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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sweet Success

When Irina Eldarkhanova was a student of the Leningrad Institute of Textiles and Light Industry passing through Moscow on a Valentine's Day back in the 1970s, she had some time to kill before catching her train back to the northern capital and decided to watch the changing of the guard at Lenin's mausoleum. She never imagined that it would lead to marriage and a move to Grozny with a man she would meet on Red Square that day.

And the Khabarovsk native never expected her career to take off in Chechnya. Initially "terrified" to move to a republic of a different culture and faith, at 22 she became the youngest head engineer of any clothing enterprise in the republic and, at 28, the youngest director of the Chechen-Ingush republican clothing company.

Now, following another twist of fate, she is a chocolatier of international acclaim who makes such fancy presents as a chocolate gas station for Roman Abramovich and a chocolate chess set for Garry Kasparov.

"I've been guided by chance as well as choice," said Eldarkhanova, 51, who founded the Confael chocolate company in 2001.

Today, Confael sells its unique produce -- from handmade chocolates to chocolate paintings and statues -- in 16 boutique shops, planning to soon open 10 more in regional centers all over Russia.

"We ship gifts to the most spoiled people from all over the world," said Eldarkhanova.

Eldarkhanova moved to Moscow with her family in 1994, just a month before the Chechen war began -- they planned to only stay for a year, but the conflict kept them in the capital and the clothing business was abandoned for good. She started importing chocolate from abroad and selling it to Russian distributors. After figuring out that regional distributors make the largest buys in August when the weather is cool enough to ship, she made a large purchase in August 1998: "At the time of the 1998 default, we had literally tons of chocolate that halved in price before our eyes."

Even after such a serious test, Eldarkhanova decided to start her own chocolate production together with her husband, a scientist.

"The best decision we ever made was not to produce for the mass market," she said. In what other industry leaders considered an irrational leap of faith, she focused on premium and luxury chocolates. The company developed and patented technology for casting chocolate sculptures (such as the nude pictured on page 15).

"One of our first sculpture concepts was the chocolate 'key to success,'" she said. "We couldn't get it right for six months -- every time the mold opened, the key would explode or crack into pieces."

After mastering the key to success, the artist team came up with chocolate paints -- berry extracts mixed with chocolate -- and started painting landscapes and portraits. Perhaps borrowing from her past career in clothing, Eldarkhanova's company unveils seasonal collections like a fancy couturier.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Eldarkhanova's company makes gifts such as chocolate chess sets. As a material, she says, chocolate holds positive energy.
"There are many meanings to our work," she said. "As a material, chocolate holds a lot of positive energy.

"Chocolate brings happiness on a chemical level, but it also carries the energy of the artists."

Every Thursday Confael artists at the company factory in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, get together to discuss new projects, as many as 10 or 15 at a time.

Eighty percent of Confael's products are presents, personalized for their recipients. Sculptures can last for a decade and are good to eat for one year.

The fact that chocolate is food seems almost an afterthought for Eldarkhanova.

"Sometimes we get a call from someone who received a sculpture or their portrait and they want to know what to do -- a year has passed, they are not sure the chocolate is still good, etc. I say to them: 'Look at it, this is art, and you want to know if it's edible! You are here in chocolate, think about it!'"

It seems hard to resist, however -- the chocolate lion in Confael cafe on Nikitsky Bulvar has mysterious scratches and missing bits.

Some people in the industry are skeptical of Confael's penchant for making art.

"I think Ms. Eldarkhanova ventured too far from business into art, although Confael can still go back to its original idea of selling handmade chocolates through a chain of boutique shops," said Alexander Pavlov, managing director of RKF (Ruza Confectionery Factory). "Irina Eldarkhanova is a very energetic person: She is sure of herself and is not afraid to promote herself and her company. This energy guarantees her success," he added.

Asked what advice she would give budding entrepreneurs and people scared to make a career change, Eldarkhanova said: "I don't think it matters what you do -- you can make clothes or chocolate -- the important part is that you keep your sense of freedom and be ready to take risks."

The risk of making expensive chocolate seems to have paid off: Clients range from ambassadors to actors who make personalized orders for their friends. When cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich received a Confael chocolate cello, he liked it so much that he ordered another one for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

"Our customers may be rich and famous, but they are also people who are often in a bad mood," Eldarkhanova said. "I don't think my business is chocolate, my business is human relations."