The Islander who found a recipe for success after Covid delayed his plans for a cruise-ship career

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WHEN theatre manager Benjamin Martin returned to Jersey just before the Island entered lockdown last March, his parents could not have predicted the changes that were about to hit their house.

For Benjamin, who had initially travelled to Jersey from his home in Wimbledon, and who was intending to drop off his car and dog before flying to America to start a new job for Norwegian Cruise Line, the changes that ensued in the next few months were equally unexpected.

‘I had just secured a job as theatrical operations manager on one of the company’s ships when the pandemic affected everything,’ he recalled. ‘Although the Island was not officially in lockdown when I returned, my parents insisted that I isolated for seven days. At the end of that week, they told me to isolate for a further seven days, just to be on the safe side, and then asked me to do a further five days after that.’

While many people might have rebelled against 19 days of solitary confinement, Benjamin used the time rather more constructively.

‘I had always wanted to run my own business; I just wasn’t sure what form that would take but lockdown gave me the chance to explore some ideas,’ he explained.

And it was his own skin condition which provided the ultimate inspiration.

‘Eczema runs in the family and I have always suffered from very sensitive skin, which has made it difficult to use any skincare products,’ he smiled ruefully. ‘However, after a while I just couldn’t stand the smell of Diprobase – an emollient cream recommended for eczema sufferers – any longer and so I stared researching ingredients and making my own products, all of which are made using natural products and are designed to be suitable for sensitive skin.’

Planting lavender, lemon verbena, geranium and rose bushes in his parents’ garden, and commandeering the kitchen and conservatory for his experiments, Benjamin’s enterprise, Jersey Skin, came into being.

‘The initial plan was to launch with six products but we now have a range of more than 50 lines from lip balms and shampoo bars to moisturisers, hand creams and pillow sprays,’ he explained.

And while each product is different, there is one common theme, which is integral to the brand.

‘The ethos of Jersey Skin is to be as local and sustainable as possible,’ he said, ‘and, to that end, all of the core ingredients are grown or sourced in the Island – many in my parents’ garden. We also offer scrubs, made using Jersey sea salt which we are drying in my parents’ conservatory.’

Given the extent to which he took over his family home, it is perhaps not surprising that, after two months, his parents ‘kicked him out’ – although he did not go far.

‘I now rent the house next door,’ he smiled. ‘While mum and dad might have wanted to reclaim their house, they are still very much involved with the business. Mum has a degree in chemistry, so she plays a key role in the development of each product, while dad does a lot of the gardening, tending to the plants.’

With the first products devised and made at home, the range is now produced at the Jersey Skin shop, on the Parade.

‘We opened the shop on 15 May in the building that used to be Centre Stage,’ said Benjamin. ‘Not only does the property give us a brilliant retail space but it also has a workshop at the back, where Estelle Le Brun, my childhood best friend and Jersey Skin’s product maker, now creates and packages all the products.’

With his pride in Jersey’s heritage clear, every element of the shop has been designed to reflect the Island.

‘I wanted to incorporate as much Jersey as possible without turning it into a tourist trap,’ he smiled. ‘I also wanted it to look like a cross between a lovely locally owned greengrocers and a cottage and, just as importantly, I wanted to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible, so all the fixtures and accessories have been sourced from antiques dealers, auctions and friends.’

With his creativity coming to the fore again, Benjamin upcycled old scaffolding boards into display boards, repurposed antique panelling from St Mary’s Church to build the shelves and made wooden signs depicting the name of each product from wine crates donated by Vinifera.

It is an approach which, combined with upcycled dressers and a fireplace which the family uncovered while preparing the shop, captures the homely feel for which he was striving.

‘When we started work on the interiors, we discovered a fake wall and, when we removed that, we revealed a beautiful granite wall, fireplaces and tiles from the 1830s, when the premises belonged to a butcher,’ he explained. ‘Loving the history that we had unearthed, we decided to keep those original features on display.’

Another Jersey feature which Benjamin highlights with pride is the bachîn sink.

‘I really wanted to use a bachîn, so I drilled a plughole into it and placed it on an 80-year-old Scottish whisky barrel to create a sink,’ he explained. ‘Features like this really help to create the natural look I was hoping to achieve. I didn’t want it to look like a brand-new spotlight shop, I wanted it to look as though it had always been here.

‘As the business develops, my dream is to set it up in a similar way to the former Jersey Pottery showroom in Gorey Village, so that people can come in and watch the products being made.’

While developing skincare recipes and running a shop seems far removed from his theatrical background, Benjamin says that the change is not as dramatic as it first sounds.

‘It is a very different way of life but, as a performer, you never know what your next job will be,’ he reflected. ‘Sometimes it’s the acting role you wanted and, at other times, you’re working as a waiter in between jobs. You are always working hard towards your next goal and changing jobs every few weeks or months. While this was definitely a change, I’ve had so many jobs over the year that I had learnt many different elements that I could bring to Jersey Skin.’

But while clearly ambitious to build Jersey Skin – ‘I’d love to see some local spas and hotels using our products’ – the former St Michael’s School, Victoria College and Hautlieu student will not be abandoning his first love.

‘Norwegian Cruise Line has been brilliant throughout lockdown and, as that job is something I’ve been working towards for the past decade, I plan to go back to the cruise ship in due course and work remotely on Jersey Skin,’ he said.

Acknowledging that balancing the two jobs would ‘have been easier if I hadn’t opened the shop’, Benjamin is convinced that establishing a physical presence in St Helier was the right move.

‘Skincare was one of the few sectors that saw an increase in sales during lockdown,’ he said, ‘and I’m convinced that it is a sector which relies on a shop. While many people talk about the death of the high street, I don’t think that high streets are dying. I think some of the big shops are dying, largely because so many items can now be ordered online and then returned if necessary.

‘However, you can’t do that with skincare. That is something you want to try and experience in a shop and it is my hope that the high street will evolve to allow more small, independent businesses, such as Jersey Skin, to set up and offer services which you cannot get online.’

And Benjamin feels that the timing for this is perfect.

‘If the town centre can evolve in this way, it will gain more of a local feel,’ he said. ‘I think the pandemic has changed many people’s mindsets when it comes to shopping, and there is a now a surge in Islanders wanting to buy local products. People are taking a pride in buying items which have been locally produced and the Genuine Jersey accreditation, which we have gained, gives them that reassurance of both provenance and quality.’

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