The Natural: A Look Inside Jessica's Hollywood Salon

byDebbie Rosenkrantz, staff writer | July 1, 1999

As sunset Boulevard winds elegantly through the Hollywood Hills, it is lined with trendy shoe and clothing boutiques, sidewalk cafes designed for star-gazing, and powerhouse executives eateries like Le Dome. Billboards advertise the latest movies, while convertible Mercedes and shiny black Range Rovers fight through the two lanes of traffic.

While the boulevard outside plays out the “LA scene,” clients of Jessica Nail Clinic enter the oasis for natural nails under a black awning and through a street-level, engraved glass door. A lavish marble staircase leads them to the main floor of the salon, which is right above designer Nicole Miller’s own retail establishment.

Inside the European-styled salon, a staff of 31 nail technicians and pedicurists provide luxurious $25 manicures and $25 pedicures to actors and actresses, business women, and the merely well-to-do.

One of three salons in the immediate area, Jessica’s has catered to the health and beauty of its natural nail clients since 1975. Its quaint, five-room interior and its unique owner have received regular attention in magazines such as People, InStyle, and German Vogue.

The salon’s environment is elegant, but not intimidating, as clients of all social rank regularly mix and mingle like European school girls. It’s all part of the way salon owner and natural nail cultivist Jessica Vartoughian runs the salon and her business, Jessica Cosmetics International (N. Hollywood, Calif.). “The salon is a place where clients make friends,” she says, emphasizing the gossip and pointed personal questions are taboo, but warm conversation is definitely encouraged. “Many of my clients have been with me for more than 25 years and many of the nail technicians have been here as long as 15 years,” says Vartoughian, who has done nails on both coasts for the past 37 years.

Part of her success also comes from the way she and her staff have earned the trust of the powerful and famous. “How many people hold your hands for an hour straight?” she asks. “The answer is no one – not even your husband or children – except your manicurist. We have to earn the trust of our clients and establish a bond.”

In fact the bond between client and salon is so strong that when a long-time client was giving birth at a local hospital, the salon received several calls from client friends inquiring about her condition.

Capturing Hollywood Glamour

Vartoughian’s Armenian parents sparked her interest in nail care when she was very young. “In Romania, the people my family associated with very sophisticated. I came from a well-to-do family and my parents had regular manicures. My mother and father would say to me ‘If you are a good girl, when the manicurist is done with my nails, she will paint yours,’ and I always wanted polish on my nails,” she says with a smile.

After traveling to the United States in 1962, Vartoughian started beauty college. She had trouble passing the licensing exam because she did not know enough English. Undaunted, in 1964 she went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and took night school classes to improve her skills. The third time was a charm and after passing her exam, Vartoughian went to work in a salon owned by a relative of comedian Lenny Bruce. “The job gave me the opportunity to see the true glamour of Hollywood,” she says.

That early experience, coupled with her mother’s own influence, formed the foundation for her nail philosophy. “My mother always told me how important hands are because they are a symbol of your status and who you are. They tell people a lot about you,” she says.

In 1964, Vartoughian left the salon to work for Robinson’s department store in Beverly Hills, which was, at that time, home to the most elite beauty salon in Hollywood. It was there that she was first exposed to acrylic nails. “A colleague of mine did acrylic nails for a large clientele. She charged about $65 for a full set! Today that would be the equivalent of a few hundred dollars,” Vartoughian explains, adding that she didn’t care for the woman’s technique.

Although she readily points out that today’s acrylic application techniques and formulations are much improved, she has stuck to her original philosophy of natural nails only. “Not everyone can have long, strong nails, but we can all have well-groomed nails that suit our hands,” she says.

While her loyal clientele continued to expand to include the likes of Diana Ross and other celebrities, Vartoughian began to study her own nails and their shortcomings to learn more about the art of natural nail care. “After I had been in this country for a couple of years, my body chemistry started to change. My nails started to break, so I began experimenting and reading about the latest repair technology, which at that time was Revlon’s nail patch kit,” she remembers.

She eventually came to the conclusion that soaking natural nails in water can help prevent damage during filing or cutting and that polish on both sides of the nail can help prevent breaks and keep the nails looking well-groomed.

Meanwhile, Vartoughian was tired of working around the salon’s hairdressers, and sometimes in between their chairs, to get to her clients’ nails. She didn’t feel it was professional and began to request that her clients come to her station either before or after a hair appointment, something almost unheard of at the time. However, Vartoughian’s obvious passion for her career and her self-procured nail education allowed her to call her own shots. Wherever Vartoughian went, her clients followed – especially when it was time to open her own nails-only salon.

In 1969, Vartoughian opened her first location in Beverly Hills with a gala opening party to which she invited all of her clients. By the time she closed the first salon to open her second location in 1972, also in the 90210 zip code, she employed nine nail technicians, who helped her serve a famous clientele including Barbra Streisand, Dyan Canon, and Nancy Reagan (who, once she became First Lady, often flew Vartoughian to the White House to do her nails).

Vartoughian did not yet have her own polish line, so she used products from different companies according to her clients’ needs. The idea to create her own line didn’t come until after her first trip to New York to offer natural nail care advice during a healthy and beauty event at Lord & Taylor department store. There, a women repeatedly asked her to recommend products, and Vartoughian saw an opportunity to put her nail knowledge to work.

Grooming from Coast to Coast

After careful planning and formulation, in 1978, she left her third salon (her present Sunset Boulevard location) running smoothly and moved to New York to work with Max Factor to produce and market her Jessica line, which was later featured in Bloomingdales and other major east coast department stores.

However, a successful cosmetics competitor complained that Jessica’s line was in violation of her contract with the stores and requested that it be pulled from some of the stores, which helped cause its demise. “I lost all of my money and went back to work in my Los Angeles salon hoping to make enough money to keep my house,” she says. “I had clients booked every hour until I worked my way back.”

It was several years before Vartoughian decided to have one more go with the product line, but this time it would be sold via direct sales. The products were an immediate success and not too much later, in 1986, she signed up with national distributors. Today her products (polishes, treatments, retail and at-home care kits, and a pedicure line) are sold in salons worldwide and Vartoughian travels all over the globe to teach natural nail care.

“I want nail technicians to concentrate more on the health of the nail and not as much on surface beauty,” she says. “It is so crucial that we are careful about which products we use and how they will affect that particular client’s nails, especially as she ages.” For instance, Vartoughian warns against destroying the flexibility of natural nails by using hardeners and recommends nail “transplants” instead of tips.

The idea of nail transplants is completely unique to the industry. Clients of Jessica Nail Clinic who break a nail are instructed to find and hold onto the piece of nail that breaks off and not to file the free edge of the broken nail. The client should come into the salon as soon as possible for a transplant service, which consists of reattaching the broken piece with the minimal amount of adhesive applied just at the fracture area. It is a delicate operation and Vartoughian is quick to point out that not every nail can be reattached.

In those cases, the salon has built its own “nail bank,” a collection of natural nail clippings from past clients that can be utilized to fix a break. “We clean and sanitize the nails and the tip and then repair the break using cotton underneath to get just the right angle so that it looks very natural,” she explains, noting that the procedure is not very commonplace. “It’s not used to lengthen a client’s nails, but only when the client’s own broken nail can’t be recovered.”

Emphasis on avoiding breaks is part of the education that each client, from Julia Roberts to the average housewife, receives during her appointment.

The Next Steps

Vartoughian’s trials and successes have only fueled her enthusiasm for work. Right now she is penning her autobiography and plans to open at least one more salon in the future. She also donates her time to charity and education. And she holds staff meetings every three months to keep the salon on track.

Above all, her main mission is still to provide each client with a beautiful set of well-groomed natural nails through product knowledge, education, and regular services. “It seems that the average acrylic – wearing client stays with a salon about three to five years,” says Vartoughian. “But a natural nail client continues to rely on her nail cultivist throughout her lifetime.

As a skilled nail technician you can care for your clients’ cuticles and enhance the beauty of their hands. It is a very personal thing. Once you earn a client’s trust she’ll stay with you for a lifetime.

Owner: Jessica Vartoughian

Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Number of years in business: 30

Staff size: 32 (24 nail cultivists; seven pedicurists, one manager)

Highlights: Manicures and pedicures for the (mostly) rich and famous for only $25; salon uses the Jessica product line exclusively and service chairs designed by Vartoughian; client list includes many celebrities, such as Toni Braxton, Jodie Foster, Rosie O’Donnell, and Molly Ringwald.

While busy executives, shoppers, and star-gazers dabble along famous Sunset Boulevard, clients of Jessica Nail Clinic retreat to the salon for a little nail (and soul) TLC.

Vartoughian’s Armenian roots and well-to-do Romanian upbringing led her interior decorator to recommend classic European styling throughout the salon, especially in the waiting room. This air of friendly sophistication also characterizes the way the nail cultivists interact with their clients.

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