The Cutting Edge

The way things look.
May 7 1998 3:30 AM

The Cutting Edge

Gillette's Mach 3 razor may be flashy, but it works.

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So is this Mach 3 an improvement or a mockery of consumer gullibility? The product itself won't be in stores until summer, so it's way too early to know how the shaving public will respond. I do know that a couple of mornings with the Mach 3 has just about wiped the smirk off my face. The damned thing works.

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Just as the promotional copy promises, I am able to shave with fewer strokes. This shortens an unpleasant activity and spares me those final touch-up strokes that often leave me bleeding.

Since its first safety razor almost a century ago, Gillette has always conceived the actual razor mainly as an inducement for selling replacement blades. Mach 3 represents the culmination of this trend; it's mainly the cartridge that's been upgraded.

Gillette claims 35 improvements beyond the extra blade. Some--such as a colored strip to indicate when the blade needs replacing--are aimed more at beefing up the profit margin than at improving the shave. But others--such as thinner-edged blades with hard coatings and individual, spring-loaded pivots for each blade (with the Sensor, the two blades pivot together)--may, for all I know, be responsible for the razor's improved performance.

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T he razor's body is, functionally, just a handle. But it still needs to communicate that the Mach 3 is worth the extra cost. So Gillette is touting the rubberized boomerangs on its top and bottom as gripping aids, to keep it from slipping in your hands, even though the parallel ridges on the Sensor line probably work about as well. The difference is all in the styling.

Most of the improvements in the Mach 3--the tiny springs and metallurgical manipulations--aren't even visible to the casual shopper. Like the microchip and the altered gene, they fall beneath the threshold of visual perception. With its outward imagery, Gillette is trying to evoke a midcentury aesthetic of progress identified with military might, brute force, and speed. And yet while the Mach 3 looks like a throwback to a time when progress took a back seat to empty stylistic gestures, deep down inside, the razor really does represent an advance.

Thomas Hine is the author of Populuxe and The Total Package: The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Tubes.