States and France, as well as taught over 200 students.
Commenting on future business plans, Miya said that she wants to “spread the magic of soap-crafting” with more people through workshops. She also hopes to encourage more soap makers locally and abroad, and emphasised that there is no better time to start than now.
“The mantra I’ve always lived by is this: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to start is now.’ It’s never too late to start something.”
Featured Image Credit: Miya Chong / Saltwater Atelier