Steve Birkbeck develops sandalwood cosmetics with the help of Australia’s original people
Ode Editors | March 2006 issue
Steve Birkbeck was a college student majoring in philosophy and anthropology when a car accident in a borrowed vehicle forced him into a job tending bar at a desolate hotel on the edge of Australia’s Gibson Desert. He could hardly wait to save enough money to pay for the car and get back to business as usual.
It didn’t work that way. After his return to the city, several friends he’d made at the hotel tracked Birkbeck down. They wanted to know if he’d lend a hand marketing their emu oil, which Aboriginal people believe is medicinal. So together with his wife Karen, Birkbeck returned to western Australia.
Emus proved problematic, but Birkbeck persevered, founding what has become the country’s largest cosmetics company. Mount Romance specializes in care products made with sandalwood oil using traditional Aboriginal know-how. “So much has already been stolen from the Aboriginals,” Birkbeck says, “and yet we can use their knowledge in a fair way.”
The extract is taken from the trees under the supervision of the Aboriginals, who are responsible for the development of the products. They also teach the history of both emu and sandalwood oils in Australia, and guide groups of tourists interested in experiencing the calming powers of the oils first-hand in a tepee. In addition, five percent of Mount Romance’s sales go to projects that benefit the Aboriginal community via the Songman Circle of Wisdom Foundation, co-founded by Birkbeck and led by internationally renowned Aboriginal artist Richard Walley.
Therapeutic effects, particularly relaxation, have been attributed to sandalwood oil, used for bathing by the Egyptian pharaohs. The oil can also be used for skin care. It’s a basic ingredient used by many European, Arabic and Asian perfume producers (in the United States, Aveda and Estée Lauder buy their sandalwood from Mount Romance). And there’s a lively black market in Asia for illegally harvested sandalwood, another reason why Mount Romance is an important alternative.