Pillars of biodiversity: Growing orchids for beauty

  • Style
  • Tuesday, 04 Feb 2014

A nature reserve in Yunnan is committed to growing rare orchids for a French beauty brand.

IN A remote area in the south of Yunnan in China, between the borders of Myanmar and Laos, lies a plot of rainforest that is being sustained as a farm and unique research centre.

On this 600ha of land, at an altitude of 1,600m, 3,000 young orchids are planted each year. This is the TianZi Biodiversity Nature Reserve where orchids flourish in their natural environment, without pesticides or fertilisers.

Here, the Vanda Coerulea and the Gold orchid, the latest find and a key ingredient in French beauty brand Guerlain’s newest anti-ageing skincare, are protected and cultivated.

Founded by the late Dr Joseph Margraf, a renowned German biologist, and his wife, Minguo Li-Margraf, the centre began research on orchids in collaboration with Guerlain 12 years ago.

TianZi, together with the Experimental Garden in Switzerland and the Basic Research Laboratory in Strasbourg, France, forms the core of the Guerlain Orchidarium, a research centre where botanists, biologists, chemists and pharmacologists gather to exchange and interpret findings on this formidable flower.

“Joseph was sent to China in 1997 by the German government for scientific work on rainforest protection,” said Li-Margraf at an interview in Kuala Lumpur last December. Dr Margraf had worked for the EU and UNDP, and prior to his posting to China, he was in the Philippines for many years, working on biodiversity.

Li-Margraf, a former journalist, met him in 1999 at an ambassador’s party and it was love at first sight. They were marrried in 2000 and they settled down in her hometown in Yunnan.

Make up the active ingredients in Guerlain’s Orchidee Imperiale.

In 2010, Dr Margraf died of a heart attack and today, his wife, who lives at the reserve with their two young daughters, continues his work and heads the TianZi reserve.

“We always choose an orchid with three things in mind: sort, soul and spirit. How an orchid looks like is the ‘sort’, how molecules grow is the ‘soul’ and the energy level of the orchid is the ‘spirit’,” she explained.

The Gold orchid (dendrobium chrysotoxum, which means “golden seed from the tree of life”) is a resilient orchid that keeps its vital force intact thanks to its tough and waxy leaves, watertight bulbs and delicate featherweight roots.

Li-Margraf said that it releases a strong honey and waxy scent, and she always looks forward to collection time as the bouquet evokes happy feelings all around.

The vital force properties in these yellow gold leaves make up the active ingredients found in Guerlain’s anti-ageing skincare brand, Orchidee Imperiale.

According to Anne-Sophie Sauvage, skincare group manager for Guerlain International marketing team, the Guerlain Basic Research lab had the Gold orchid in mind without knowing what to do with it. It was only last year that researchers found scientific evidence that proved Dr Margraf was right in his choice of the flower.

“We were shocked to see how this emerging field of bioenergy science and our discovery of the Gold orchid was like a lock and key, meant to be together. We discovered that the properties of the flower can trigger the repair mechanism for cellular bioenergetic network,” Sauvage said.

According to Guerlain, analysing the workings of energy flow in living systems is essential to understanding all the phenomena that govern life. It is this understanding that led to the development of a science that opened new horizons for the biology and medicine of the future – cellular bioenergetics.

“It isn’t difficult to grow orchids but it needs its natural environment before it can be planted. Hence, we had to plant the forest first and then only will the orchids thrive. Once the orchids are fertilised, it spreads seeds which fly through the air and cling onto the trees,” explained Li-Margraf.

“It is a tropical reforestation programme of a whole forest that provides the setting for the protection of the orchids, and encourages the preservation and replanting of wild orchids in their natural environment.”

Sauvaged added that orchids are the pillars of biodiversity.

Minguo Li-Margraf is the co-founder and head of TianZi Exploratory Nature Reserve.

“When orchids thrive in a forest it reflects how healthy it is,” she said.

“All plants can be grown in labs or nurseries, but the molecules from the most active part of the flower is not comparable to one grown in its natural environment,” Li-Margraf elaborated. When an orchid is grown in the wild, it contains all the “messages” from that natural landscape. An orchid grown in a nursery contains the same molecules but it would be of a different quality.

TianZi exclusively supplies to Guerlain and it takes 10,000 orchids for 1kg of raw material, from which it obtains only a few molecules.

“It is that passion for finding the best raw materials for our products that sets Guerlain apart. We even went to Siberia to find bear grease for balms that we were making. In this venture with TianZi, we were looking for the best orchid so it was just a natural evolution of the brand,” said


In 2011, a fire ravaged TianZi and Li-Margraf was at the reserve when it happened. She was quickly bundled into her car by a group of German scientists to keep her safe.

“With 60% of the reserve destroyed, it was a huge setback for all the work we had done. Fortunately, the area where the orchids for Guerlain were growing was spared. The Chinese government has since launched a new regulation prohibiting burning in our area,” she said.

“At first, all we cared about were the plants, but now, we learn to care about people. Guerlain really understands the importance of nature and while it benefits from it, the brand believes in the need to treat it kindly. Making money is part of business and survival, but how you make money is important,” Li-Margraf concluded.

Renewable energy

Guerlain's first Orchidee Imperiale skincare cream was launched in 2006, introducing its active ingredients of Imperial Orchid Molecular Extract (the I.O.M.E.).

Today, the third generation of I.O.M.E. comes in the form of Guerlain’s latest Orchidee Imperiale Eye and Lip Cream.

Guerlain Orchidee Imperiale Eye and Lip Cream.

According to the brand, it is based on the same discovery and principles of effectiveness, but the difference is that it incorporates the Gold orchid technology, based on the medical research on cellular bioenergetics.

Cellular bioenergetics has allowed an understanding of how mitochondria – responsible for providing the skin cells with energy – function in a powerful information exchange network to produce, regulate and distribute this energy at the right time and place.

Based on this knowledge, Guerlain Research has proven that with age, deterioration of the mitochondrial network impairs the skin cells capacity for renewal. With the Gold orchid technology, Guerlain demonstrates that mitochondria, treated with molecules from orchids, are able to join together again, recreating the network and reactivating their energy production.

In a nutshell, the Gold orchid technology promotes cell regeneration for visible action on tissue firmness and density, fine lines and wrinkles, and skin radiance and evenness.

The Guerlain Orchidee Imperiale Eye and Lip Cream is priced at RM626 (15ml). Available at Guerlain counters.

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