My nails are small, neat, and would grow into perfect little long ovals if I spent my life being waited on by turban-wearing silk-gowned handsome young men and had an army of slaves to carry out my smallest whim. Alas rather than being ‘she who must be obeyed’ I am ‘she who is very cack-handed’. A combination of clumsiness, the tragedy of having to earn my keep and to be frank sporadic drunkenness, means that left to their own devices my nails break. My nails are prima donnas, they will break at the worst times almost on a whim. In recent years I do not remember a time when I didn’t have at least one stubby broken nail. When most of the others are long it is like having a broken tooth, but on your mitts.
My maxim in most things has always been, if you don’t have it: fake it. The alternative artificial route for nails has been for years not particularly effective. Those silly little stick on bits of plastic for example that are even more delicate than delicate nails. I recall hearing various horror stories: the girl on a date that ran her hands through her chap’s hair, leaving most of her fake nails behind, or the woman who accidentally melted them into a blob whilst barbecuing. More recent technology such as the acrylic tips glued and melded onto nails looked bulky and required upkeep. A ridge in these nails between acrylic and nail bed looked like a positive furrow. There are also horror stories about acrylic nails being caught and the real nail being ripped off along with the fake one. Ouch.
I had therefore written off the idea of artificial nails until talking to a vintage inclined friend. She sported a lovely set of neat shiny nails and I was envious. It transpired they were false, or rather enhanced. These were ‘gel’ nails. A resin is applied over the top of the nail which forms a barrier. Nails can still be lengthened, a thin acrylic tip is attached and the gel applied over the top to bond it. The technology involved was developed as a side effect of orthodontic developments. Some of you might be surprised to hear that the brand name of, for my money the best nail varnish ‘OPI’ actually stands for: ‘Odontorium Products Inc’ as the company originally produced dental products. There is quite a history of co-operation between dental and nail practices, but would having gel nails be as painful as a trip to the dentist?
Advertisement for gel nail products.
The advantages of gel nails are apparently that they are thinner than previous nail enhancers, extremely strong and very natural. As a transparent coating the nail underneath can grow so you see the natural nail tip beneath. Although they still require regular visits (every 2 weeks or so) to fill in the space at the base as it grows this is not too obvious, especially when camouflaged with a deep red varnish. My friend’s nails looked so good I thought I would, for the first time in my life give the nail parlour a visit.
I’m based in London and not being able to afford the travel, time and expense of a top notch West End Salon I opted for the inner city cheapo version. There are constants to these it seems. They are staffed by Vietnamese nail technicians and pepper some of London’s rougher streets. They are cheap but not necessarily cheerful. Typically there is a row of tables on one side of the room and a row of foot baths on the other for pedicures. Usually you can drop in but most will take appointments. Many only take cash, and a few are rumoured to be money laundering operations for organised crime.
Glamourous Tooting, Elizabeth Arden it ain't!
So what is the experience actually like? Well it is not a spa, rather the idea is quick, cheap and basic. Most of the staff have very basic English, so “u wa ha” means “please wash your hands”. Usually a manager is more fluent. Whilst having your nails done dramatic expressions and flourishes of conversation will pass between the Vietnamese staff none of which makes any sense. You cannot help wondering if they are talking about you. It is all distinctly down market. However the technicians get on with their job in a brisk manner and if you don’t need small talk are perfect. If you use the same place a few times they get friendlier, talk a little about themselves and the sense of humour and camaraderie between them becomes clear. There is also an obvious pride in their handiwork despite the fact that they work hard and I imagine are not highly paid.
Once seated your fingers are aggressively shaped and smoothed with a series of little electric sanders which grind your cuticle into oblivion and you may find your fingers and arms tugged and moved around. They are not delicate and there can be the occasional ‘ouch’ factor, it has to be said the nail ladies are a bit gentler than the boys. Then the powdered resin is added to some kind of acetone like chemical liquid and the technician very skilfully dabs and paints it over the nail. It solidifies very quickly and the process always fascinates me. Then there is more sanding and shaping followed by your chosen nail varnish, and an interminable wait for them to dry under a nail dryer. This is only leavened by the opportunity to stare at the ‘nail art’ options available displayed on hundred of little painted nails hanging on the walls. Some are grotesque, Burberry checks, encrustations of gems and Chanel links. Others, such as the art deco sprayed fans are almost tempting. Finally you escape, £18.00 - £20.00 poorer plus a generous tip to the technician (it is how they make their living).
Burberry checked chavtasia
But these are almost appealing
There are negative elements to the process apart from the time and expense. The salon can be wearing, I hate seeing rows of women having old skin sanded from their feet. Euww! The place I use fortunately has the manicures sitting with their back to the pedicures. In some places hygiene levels would not satisfy the fastidious. Although as there is no blood involved, plus hand washing and tons of vicious chemicals I feel the chance of infection is lower than shaking hands with a baby. In any case British nail salons have to be licensed which involves meeting basic safety standards. The social atmosphere varies, at it’s worse it will be stuffed with loud ladies yelling into their mobiles and their offspring stuffing their faces with MacDonalds in the waiting area.
More often it is a melting pot of sorts attracting a surprising variety of customer. Clients range from those wanting simple tasteful French manicures to the full Sarf London talon; painted, an inch long and accompanied by several tattoos and a lot of gold. You get groups of ladies in hijabs having their nails done, women off on holiday and brides to be, young girls being treated and jolly mums escaping from the kids. It can be very convivial, the nail dryer wait is boring and conversations over the driers pass the time, as you can’t read and the nail display rapidly loses its appeal. I have been given sweets and heard various snippets of people’s lives and frustrations. It is a also a delightfully feminine environment and the male staff have to endure a certain amount of teasing, most of which they don’t, fortunately, understand.
The wall of nails.
The result, of course is paramount. I do emerge with the most perfect nails. They look neat and very natural. Although they feel odd for the first 20 mins or so they soon feel like your own nail. Additionally they become very hard and resilient, typing, picking at labels and all the things that might break your nails simply don’t. Another massive advantage is the varnish they apply. Something magical in the way they do it means it simply doesn’t chip. It may be that the gel nails don’t bend or move as much as natural ones. This is a real blessing, the colour literally stays put until it wears off, and then it is feasible to simply paint another colour over the top, as the nail surface is so smooth. The disadvantage is that they do need to be filled in every couple of weeks although if you go in for a repaint for a fiver, they smooth the gap down which can extend this period. Also you have to have the resin ground down in the salon if you want it removed and for a while after this the natural nail will feel and be a little weak.
Ultimately you do get lovely nails, which are tough, will not chip and look natural. However they do look so neat with their perfect cuticles that your friends rapidly grow suspicious. You can also be ambitious; things such as vintage style half-moon nails are easy for the nail parlour but very tricky at home. It is also nice to be able to completely change the looks of your nail from month to month. I have noticed however that not all salons are equal; some make the gel nails a bit too thick for my liking. The place I use now, ‘Gigi Nails’ in Tooting have a lighter touch and make the tips thinner which although not looking any better are more natural. In short I would recommend gel nails if you have the time and money to spare and want pretty digits.
Any questions/comments would be delightful. I hope everyone is well and looking forward to their Autumns! x