In March 2018 I acquired a gorgeous British made Gillette Aristocrat razor from a fellow B&B’er. I loved it from the get-go, for it’s amazing build quality, stunning barberpole looks, and of course for the absolutely stellar and smooth shaves it provides. So not unexpectedly it also provided me with a serious itch for more.
Since then I’ve spent too many hours learning about the strange details of the various razor generations and sets. And I have hunted the BST, various bays, Facebook and all other places I could think of. On top, I’ve proactively reached out to people I know here and elsewhere to collect set parts (razors, cases, blade holders) in an effort to build matching sets from the ground up, based on the knowledge and unique encyclopedia of Achim (www.mr-razor.com) and others here.
So I thought I’d share here with you gentlemen for referencing a bit of background on these wonderful razors and to show in one place some of the official British Aristocrat sets offered back then. But also to illustrate how much help you need if you dive deep into collecting vintages. Help from Achim/mr-razor and help from all the many razor experts and enthusiasts here on B&B, suggesting, teaching, pointing and correcting misunderstandings. And significantly for me, without the huge help of Chris Evatt and Cap Murphy for refurbishings I could not have made it within my budget. Thank you all helpers, enablers, and razor hunters
For sure far from all the British made Aristocrat sets are inhere - over in the big leagues my razor collecting friend and role model Dan holds 31 different sets (and counting) so there’s still a ways for me to go!
What we know about the UK Aristocrats
Considering the British Aristocrat line’s total lifespan of 30 years it is amazing that these razors came in only 4 different models:
- 1st generation razor: Made in the mid-late 1930s. Early ones with patent no 400.621 on baseplate, later ones with 430.030 on baseplate. Some with engravings on the handle, some not (model year variations?). Rhodium or gold plating, early versions available in silver also. Distinguishing feature: The only open comb of the 4 family generations, and with a thicker handle than the same-era Gillette Popular.
- 2nd generation razor: Made in the late 1940s: solid bar, baseplate 430.030. Came in rhodium and possibly gold. Distinguishing feature: Two broad non-knurled bands at each end of the handle (above the TTO knob).
- 3rd generation razor: Made in the late 1940s/early 1950s, solid bar, baseplate 430.030, rhodium or gold plating. Distinguishing feature: The heaviest razor of the generations at 82 grams, 5-10 grams heavier than the others.
- 4th generation razor: Made in the 1950s (1953-58ish), solid bar, rhodium or gold platning. Distinguishing feature: diamond pressed baseplate.
The plot thickens... Those confusing set combinations and numbers!
However... all 4 razor generations came in a bunch of different set combinations with various cases. We don’t even know for sure all the sets/combos made, but we know that each of them typically were coined with a number, e.g. “The #15 set”. And adding to the confusion the same set number and case design over time could include various generations of razors. And it seems in general that Gillette often mixed sets up in order to use up old stocks of particular parts.
On top of these unknowns we even lack historic first hand source information on the overall story of how it came to be that the British Gillette organization for a long period of time from the 1930s through to 1960 took a different design route than the US mother company. I guess the world was less globally standardized in the good old days.
Gillette’s UK factory at Gillette Corner, Great West Road, Isleworth, Middlesex. Inaugurated in 1937 and in operation until 2006, when Gillette moved all production to Poland (photos from 1974, Googleearth photo from 2019, drawing of building layout courtesy of mr-razor)
Quote from the Aberdeen Press & Journal, 07 January 1937: “The new factory is capable of turning out one and a half million safety razor blades per day and 25,000 razors. The factory will supply fifty miles of blade edge each day, one half of which will be exported, and the other sold in Great Britain. Japan is one of the firm's best customers, supplying one of the largest markets for Gillette razors and razor blades.”
My plan was initially to acquire just 4 rhodium razors, one from each generation. But as you can see I have strayed a wee bit from that decision, mainly because I fell in love with the case designs also.
And by the way I have added inhere my 3 Populars. The Gillette Populars were made during the 1930s by the UK Gillette organization alongside the 1st generation Aristocrats. And as they were basically slim handled versions of these I find they deserve to be in here.
Lastly - a huge disclaimer on all Gillette/Aristocrat info listed above/below: There are quite a few MUCH more knowledgable experts on British Aristocrats who will be reading this, so I really hope they will pitch in to comment and to correct any mistakes I have made. I’ve done this write-up to the best of my current knowledge but I am sure that errors have been made and that much more info can be added on top. Thanks upfront guys!
But enough said already, here goes. I hope you enjoy the photos and the razor backstories, some of which I have shared partly in various earlier threads. Except where refurbishments are noted, all razors and cases are in original condition.
1938 Gillette Aristocrat 1st generation #15 OC set, rhodium
Acquired as a full set from a B&B member here. Marked 430.030 on the baseplate indicating that this is a late 1930s production, as mentioned the earlier years have patent no 400.621 on the baseplate. This is the 1st generation razor that I love to use regularly.
I waited long to try these gorgeous open combs as I feared they would be too aggressive for me. They are not! They are wonderful and smooth, even if they have a reputation of being very individual shavers. Probably due to time and individual level of use each specimen shaves a bit different, some milder and others more aggressively. All mine are mild shavers though, my favorite OC. The beautiful thick teeth make them shave like a solid bar razor. To me quite frankly the best looking razor model ever made by any company, bar none, and one of the finest shavers also.
1938 Gillette Aristocrat 1st generation #15 OC French Set Importé D’Angleterre, rhodium
The French market version of the above set is quite unique, with the special print in the case lid and similar engraving on the razor handle. The UK Gillette business in the 1930s offered quite a few of these specially branded French market versions, other examples are Techs, the RFB #77, and the Populars as well (as seen below).
The set in the picture was acquired as a full original set from a seller in Spain, and even came with the nice small partly French language manual. Marked 400.621 on the baseplate indicating that it is a earlier/mid-1930s production year.
1938 Gillette Aristocrat 1st generation #15 OC set, rhodium
This set combination supposedly was made for the Australian market with the bright red cloth interior of the case. Visually the razor is similar to my other #15 OC with no engravings on the handle and with 430.030 on the baseplate. I found this wonderful set recently in Belgium and of course couldn’t pass on it.
1938 Gillette Aristocrat 1st generation #19 OC set, gold
Now, I am a nickel/rhodium guy at heart but there is something about those goldies. Like their US near-cousins very classy looking. Only problem however: As the story goes, Colonial Great Britain had easy access to large rhodium deposites in Africa, so for cost reasons the UK Gillette organization mainly preferred this metal over gold. As a consequence gold clad British Aristocrats were produced in much smaller numbers, resulting in them being equally harder to track down today.
This razor and case I acquired from a most generous B&B’er, when I put up a longshot buy-post in our BST section. The razor is identical to its rhodium sisters but the case is different: It seems to be the same type and size of metal case as the other 1st generation cases but here it comes with a brown pigskin clad exterior. And holding 2 separate gold plated bladebanks inside rather than the built-in flip version seen in the nickel cases.
This razor specimen is absolutely pristine but the case came to me battered, most notably with the leather exterior all cracked and dried up, hence I had to try my best to do significant repairs to the leather. Believe me, this angle shows its best side. Also, the blade banks were missing so I had to find two period correct banks with a friend B&B member in France and have them replated by Chris Evatt to match the great condition of the razor.
Oh, those cases...
The cases of the British Aristocrats are hand crafted wonders in themselves, with their superbly detailed logo enscriptions and bright colored interiors. As the Aristocrats series progressed it is clear to see how much time and effort was continuously put into the intricate case designs.
The first 2 generations mainly came in nickel plated metal cases, then somewhere during the 3rd generation run (in the early 1950s) various leather(ette?) clad cases took over. In the first generation guise most set cases had an intriguing built-in blade holder, where later cases instead would hold one or two separate bladebanks. Then later again (in the 3rd and 4th generations sets) the sets simply included a generic disposable plastic blade dispenser or at best a plated metal cover for the disposable dispenser. I guess an example of the growing Gillette mindset to focus on using disposable generic parts rather than complicated craftsmanship?
... continued ...