Born on December 25, 1872, in Krakow, in present-day Poland, Helena Rubinstein was the eldest of eight daughters; her father was a Jewish kerosene dealer. Her parents called her Chaja. Later in life, she gave herself another first name.

Refusing a marriage arranged by her parents, she left the country, catching a ship to Australia to live with her uncle and his family.

Helena Rubinstein in a laboratory setting, surrounded by vials on a workbench and shelves

Helena Rubinstein often presented herself in a white workcoat

On the ship’s passenger list, the young woman decided to use the first name Helena — an allusion to the beautiful Helen of Troy. She also wrote her age as being four years younger than she actually was.

In her luggage, she carried a cream that she and her sisters and mother had used at home in Krakow, reportedly based on her mother’s recipe.

In those days, women cleansed their skin with soap and water; creams and emulsifiers were widely regarded with suspicion, and women who used them were considered to be morally questionable.

Rubinstein underscored her seriousness, telling customers that she had briefly studied medicine, although biographers have disputed this. 

A Hungarian ‘gift from heaven’

The Australians openly admired her flawless complexion, and she decided to sell the cream, marketing the mix of unique herbs in a balm she called Valaze, which means “gift from heaven” in Hungarian.

Her product was an immediate hit and soon sold out. She began to produce more, left her uncle’s house and was soon able to open her first small shop in Melbourne with the money she’d earned. The timing was good: It was 1903, the year after Australian women gained the right to vote. Within just a few months, Rubinstein, young and ambitious, had earned a fortune. 

Returning to Europe in 1905, Rubinstein went back to Australia two years later and met Edward Titus, an American journalist also of Polish descent. The pair married in 1908 in London and had two sons. In 1908 Rubinstein founded her second salon in Wellington, New Zealand, and third that same year in London.

A cosmetics empress

In 1912, Helena Rubinstein’s creams conquered Paris, where she opened a large beauty salon. In 1914, during World War I, the family left Europe for the United States. In New York, Rubinstein opened another salon, thus adding to her empire.

Assortted glasses and tubes with the HR logo

Helena Rubinstein products have been part of the L’Oreal group since 1988

By then, her success was undisputed. Having developed her first cosmetics line, she now owned a worldwide chain of cosmetic factories, laboratories and beauty salons. Further factories making her products opened in Britain, France, Germany and other countries. From then on, her products bore her own name, Helena Rubinstein, and continue to do so to this day.

Rubinstein also invested in the scientific development of her products and the extensive training of her staff. Well into old age, she remained interested in the development of new treatments. A shrewd businesswoman, she sold her company to the Lehman Brothers in 1928, but when the stock market crashed bought it back at a fraction of the cost, making it even more successful. 

A remarkable art collection

After the end of World War I, Rubinstein returned to Paris extremely wealthy and began to build a formidable art collection. She had been mingling with artistic greats for years — the brightest writers and thinkers of turn-of-the-century Paris were frequent house guests, including the American novelists Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and the artists Man Ray and Marc Chagall, with whom she was friends. Raoul Dufy and Salvador Dali painted portraits of her.

Yet Pablo Picasso staunchly refused to paint her picture, even after she had asked him several times. She visited his studio to try to change his mind — but to no avail.

Helena Rubinstein in a striking dress, with long earrings and an aura of glamour

Rubinstein was a woman who knew how to present herself

In 1937, Rubinstein divorced and married the Georgian prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia one year later. He was 23 years her junior, which only added to her legend. Rubinstein may not have been as conventionally beautiful as her skincare models — she was also only 4 feet, 10 inches (1.47 meter) tall — but she certainly knew how to present herself in dramatic fashion. In contrast to her pale skin, she painted her lips bright red, often looping her black hair into a thick elegant knot at the nape of her neck.

Insatiable passion for jewels

Around this time, the successful entrepreneur became cosmetics legend Elizabeth Arden’s direct competitor. In 1939, Rubinstein presented the first waterproof mascara, which she herself had not invented but had acquired the patent for. She was also the first in the industry to categorize different types of skin.

Mindful of achieving cost-efficient production, she was also an extremely thrifty individual. A famous tale says she arrived in New York with a brown paper bag instead of the elegant purse one might have expected. She was rumored to have slept in nightgowns that cost only $4. On the other hand, she had an insatiable passion for jewelry, and is said to have sorted her jewels alphabetically.

Standing in a brightly lit store in a mall, two saleswomen wear white wearing facial masks

Helena Rubinstein stores are found around the world, including here in Shenzhen, China

Since 1988, her luxury brand has been part of the L’Oreal group. By the time of her death, her company included 100 branches in 14 countries. On April 1, 1965, Helena Rubinstein died in a New York hospital at the age of 94. Until shortly before her death, she had managed her cosmetics empire herself. In addition to the company, Rubinstein left behind a museum of modern art in Tel Aviv. At the end of life, she was one of the richest women in the world. 

This article has been adapted from German by Sarah Hucal.