A brief history of Essie nail polish
Jun 26, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Summer is in full swing, which means sandal season is upon us. There is something exciting about that first ray of warm sun hitting your toes. Even if you’re traipsing through an urban jungle, that extra boost of warmth can transport you (if you let your imagination roam!). Today there are nearly unlimited options for nail polish, providing countless color stories you can tell with your toes during the hot Summer months. Perhaps a deep blue tone connects you with the Caribbean vacation of your dreams or a bold orange perfectly contrasts the sand you imagine shimmering all around you. Despite all the new nail polish brands popping up these days, one icon remains: Essie. Join us as we stroll through a brief history of Essie nail polish and tell us about your favorite shade(s) in the comments. (We know it’s hard to pick just one hue!)
Our story begins with the birth of the amazing Essie Weingarten in 1949. As a young girl, her favorite thing to do was pick out a new nail polish color from her uncle’s shop. If she was a good girl, she’d have a mom and daughter manicure on Saturdays. (Needless to say, Essie was very motivated to be on her best behavior!) Fast-forwarding thirty five years, we find Essie boarding a plane from Queens to Las Vegas. This would not be your ordinary plane ride, for in tow were 10 cartons of Essie’s first nail polishes. Each carton weighed about 64 pounds, so it was a good thing the carry-on policy in 1981 was more relaxed than current times! With nothing but her grit, gumption, and business acumen she took flight. There was a lot riding on this venture to Vegas. Essie had left behind a steady job as a fashion buyer in the hosiery market to develop her dream nail polish. She had paid a chemist with her hard-earned money to develop 12 original colors and on that fateful day Essie boarded that plane ready to gamble on her dreams. You may ask, with so many well-heeled gals in New York, why Las Vegas? Essie’s plan was quite clever and she discussed her inspiration in this 2014 interview with Catherine Clifford: “If I go to Las Vegas, I have more women with disposable income than anywhere else. I have my dealers, my dancers, my cocktail waitresses, my showgirls. And they all had to be well groomed, well dressed and they were in front of the public at the time. So if I could get them to wear it and talk about it, it would spread like wildfire.”
Essie’s gut feeling was spot on. Remember that nearly 700 pound inventory she brought with her? Each bottle found its way to a new owner (either as a sample or direct purchase). In less than two weeks, she had requests/orders coming in from each casino/hotel/spa she visited. Vegas had one more trick up its sleeve for Essie. Many of the women who were introduced to the shades in the Nevada desert were on vacation. Once they returned home, they began requesting these new shades in their local salons. Word of mouth allowed Essie to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion staple. Her childhood vision of expanding color stories beyond the reds and pinks of the 1950s was in reach. And remember – this was in the early 1980s – well before Twitter and Instagram stories, making the story of Essie a true tale of organic growth.
Her first employee (also her hubby), told her to name the brand Essie and demand exploded! The brand’s first decade unfolded like a fairy tale. A year after Vegas, Essie introduced base and top coats. Two years later, late night icon Joan Rivers tells a curious tv audience that she is wearing Essie (jelly apple to be exact). By 1985 the square bottle debuted and in 1989 things got royal! It all started, innocently enough, with a pale pink shade known as Ballet Slippers. This color was personal for Essie as she took ballet as a girl and wanted to capture that simple elegance. Queen Elizabeth and her hairdresser took note, requesting a bottle for the palace. After a brief trial, it was monarch-approved and it’s estimated that one bottle is sold every few seconds. With this sort of noble momentum, it’s easy to see why this remains Essie’s top selling shade. In fact, over the years hundreds of colors have been developed, each with its own fun name. But Essie’s never forgotten the originals: three of her 1981 shades are still in production today (blanc, bordeaux, and baby’s breath).
When we consider this brief history of Essie nail polish – what sticks out for me is that mixing passion, dedication, and vision can move mountains (or nail polish bottles!). So, tell me dear reader, what dreams are you going to pursue this Summer? (And what nail polish color is going to help you celebrate the journey?)