Diamond or cubic zirconia?

A motivational speech often begins a massage session, during which customers chant "Ceragem!" (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

It's hard to tell if Ceragem really helps people or just sells pricey beds

It's at least an hour before Ceragem opens, but customers are lined up outside the Bandera Road business, waiting to start their day with a heated massage - and, as the company slogan promises, "a better life."

Ceragem, which stands for chiropractics, massage, moxibustion (applied heat stimulation), infrared light, and jade, combines a curved bed with the principles of Eastern medicine. The company literature says the treatment will give users an "intense relaxation session that refreshes body, mind, and spirit."

It is unclear if the Ceragem system, which is part pep rally, part massage, works or if it's merely a medicine show to sell expensive beds.

Inside, a banner hangs on pastel green walls: "Did you Ceragem today?" Each session begins with the owners' motivational speech, accompanied by volunteers playing guitar, on such topics as stress.

"What would work to help alleviate your systems of stress?" ask the owners.

"Ceragem!" the customers reply in unison.

Each session lasts 40 minutes: 30 minutes face-up and 10 face-down. The much-lauded curved bed has roller projectors that move along the body. A thermal massager uses self-rotating, radiant infrared heated jade, purported to warm and relax muscles around the spine and unblock "energy channels."

When I was lying on my back, the moving table arched like a tee-pee, ostensibly adjusting to the curvature of my spine. Employee David Treviño sat by me and concluded that the pain I felt was due to my bad spine (I've never had back problems), not the bed. Any potential side effects were quickly pre-attributed to the body's "natural responses." A "no liability" sign was prominently placed above the owner's desk.

Ceragem makes money from selling the beds. But no employee mentions the price - $2,400 - until after the third visit. That's a lot of money for a bed, especially when you consider Ceragem's two San Antonio locations - Bandera Road and SW Military Drive - are located in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

Founded in South Korea in 1997, Ceragem has more than 130 locations in the United States, 50 that are exclusively Spanish-speaking. According to the company's website, most of the U.S. Ceragems are individually owned, but the company tries to provide a unified marketing strategy. Their motto: "Love, Service, Kindness."

The number of beds Ceragem has sold is a secret, say employees and customer-service representatives from Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Houston, citing privacy and confidentiality rules. "I don't feel like that's any of your business," said Sue Ferguson, owner of a Houston Ceragem, adding, "Are you in contact with the Attorney General's office?"

The Texas Attorney General's office reports that there have been no complaints about Ceragem.

Theresa and Sebastian Kim own the Bandera Road location, which opened in October 2003. Although the couple is from Korea, they speak Spanish almost exclusively, making it difficult for some English-speaking clientele, such as new customer Diane Price, to understand what they're being told. "I wasn't sure what was going on all the time, but the massage was relaxing," she said.

Price noted that the beds initially were uncomfortable, and said she felt uneasy that she was reminded regularly that for Ceragem to work, she must undergo daily 40-minute sessions. She said she didn't know what to think about the singing and chanting.

Janie Baez, a Ceragem customer for more than five months, claims it has alleviated her carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. A friend who reportedly experienced similar benefits referred her to Ceragem; word of mouth is the company's only form of advertising.

Customer Service Representative Haiyan Lin said in a phone interview from the company's Los Angeles headquarters that Ceragem's ideology is, "Try it, you'll want to buy it. We are a business, foremost, but we want you to experience it for yourself - a better quality of life."

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