Of all the retro, artisanal products currently experiencing a renaissance – sustainably harvested coffee, French farmhouse ales – shaving soap may offer the most practical benefits. Despite having been sidelined since pressurized shaving cream arrived on the market in 1949, lathery bars actually offer a better shave than most commercial creams and gels. Because they produce a lighter and slicker lather, shaving soaps facilitate a smooth, nick-free glide (provided, of course, that you're using a decent blade).
"When your beard is properly hydrated, the hair is about 25 percent more elastic," says John Scala, CEO and founder of The New York Shaving Company. "That means you can shave closer with less irritation."
Then there is the nostalgic pleasure of choosing a scent and wielding a brush the way your grandfather did. Soaps help make shaving an activity rather than a weekday obligation. In that spirit, we surveyed the market and picked our favorite shaving soaps – three European classics that have stood the test of time and three that are made stateside.
Tabac Original Shaving Soap
This one is definitely not for the subtle or faint of heart. Made by Maurer & Wirtz, a German perfume house that dates back even further than Penhaligon's and Trumper, Tabac cologne has been a popular men's fragrance in Germany for decades, and the company's related puck of shaving soap is the darling of hard-core wet shavers – admittedly, a niche group. Furthering its appeal, Tabac comes wrapped in packaging that looks as though it should come with a condom and a copy of 'Penthouse' from the 1970s. The scent is strong, spicy, woody, and floral, sort of what you'd expect from having your face hugged deeply into grandpa's chest hair. The lather is impossibly rich and thick, which makes for a clean and irritation-free shave. [$20 for 125g; amazon.com]