Six years ago, a relative of a Canadian ad executive brought him a baby jar filled with brown paste she had purchased from an Indian on a Honduras street.
'I almost threw it in the garbage,' Denis Simioni admits. 'It didn't look very appetizing.'
Despite more than a decade of working in the beauty industry for some of the biggest names in haircare, he never thought the contents of that jar were something you would use on hair. So he stashed it away in a bathroom cupboard, where it remained for two years.
Then one day his wife, Silvana, went searching the bathroom for a product to repair her overprocessed tresses. She found the forgotten bottle of paste and cautiously applied it to her hair.
'We could not believe the results,' Simioni said. 'It totally revived it. I couldn't believe how shiny and soft her hair was.'
Simioni became determined to find more of this miraculous paste made from Ojon palm nut oil. Before long, he was on a plane to Honduras on an adventure that would rival something out of an 'Indiana Jones' movie, complete with spiders, snakes and sharks.
A few years and nine trips to to Honduras later, Simioni heads up Ojon Corp., one of the world's hottest and most unique new haircare companies.
100% pure Ojon palm nut oil
Launched in December 2003 with the popular Ojon Restorative Hair Treatment, the company now sells shampoo, conditioner, styling cream, shine serum and volumizing foam made with Ojon oil. Ojon will expand into skincare in late 2005 and 2006.
Bazaar dubbed Ojon 'our new favorite,' while Oprah magazine called it 'one of the summer's best.' During a sale of Ojon products in December on home shopping network QVC, the company sold out of 20,025 of assorted products in just 34 minutes, not including the wait list.
'I never thought I'd have my own haircare line,' Simioni said of the line, which grossed $4 million in sales in 2004. 'It was a fluke. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.'
The veteran ad man said he couldn't have made up such a unique marketing pitch if he tried.
'You spend your life manipulating the truth, trying to make it sound better, trying to give it a story,' he said. 'In this case, the story came first.'
Denis laughs when he recalls that first trip to Honduras to find the Miskito tribe that sold his wife's grandmother the Ojon paste. With his Spanish-speaking father-in-law and brother-in-law, he embarked on a five-hour ride in a rundown single-propeller plane that landed on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. From there they hiked for two hours before chancing upon the Mopawi, a local non-profit organization dedicated to helping the Indians of the Misquitia.
Armed with vague directions, they headed out on a five-hour small hand-carved boat ride into the rainforest.
'They told me we had to cross a lagoon and a river and that we should look for the Indians without hats,' Simioni said. 'We still didn't know where we were going. There was no treasure map with an 'X.'
Clusters of Ojon palm nuts
Finally they came upon some children playing -- children with glossy, gorgeous, hatless heads. In fact, the Miskito Indians are referred to as Tawira, or 'the people with beautiful hair.'
The kids brought them into the village and showed them the Ojon tree, which is unique to the rainforest of the Misquitia region of Central America. They showed him how the Ojon nuts, which resemble small coconuts, are chopped out of the trees, boiled to loosen the peel and smashed in wooden bowls.
Although the Miskito Indians had been using Ojon palm nut oil for centuries to clean, condition and protect their hair, it never had been exported beyond the region.
That was about to change, but it would require significant time, effort and money on the part of Simioni to make it happen.
'At first I thought, 'I don't speak their language and it takes 8,000 nuts to make 3.5 cups of pure Ojon,'' he said.
He also would have to organize the tribe to make the paste and find a way to ship it from the middle of the rainforest to Italy where it could be purified.
Simioni spent the next three years developing and testing Ojon formulations while he built a relationship with the people of the Miskito tribe. In cooperation with the Mopawi, he developed a partnership with 895 Miskito families -- 15,000 people. The company obtained exclusive worldwide distribution rights to the Ojon oil. In addition to getting paid for the ingredients, they also receive a portion of the profits form the sale of Ojon to help preserve their traditional lifestyle and the region's rainforests.
'As opposed to negotiating the price down, we negotiated up,' he said. 'I wanted them to trust me.'
The company limits the annual harvest in order to protect the natural resource, and to ensure that authentic Ojon continues to be harvested and extracted by hand in the traditional way as a guarantee of purity. The tribes are consulted on all aspects of the business, from product development to marketing.
Even after he set up a production facility, it took a year to go to market so they produce enough of the oil. He also partnered with a manufacturer to help them take the natural product and build a line.
'That's why the price is so high,' he said. 'It's not that we're trying to make more money. But the cost of the products is huge.'
They launched the treatment on QVC in December 2003. Ojon was on for six minutes at 10 p.m.
'Not only did we sell out, but we had a waiting list of 2,500 units,' Simioni said. 'It exploded.'
Ojon expanded into other haircare products in March on QVC, getting an equally enthusiastic response. In December, the company launched the Hydrating Styling Cream and Volumizing Foam. The Shine Serum will be introduced this month, available only at a limited number of outlets including NaturallyCurly.com's CurlMart.
Simioni said one thing has become clear about the market for his products.
'Through our market research, we've found that the No. 1 user of Ojon are people with curly hair,' he said. 'Curly hair is dry hair. To maintain curl, you want to put moisture back in the hair. Ojon does that without weighing it down.'
He said the products can be used to either enhance or smooth curly hair. To straighten, he recommends mixing the Styling Cream with the Volumizing Mousse. For thicker hair, he mixes a little Styling Cream with the Serum. Some even use a small dab of the treatment can as a leave-in conditioner.
All the products contain various concentrations of pure Ojon oil. The treatment is 100 percent Ojon, while the other products contain between 15 percent and 25 percent oil.
As for the products' unique smell, which some compare to incense, Simioni said he initially toyed with processing it in a way that would eliminate the fragrance. But he opted to leave it as it is.
'I didn't want to change a thing,' he said. 'I wanted people to experience the real thing.'
Simioni claims clinical tests prove that the products restore the hair, repairing the cuticle without weighing down the hair. Some people even say it makes their hair grow faster, he said.
Despite the long journey and the hazards he encountered along the way, Simioni says it's all been worth it.
'When people say it's the best product they've ever used, it was worth it that I risked my life,' he said.