The magazine of material culture

An Interview with Ursa Major of Vermont


Illustration by Rachel Miller

Writing by David Perez | Illustration by Rachel Miller

"It’s really hard, frankly, when you work with natural ingredients” says Oliver Sweatman. As co-owner of the unisex beauty line Ursa Major he knows the topic well. When he launched the brand in 2010 with his partner Emily Doyle, the two were responding to a challenge that many all-natural cosmetic lines had previously failed to overcome: sourcing ingredients responsibly without sacrificing effectiveness or quality. Sweatman and Doyle’s goal was to avoid the persistent dissatisfaction they often felt with natural beauty products, “They felt heavy on your skin, felt weird, and had a strange aroma.” 

Accordingly, the pair started the cosmetic line with three guiding principles: healthy, effective, sublime. While the first two descriptors can be somewhat quantified, the last one is a bit more elusive. When asked Sweatman isn’t afraid to wax poetic a bit, “When you have good skin, it just feels like you’re nourishing yourself. If we can deliver zen for your face, that’s really cool.” Indeed, for Ursa Major skin care is tantamount to self care, “Skincare should give you a little kick in your step when you finish your morning ritual. If you feel like you’re taking the best care of yourself, it gives you a boost of confidence.” While I won’t speak to its sublimeness, I can attest that the Essential Face Tonic for one feels as though it's brightening my whole face and rinsing away any sense of sleep, stress, or city grime it has acquired.

Sweatman and Doyle—who previously worked at Bumble & Bumble—moved to Vermont from New York City in 2009 after deciding the slow pace of rural New England needed to be more than just a weekend escape. Their first product was a men’s shaving cream that was successful enough to overcome the two major challenges of the time period: a slow economic recovery and a beard trend at its peak. While they have grown steadily since two things have remained unchanged, they are still based in Vermont—hiring most staff locally—and they have maintained their commitment to sustainability, strictly adhering to European Ecocert guidelines, which is the unofficial gold standard for organic certification.

From all the available evidence, Sweatman and Doyle have accomplished their initial goal. They have created a line of natural cosmetics that rival any luxury competitors. Ursa Major’s success is a positive reminder that adhering to environmental principles, though ‘really hard,’ can lead to better creations when done with the utmost care.