Kiehl’s: A New York Legend

by Pearlyn Quan

The cult skincare brand celebrates 170 years of service with a collection of its most beloved bestsellers, and even a modern-day love potion inspired by its archives.

Little Pear in the Big Apple

In 1647, Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York by the British), planted a pear tree on his farm. It is this very location that would become the intersection at which John Kiehl would set up his original apothecary nearly two centuries later – the corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue.

Despite having produced its final pear shortly before an ill-fated wagon accident in 1867, the beloved tree left its legacy – the intersection is still fondly remembered as “Pear Tree Corner” by many in the city. 

On 12 November 2003, Kiehl’s replanted a pear tree in front of its venerable flagship store to once again firmly establish the historic intersection of its original location. And in recognition of Kiehl’s long-standing commitment to serving its East Village community, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially proclaimed 12 November “Kiehl’s Day”.

This is how deeply the roots of Kiehl’s history intertwine with that of New York City’s.

Morse’s Code

Despite its name, the story of Kiehl’s is really the story of three generations of the Morse family – beginning with that of John Kiehl’s apprentice Mr Irving Morse. What originally began as a small neighbourhood apothecary selling virility creams and baldness cures, was eventually transformed into a full-scale pharmacy once Irving Morse bought over the store in 1921.

The second Morse to inherit the business would be Irving’s son Aaron, and his brand of scientific rigour coupled with charming eccentricity would go on to define the Kiehl’s brand identity we all know and love. A pharmacologist like his father, and also a pilot in the second world war, Aaron was known for his enthusiasm and vast knowledge across a wide range of pet interests – from medical anatomy to planes, trains and automobiles. (There was even a makeshift museum annexe at the original store to exhibit Aaron’s extensive collection of vintage cars and motorcycles!)

He phased out the homeopathic products and turned his attention to developing the natural care products that Kiehl’s would become known for. In 1964, he introduced the ever-popular acne-fighting Blue Astringent (that Andy Warhol, whose famed Factory was only blocks away, would buy large bottles of), as well as widened the range to include more men’s grooming products. His aesthetic choice of eschewing fancy product packaging in favour of generic containers with handwritten labels survive till today as yet another hallmark of the Kiehl’s brand. Many of Kiehl’s classic bestsellers, such as Calendula Herbal Extract Toner and Ultra Facial Moisturiser, were also introduced at this time.

It was also under Aaron Morse that sampling at Kiehl’s became a thing. The store quickly garnered a reputation within the community for its high-quality hair and skincare products that were mixed on-site, samples of which were constantly being pressed into the hands of customers for them to try and then become loyal fans of. The philosophy back then was simple: if people try the products, they will buy them – and the motto has not changed since. Kiehl’s is known for their free samples (8.5 million units a year), which they invest in more than in advertising – and remains a testimony of the enduring quality and efficacy of their products.

A Legacy is Inherited

Aaron Morse’s daughter Jami Morse Heidegger grew up shadowing her father at their famous store, and eventually took over the reins in 1989. Together with her world-champion skier husband Klaus Heidegger, Jami Morse continues the Kiehl’s tradition of extensive sampling, and introduces new ranges of products that evolve along with the Morse family – organic baby products, sports-related rubs and skin protectors for athletes, and even a range of equine products for horse-riding enthusiasts.

In 2005, Kiehl’s introduced its Kiehl’s Dermatologist Solutions range by harkening back to the company’s roots in the sciences. Assembling a team of experts in the field of dermatology, Kiehl’s developed a series of advanced, powerful, yet safe treatments that would address specific skin conditions, such as aging, irritation, sensitivity, acne, sun spots and surface texture.

Honouring the Past

Today, the magic that is the Kiehl’s experience extends around the world as the brand continues to delight patrons with its high-quality formulas, top of the line skincare expertise, and a grassroots indie spirit.

To honour this legacy, Kiehl’s is proud to introduce two limited-edition product collections: a classic Commemorative Collection of iconic must-have formulas, and for the first time ever, a historical Heritage Collection comprising three special formulas inspired by the archives.

Limited Edition Commemorative Collection

A specially curated array of the brand’s most beloved and best-selling formulas of all time:

This iconic collection of Kiehl’s classics comes in stunning new white and gold- adorned glass packaging – maintaining Kiehl’s commitment to a more sustainable future by using eco-conscious materials.

Limited Edition Heritage Collection

For the first time, Kiehl’s dives deep into its archive of formulation favorites to bring back three historical products from decades past.

Carefully selected to pay homage to beauty trends that revolutionised previous eras, the Limited-Edition Heritage Collection is reimagined for the modern-day skincare connoisseur.

Inspired by the fortune drawing tinctures of the roaring 20’s, these limited-edition essence oils are available in three enticing new aromas:

Heritage French Rosewater Toner, 230ml ($68)

The 1960s marked a new age of the multi-step skincare routine. Customers sought products that were decadent and luxurious as a way to pamper themselves at home and indulge in a little self-care. Inspired by a Kiehl’s collection of Rosewater Toners from the 1960s, the newly refreshed skin- softening formula is infused with imported Rosewater and sustainably- sourced whole Turkish Rose Petals—handpicked from the “rose garden of the world.” With a delicate, fresh aroma, this gentle toner hydrates and balances for smooth, petal-soft skin.

Images courtesy of Kiehl’s and Curatedition, artwork by Curatedition. All rights reserved.

Related Links:

Kiehl’s Ultimate Go-tos

Kiehl’s: Calendula Crush

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