Thursday, December 11, 2008

making history, faking history II: the carthusian candidate

A cynic might say that the contemporary art of perfumery consists of putting 50 cents worth of materials into an expensive looking bottle which is then cleverly wrapped into the folds of a prestige brand that will allow charging $80 or $150 or $250 for the product (the price point may be part of the prestige sell). For companies not backed up by a strong designer brand – be it Calvin Klein or Boss in the mass market, or the more upscale Prada and nichey Etro, a flowery history can form the basis of high prestige. Age and continuity in volatile markets have always been considered markers of quality and dependability, and they offer the marketing opportunity of romantic narratives about glamorous dandies, passionate princesses, and secret forgotten prescriptions of eternal youth and beauty.

Monk myths in particular have enjoyed great popularity throughout the history of perfume marketing and they carry a kernel of truth, since monasteries were indeed the keepers of medieval societies’ botanical wisdom and antiquity’s heritage. These were harnessed towards the concoction of medicinal products out of which European perfume culture emerged – Eau de Cologne began its success story as a tonic to be imbibed or inhaled. In fact, the legend of what is Europe’s oldest documented perfume – Eau d’Hongrie or Hungary Water recounts that a hermit monk presented it to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (a composite character uniting different historical figures) with the assurance that it would preserve her perfect beauty forever – which would help explain why the Polish King proposed to her when she was seventy-two.

Variations of this story abound and they frequently feature Carthusians, the herbal cracks among monks who are perhaps best known for their green Chartreuse liqueur. The legend promulgated by the House of Carthusia (as legend) recounts a gift of flowers by the Carthusian monks on Capri to a visiting Queen, which accidentally macerated, turning the flower water into a wonderful fragrance (unlikely when I consider the smell of week-old water in a vase of wilted tulips). The supposedly real history is that the monks’ old recipes were rediscovered in 1948 and were then reissued by a small laboratory in Torino and that the industrial synthetic-natural formulas now marketed under the brand name are made using “the same methods as the Carthusian monks.” I Profumi di Firenze has a remarkably similar secular version of this story in which a pharmacist rediscovered the ancient perfume prescriptions of Catherine of Medici, who is said to have brought culinary and perfume culture from Florence to the French court. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci, known to be ahead of his time, invented the synthetic perfume molecules prominent in this house’s fragrances before they were rediscovered by modern chemistry? Now that would make history and perfumery journal headlines!

The many monks populating perfume mythology raise the question of whether the clergy should be incensed (no pun intended) by these ecclesiastical borrowings for crude commercial purposes? Well, when it comes to matters of business, the spiritual men of the cloth and the monk’s cowl have always taken a rather pragmatic approach themselves. Witness the monks of Caldey island, whose lavender water was highly praised by Luca Turin. If you read the ad copy of retailers such as manufactum, you get the impression that local lavender is lovingly distilled by Brother Lewellyn himself according to some old book of herbal prescriptions. But according to Turin, the formula was actually developed by a professional Belgian perfumer (hopefully Catholic, at least), Hugo Collumbien, who used the finest French lavender from the Vaucluse and provided it with longevity by fixating it with a (nowadays) synthetic musk called Exaltolid. Next time your at the Caldey monastery listen closely whether its really "Exulte Deo" the friars are singing.

But back to the Carthusians and the making of perfume history: one of the best known and for a long time most successful perfume products was 4711. And guess what? Company founder Wilhelm Mülhens acquired the secret recipe for his Eau De Cologne from a Carthusian monk who had fled the chaos of the French Revolution in Grenoble and was taken in by the Mülhens family of Cologne. A different version tells of the valuable scroll having been the monk’s gift on the occasion of Wilhelm Mülhens’ marriage, a scene imagined in the post-WWII painting you can see on the upper left. As it happens, the monk’s name was Farina- the Italian surname borne by the established and reputable cologne-producing families in the city. As Eau de Cologne became big business, it became common practice for Germans to buy the Farina name off Italians in order to establish their own Farina cologne operation. Alas, the historical record shows that Mülhens, listed in the Cologne registry as a “speculator,” bought the name off one Carl Franz Maria Farina in Bonn, Germany, who had been producing Eau de Cologne under the privilege of Franz, Archduke of Austria and Elector of Cologne. Thus 4711 began its history as “Franz Maria Farina” on not-quite-so-Carthusian ground but as a "phony Farina" - in fact he resold the name thirty times to other entrepeneurs. Only when the strenuous efforts of the original Farinas to protect their name resulted in the first pan-German trademark law in 1874 was Mülhens forced to drop the Farina name and adopted the ingenuously recognizable 4711 moniker, leaving the competition behind in the dust as the number became nearly synonymous with German Eau de Cologne in the 20th century and particularly after WWII.

This story leads us to the third part of this little series, in which we will compare the histories and mythologies of the two oldest operating family-owned perfume companies: Farina Gegenüber, makers of the original Eau de Cologne (1709) and Creed (1763), a well-known niche perfume house. We’ll see how Farina’s obsession with presenting facts and Creed’s obsession with avoiding them is deeply rooted in both houses' actual histories and the need to handle them in a way that ensured their economic survival.

1 comment:

Xer Etéreo said...

"A cynic might say that the contemporary art of perfumery consists of putting 50 cents worth of materials into an expensive looking bottle which is then cleverly wrapped into the folds of a prestige brand that will allow charging $80 or $150 or $250 for the product (the price point may be part of the prestige sell)."

Hey! you are atalking about me there!