The Taste With Vir: Why Napolean preferred Eau de Cologne
In this week’s column of The Taste With Vir, Vir Sanghvi speaks about ancient perfume traditions, Johann (Giovanni) Farina’s Eau de Cologne and how it is just right for the Indian climate.
When you read about (or see movies or TV shows featuring) medieval European characters, there is one detail that might escape you.
Yups. They reeked. A foul, noxious air surrounded them, their armies, their palaces, their cities and even their romances.
Part of it was the lack of sanitation. You would have searched in vain for proper plumbing at Versailles when the Sun King was going about his business. It was said that you knew when you were approaching Versailles from Paris because the strench would hit you first.
And part of it was personal hygiene. In many European countries (and the UK, certainly), they were not keen on bathing till the middle of the 20th Century. In Germany in the 18th Century, for instance, some people avoided water at all times and bathing was not regarded as a necessity.
Over time, I imagine, people got used to the smell. And some famous emperors and generals actually got off on body odour. There is the famous letter from Napoleon Bonaparte to the Empress Josephine telling her not to bathe because he would be home in three days. (The letter is the subject of some controversy but I believe Napoleon’s biographer Andrew Roberts when he says that the Emperor liked body smells.)
But of course, nobody really likes to smell too much like a garbage dump or a public lavatory all the time so the rich found ways of hiding the stink. One reason why the French have such an ancient perfume tradition is that the kings needed to do something to disguise the smell. The same was true of other parts of Europe. (The Arabs, who had difficulty finding water, also developed a distinct perfume culture of their own.)
Among the world’s earliest star perfumers – who created a fragrance that is still on sale today – was Johann (Giovanni) Farina. An Italian who moved to the German city of Cologne in the 18th century, Farina recognised that there was a demand for fragrances from the wealthy. He believed that many of the existing fragrances were too heavy.
There was a reason for this. Most perfume is diluted with alcohol. In those days, pure alcohol was chemically distilled from such sources as potatoes. The process was so primitive that the alcohol usually continued to smell of its original source. As nobody wants to smell like, say, a potato, perfumers would have to create strong scents to mask the smell of the alcohol.
Farina’s idea was to a) use better quality alcohol that did not smell and b) to create a lighter citrusy scent that reminded him of his native Italy. To pander to the local market, he named it after the town he lived in: Cologne.
Not only is it still around but the name has become a generic for a certain kind of fragrance: eau de cologne. Farina’s Eau de Cologne was an instant success in the 18th Century. The German aristocracy loved it and because it was fairly light, dabbed themselves with it every three hours or so to avoid stinking.
One early patron was Napoleon who may have wanted Josephine to smell all-woman but preferred to smell all-perfume himself. Records in the Farina family’s office suggest that Napoleon used one whole bottle of Eau de Cologne a day (yes, a day!) at great cost to his exchequer: a single bottle cost the equivalent of 300 Euros (or ₹23,000) in today’s money and he polished off a bottle every day. Even when he was out riding, for battle or otherwise, Napoleon kept a flask of Eau de Cologne by his side. (Next to the saddle or in a specially made pocket in his boots.)
He was not the only one. The House of Farina’s records show that it exported Eau de Cologne to India in 1776 though, regrettably, they do not tell us who the buyer was. (An empire-building European? A Maharaja? Who knows?) And bottles of Eau De Cologne travelled so swiftly around the world that it soon became the best known perfume of its day.
Which is where the problem began. Farina kept his formula secret but any experienced perfumer could make out what the core ingredients were. There was no copyright protection in those days so Farina was dismayed to find numerous imitators in the market. Some even bootlegged his original fragrance claiming it was made by the House of Farina.
Farina pursued them though the Courts without much success. He won a case against one particularly persistent plagiarist who put the Farina name on his bottles but the plagiarist then hired an unrelated Mr Farina to claim that the fragrance was associated with the name Farina.
Most of these rivalries were forgotten over time but this one has lasted to this day. Farina has lost the right to exclusive use of the Eau de Cologne name – anyone can use it now, and they do. His rival, the plagiarist, eventually created his own brand 4711 after a house number on a Cologne street. While the Farina business (it is now run by the sixth generation) retained a reputation for quality, 4711 with its cheaper prices and (later) mass production soon became a huge brand. During the Second World War, the Nazis gave free bottles of 4711 to sailors on submarines, where it was hard to bathe, to ensure that they did not smell revolting.
Such is the fame and power of the 4711 brand that it has been bought and sold several times (till recently it was owned by Proctor and Gamble) and has managed to convey the myth that it is the original Eau de Cologne. Worse still, most cheap Eau de Cologne made all over the world tries to mimic the smell of 4711 rather than the more complex Farina version. If, like me, you knew the smell of Tata Eau De Cologne as a child, then you know the smell of the 4711 fragrance.
I went to the original Farina factory in Cologne last week (they are still there, still making their trend-setting fragrance) and wondered about the power of branding. The Farinas, who invented Eau de Cologne, and proudly supplied Napoleon, are now just another small fragrance house while others make millions from the Eau Cologne name and various multinationals have studiously built up the 4711 brand. It has got to the stage where ‘Eau de Cologne’ is now often used as a synonym for a low-concentrate scent whereas, in fact, the Farina fragrance is of a much higher concentration.
Some people regard Eau De Cologne as too common a category because it has spread so widely. But I still love good Eau De Colognes. The best version in the world (according to me) is the Chanel Exclusifs version, created by Jacques Polge. At the other end of the price scale is the Cologne Grand Luxe by Fragonard, created by Sonia Constant, which is great value.
Many people think Eau De Cologne is a bit too daytime. They may prefer the dark, coolness of the After Midnight Cologne from The Different Company (the perfumer is Emilie Coppermann). A popular Italian take on the genre is Acqua Di Parma Colonia, first created in 1916, which is very long ago but much, much after Farina and the German original.
An Eau de Cologne is not difficult to make so if you go to a reasonable perfume house you should have no difficulty finding one you like. But steer clear of the cheap stuff and if you can find a bottle of the Farina original, buy it.
It’s just right for the Indian climate.
It was good enough for Napoleon – despite his dodgy views on feminine hygiene – and it should be good enough for us!
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