by Andrea Molina
photography by Brandi Peters
Walk into any nail salon and you’re immediately hit with the scent of polish, acetone, and fruity lotions. Soft music fills the air and tensions evaporate as you ease into a beyond-comfortable chair to have your nails buffed, polished and pampered. The buzz of electric nail files and small-talk between nail-techs and customers create a sonic blur as you await the magic your tech will create on the blank canvases at your fingertips.
Nowadays, nail salons offer a range of services, from simple manicures to intricate nail art that can be customized to fit any occasion or personal style. Nail art has evolved into much more than a fashion statement in recent years. It’s become a form of self-expression, with designs and colors reflecting each customer’s personality and mood. Nails, as my mother used to say, are your first cover letter, or the first thing people notice about you when you meet someone new, as you typically greet by shaking hands.
Taking care of your nails not only enhances your appearance but also shows that you pay attention to details and have good hygiene habits, which can have a positive impact on your personal and professional relationships.
In recent years, one of the main transformations in the American nail industry is the introduction of generations of Vietnamese immigrants who have brought their own techniques and styles. Vietnamese-owned nail salons are now common in many cities across the United States. According to Adele Pham’s documentary, “NailedIt: Vietnamese & the Nail Industry,” more than 50 percent of nail salons in the United States are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, and 79 percent of salon workers are foreign-born, predominantly Vietnamese.
This phenomenon dates to the 1970s, when many Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States and sought economic survival in the nail industry. It was a trade that did not require being fluent in English or having a degree in higher education. The industry welcomed hard-working foreigners with open arms. Over time, this led to the establishment of Vietnamese-owned nail salons across the country. The legacy of Vietnamese immigrants in the nail industry is a testament to their resilience and determination to build new lives for themselves in America.
Additionally, the influence of Black women on nail artistry cannot be overemphasized. Black women pioneered incredibly intricate designs that often were popularized by mainstream celebrities. Embellishments such as rhinestones, glitter, and 3-D art were introduced by women of color and rapidly gained popularity. Their influence has not only transformed the beauty industry but also empowered women of color to express themselves creatively through their nails.
When it comes to choosing a new nail salon, customers prioritize certain qualities above all else. A sanitary environment is essential, as it ensures that tools and surfaces are clean and free from harmful bacteria. Proper ventilation is also crucial, as it helps to maintain a comfortable and healthy atmosphere for both customers and employees. Fair pricing is another important factor, as customers want to feel that they are getting good value for their money. Good customer service is also highly valued, as it fosters client loyalty and promotes business expansion.
Working in nails is a family tradition for some nail technicians in La Verne. “I owe my career to my mother,” says Cici, a nail technician at Ins Nails. “She taught me how to master nails since I was a little girl.”
“My favorite clients are the ones who are not afraid to push the limits,” says Tony, a technician from another La Verne establishment, Tranquil Nails and Spa. “With trends changing every day, there is never a boring day at work.” Many nail technicians enjoy challenging themselves with unusual requests and seeing the joy on their clients’ faces when their vision comes to life.”
Today, an entry-level nail technician—even one with limited English—can earn up to $40,000 per year in the United States, according to a recent Daily Beast article.
Tony remains a favorite among clients at Tranquil Nails and Spa. Customers claim he can recreate any image they show him. “No one matches Tony’s expertise when it comes to nail designs,” says Rosario Melara. “Once I found him, no one else has ever done my nails.”
Along with his talent, clients adore Tony for his amiable personality and the advice he offers regarding nail health. His passion for nail care is evident in the personalized service he provides, ensuring that each client leaves feeling pampered and satisfied.
“I understand that going to a nail salon can be stressful for some customers,” Tony says. “My goal is to recreate any image my clients show me while making the experience as enjoyable as possible.”
Meanwhile, at La Verne’s Nailspa Excel, two of the most requested technicians are Tan and Karina. Both, say their clients, pay a great deal of attention to detail. Customers also praise their friendly and welcoming personalities, which make the overall experience at Nailspa Excel enjoyable and relaxing. “I’ve never come across a nail design that was too bizarre or complicated to create.”
Just down Foothill Boulevard is another one of La Verne’s salons: Ins Nails, the newest of the three businesses, where customers have come to adore technicians Cici and Silvia. Many claim Silvia has the gentlest hands, while Cici is known for her creativity and one-of-a-kind nail designs.
Nail art can often seem just a luxury industry. But for many—especially those who work diligently in the trade—it is a passion as well as a source of income.
As Tan says. “One of the best things about my job is being challenged by unusual nail requests from my customers. It keeps my job interesting.”