Argan oil’s rise from local resource to world-wide sensation didn’t happen overnight. It took centuries for the “liquid gold” to become the “new olive oil” for gourmands and the cosmetic industry’s latest it-girl, thanks, in part, to women who perfected their techniques over centuries and a female scientist turned industry-builder determined to protect the environment.

The amber-hued oil originated on Morocco’s Haha Coast and is derived from the fruit of the native argan tree. Since at least 600 BCE, the Phoenicians relied on the oil for healing and beauty. And for centuries since, life in that corner of the world, most notably for the North African Berber people, has been deeply connected to the tree’s deep roots.

The wood and fruit are used for firewood and animal feed respectively, while the kernel is turned into an oil that’s used as a treatment for skin conditions, a beauty aid, and a peanut butter-like paste that is often eaten with bread.

THE NUTCRACKERS

How did the Berber people unearth all of those benefits? For years, the community’s women have sat on the ground in circles pounding stones together to crack the argan nut’s outer shell, believed to be 16 times harder than a hazelnut. Because of the patience and skill required to avoid harming the one to three kernels nestled inside, the task has always been considered women’s work.

But they had a little help to start the process—from tree-climbing goats. Always looking for the next meal, goats would scamper up branches to eat the argan fruit and then expel the nuts.

After retrieving those nuts from the goats' droppings, the shell-cracking began with a technique mastered over centuries and passed down through generations. Grinding, pressing, and toasting (when used for culinary purposes) complete the laborious process to produce one liter of oil—from approximately 250 pounds of fruit, which produce only 4 kilograms of the kernel. 

A PERFECT PRODUCT STORM

As early as the 1500s, efforts were made to introduce argan oil to European markets, but the commodity never took off. In the 20th century, more and more farmers began clearing long-standing argan forests to plant oranges, tomatoes, and other crops seen as more valuable.

That's when national and international organizations stepped in and began taking action to reverse the trend and promote cultivation, including UNESCO, which placed the biosphere the tree calls home under protection in 1998.

Also hoping to protect the crops was Morocco-based science professor and researcher Zoubida Charrouf. She argued that the argan tree was a “green curtain,” vital to keeping the Sahara desert at bay. And she knew that if the region could experience economic benefit from the oil, then demand to plant and maintain healthy trees would also increase.

Her team at Mohammed V University conducted research confirming the oil’s antioxidant-rich properties and pioneered methods for increasing quality and production. Then, in 1996, Charruof founded cooperatives for producing oil. The Moroccan government soon took up the cause launching an initiative to increase production, and in 2009, argan oil applied for Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), the first product of an African nation with such an honor.

Research supporting long-heralded benefits combined with reliable supply chains intrigued the cosmetic industry, from companies like the world’s largest cosmetics brand, L’Oréal, to smaller niche companies.

While the methodology and process vary greatly among producers, most cite the opportunity to support Moroccan women as a prime motivator. In fact, Charrouf believes coops have contributed to shifting attitudes toward women in rural areas working outside the home and receiving an education.

ARGAN OIL’S BEAUTIFICATION

As argan oil gained popularity outside of Morocco, production changed. More and more, the goat step is being skipped in favor of directly picking the fruit from the tree. And integral parts of the process, including the pressing of oil and grinding of nuts, are now completed by machines.

The changes have helped make argan oil the most expensive edible oil in the world, selling at $300 per liter and bringing wealth to families who have access to argan trees, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team of researchers [PDF]. Tourism has also blossomed. In the popular seaside village of Essaouira and the surrounding countryside, signs for women’s coops and stalls selling jars of face cream and vials of shampoo dot the landscape. Today, it is estimated that 5000 women are earning living wages in these cooperatives. And while certain parts of the process have become modernized, there is one element that hasn’t changed: the stars of argan oil’s story. In order to protect the liquid gold inside the shells, groups of women still crack open the hard nut, by hand, sitting together and using rocks as tools.

All images courtesy of iStock.