OVERLOOKING the still, gray waters of the Dead Sea, the hills of Jordan on the far shore shrouded in a heat haze, two men in blue overalls are shoveling mud.
But this is not just any mud. At $3,500 a ton, this mud from the flats around the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, is the prized ingredient that has given a small Israeli cosmetics firm a tiny but growing share of the multibillion dollar international beauty industry.
Using the gray-black, mineral-rich mud, and salts from the Dead Sea waters, Dead Sea Laboratories (DSL), founded by five kibbutzim with capital of just $600,000, has boosted its sales tenfold since it launched its "AHAVA" line of cosmetics five years ago.
The company is continuing a long tradition. Cleopatra used to visit the Dead Sea for her facials, and for her toiletry she prized the balsam that grew at the Ein Gedi oasis, tucked under the bare Judean hills, where DSL digs its mud.
Today, the company pitches AHAVA (the Hebrew word for "love") on the strength of its products' naturalness. The firm's slogan, "your natural beauty from the Dead Sea," was designed to appeal to "the greater awareness of natural products" that emerged worldwide at the end of the 1980's, says DSL President Dan Benayahu.
AHAVA's facial freshener, for example, contains no alcohol. Dead Sea salts, says Director of Operations Aryeh Cohen, "does the job of alcohol for cleansing."
It seems to work. Elizabetta Mussini, a 29-year-old Italian tourist picking through the products on display at the visitor's center here recently, said she was looking for what she always hopes for from a cosmetic, "good skin, and nothing chemical."
Many customers first buy AHAVA products as a gimmick, says Export Manager David Koltin, or as a present for friends at home when they return from a visit to Israel. "Then they are amazed," he adds. "It's actually nice, and they become enthusiastic."
BUT the spectacular boom in sales over the past few years came about only after the firm developed a carefully honed marketing strategy, according to Mr. Koltin.
A predecessor to DSL had been marketing cosmetics based on Dead Sea products for several years, through Helena Rubinstein, and getting nowhere, he recalls. "These are not straightforward products. You can't just put them on a shelf and expect people to know what they are all about," he says.
"How can you persuade a woman to put on her face - the dearest part of her body - a black mud mask from the Dead Sea? It sounds horrible."
So DSL withdrew from the big Israeli department stores to the more intimate atmosphere of pharmacies, and concentrated on providing service at the point of sale. There, trained salespeople could offer samples, explain the products to curious shoppers, and spend time overcoming prejudices about unusual cosmetics.
The effects were dramatic. Sales rose from $625,000 in 1989 to an expected $6 million in 1993, for a profit of nearly half a million dollars, and the company has launched a major export drive that is bearing encouraging fruit.
Exports reached $1 million for the first half of this year - more than in the whole of 1992 - and could be close to $3 million by the end of 1993, company officials predict, with South Korea, the United States, and - surprisingly - the Czech republic, as the three largest markets.
The growing profits have been ploughed back into the company, extending DSL's modest factory and investing in research and development.
Increasingly, those products will be found on foreign shelves. Targeting upscale retail outlets such as Niemann Marcus in the United States, Selfridges in London, and Galeries Lafayette in France, AHAVA is fast becoming an international name.