Locals Dredge Up Mineral-Rich Sludge to Woo Spas; Earth ‘Smooth as Butter’
A version of this article appeared November 19, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: There’s Mud in Them Thar Hills! In Nevada, Goo is the New Gold.
By JIM CARLTON
Next-door to the site of the yearly Burning Man art festival in the Black Rock Desert, the Black Rock Mud Company hopes to bring new notoriety to the area by selling it’s geothermal mud for facial masks. WSJ’s Jim Carlton reports.
GERLACH, Nev.—Like generations of Nevada prospectors before her, Shelly Egbert plunged her shovel into her mining claim one recent autumn afternoon. She hit a mother lode.
“Look at that,” she yelled, nodding at the bounty on the flat of her spade. “Straight from the center of the earth!”
It was earth, as a matter of fact. “Smooth as butter,” the 50-year-old mother of seven said as she dug her hand into an oozing greenish pile of warm mud. “This is what God gave us.”
There’s not much else out here in this sandblasted patch of Nevada desert other than dusty clay soil. But when the volcanically-heated water seeps up from deep underground here, it turns the dust into a goo so sublime that people actually pay to have it slathered over their bodies in spas.
Among the beneficial properties Ms. Egbert touts: more than 50 trace elements that she says promotes healthy skin.
Mud treatments have been around for centuries, and are now popular in spas—including those at Nevada’s casino hotels. Until recently, the locals imported all their mud from places as far away as the Dead Sea or Thailand.
Ms. Egbert decided two years ago that Nevada mud could compete. Together with a business partner, Summer Powelson, she incorporated the Black Rock Mud Co. and began digging.
With a work crew on their ranch that includes their home-schooled children aged two to 20, the pair just completed their autumn mud harvest, from which they have 5,000 jars of mud to sell for $59 each as a cosmetic facial mask. They also harvest in the spring.
Their main customers so far are Reno spas and casinos. When one ordered some for its spa a few weeks ago, Ms. Egbert carefully loaded the bottled mud in the back of her Ford Expedition and hauled it herself.
She has given sample jars of the stuff to Reno area spas and expects to sling her mud more broadly via a website.
But she faces the big mud players, including established cosmetic giants like L’Oréal OR.FR +2.97% that sell cosmetic mud harvested from exotic locales all over the world—often where geologic attributes like volcanic heating fill the local soil with soothing-to-the-skin minerals.
The advantage of Nevada mud, says Ms. Egbert: It doesn’t stink like some of the other stuff, which often has a sulfurous smell. That’s one reason Emily Sindlinger, owner of Reno’s Lime Spa, has been using Black Rock Mud for six months. “Most (cosmetic) muds have a smell so it’s remarkable this one doesn’t,” Ms. Sindlinger says.
Competitors defend their smelly mud, arguing that their products have a proven track record while Black Rock Mud does not. Moor Mud, for example, is a slime consisting of an organic substance made from decomposed plants. The mud’s “chelatic properties” —which the company claims promote the removal of toxins from the epidermis—preserve the skin so well that bodies buried in it thousands of years ago have been found intact, says Lou Danes, owner of Torf Spa LLC, a Moor mud supplier in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Mariah Culbertson, marketing manager at Universal Companies, an Abingdon, Va., distributor of Moor and other muds, admits some of her sludge can be a bit malodorous, but adds: “Some people like earthy smells. We don’t have anything extremely stinky.”
Many spas put in additives like a pumpkin or citrus fragrance to mask foul smells. At Reno’s Spa Toscana, director Morgan Brantner says the Black Rock Mud she began carrying a month ago is the first that can be used unaltered.
“What you see is what you get,” says Ms. Brantner, whose spa is part of the Peppermill Casino and Resort. So far, Ms, Brantner says her spa has sold 36 jars of the mud and just placed an order for 48 more.
Black Rock’s isn’t the only mud that claims no smell. In Cordova, Alaska, Lauren Padawer markets an odorless glacial mud she harvests from the nearby Copper River and sells as far away as Sweden. She stumbled across a mother lode while taking a swim along the icy river several years ago, and procured a federal permit to extract the stuff.
“Your feet just sank into the mud,” says Ms. Padawer, who went on to found Alaska Glacial Mud Co. in 2006. “It was the most luxurious mud you could imagine, and we ended up just putting it all over ourselves.” She adds she sells about 5,000 jars of mud a year, the same as Black Rock Mud. Her chief limitation: She can only harvest mud in the autumn when the river is low and it’s not too cold.
In Nevada, Ms. Egbert says she eventually realized she could only harvest mud at certain times of the year. When her father, David Jamieson, bought the 144-acre ranch 12 years ago as a place to train falcons, she says she immediately noticed the high quality of the mud created from hundreds of geothermal springs on the property.
“I said, ‘Let’s bottle this’, because it was so gorgeous,” says Ms. Egbert. “But it was too unpredictable when mud would be there, so I came up with the idea of doing a spring and fall harvest.”
Warning a visitor to tread carefully, she walked gingerly around the boiling mud pots, pointing to one dried-up hole the size of a bathtub. It had been a regular gusher until it played out a couple years ago. “There’s no rhyme or reason why they start or stop, they just do,” says Ms. Egbert.
She enlisted Ms. Powelson to be a partner and in 2010 they founded Black Rock Mud, starting out with a “test” harvest of mud. There was a learning curve, like the time Ms. Egbert’s husband, Tom Egbert, almost fell into a bubbling pit while shoveling mud.
“The ground around him started collapsing, and he jumped back just in time,” Ms. Egbert says. “We started a rule that you have to be harnessed to a four-wheeler after that.”
Ms. Egbert heads the harvest and also oversees a production line inside a storage shed where the workforce consists mainly of their children—all wearing white smocks. On a recent afternoon, two-year-old Maggie Powelson stirred the mud in a five-gallon bucket, while brother Brigham, 12, acted as quality control cleaning the edges of filled jars and five other siblings and cousins took care of packaging and other final steps for shipment.
“Heaven on earth,” Ms. Egbert said as the sun began to sink behind a mountain.