Eau de Cologne: history of a perfumed hit

Discover the incredible history of the Eau de Cologne

Eau de Cologne has become a must have in perfumery. To some people, it reminds scented memories and apothecary bottles in their grandparents’ bathroom… Eau de Cologne is also and above all a fragrance made of citrus fruits that evokes a refreshing and stimulating pleasure. A light summer scent easily worn by both men and women. We offer you a journey back in time that traces the history of Eau de Cologne, from its origins to its worldwide success.

The eau de Cologne, 300-year-old history

Originally, Eau de Cologne was called “admirable water” or Aqua Mirabilis. It was a perfumed alcoholic solution, produced in the Middle Ages by many Italian monasteries, to which therapeutic virtues were attributed. Back then, we blended alcohol and essences of plants to obtain these waters.

The origin of the real Eau de Cologne

The origin of the real Eau de Cologne remains to this day shrouded in mystery. According to the tales, the recipe of one of these Aqua Mirabilis escaped from the doors of a monastery. An Italian grocer called Giovanni Pablo Feminis seized it before settling in Cologne, Germany, in 1690. Feminis then passed on this recipe to his great grandnephew: the perfumer Giovanni Maria Farina (Jean-Marie Farina).

Seduced by this fresh and light solution, Farina made some changes to the original formula, such as the addition of aromatic essences of lavender and bergamot. Sure of the success of this fragrance, he decided to create a factory in Cologne to manufacture and market his creation. His Aqua Mirabilis di Colonia was born in 1709.

A few months before the sale of his first water, Jean-Marie Farina wrote a letter to his brother where he describes his new creation: “My perfume is reminiscent of a beautiful spring morning after the rain. It is made of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bergamot, flowers and fruits from my native country (…) It refreshes me while stimulating my senses and my imagination “.

A new kind of perfume

Light, translucent and against the flow of the popular heady perfumes used for cleaning at that time, a new kind of perfume was born. Indeed, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, cleanliness is often only apparent. Washing yourself consists of rubbing and wiping with a cloth. We are talking of a time where everything is perfumed: the skin of course, but also clothes, gloves, powders and even tobacco. Houses are overflowing with heavy and heady scents, used to hide bad smells.

From the eighteenth century, ablutions are fashionable again. Baths are recommended by the doctors and washing becomes a pleasant ritual. Heady perfumes are abandoned and everyone is looking for the famous Admirable Eau de Cologne. Jean-Marie Farina (whose name has become more French to get the attention of the gentry) delivers its fragrance throughout Europe. Its name becomes simply Eau de Cologne, as a tribute to its adoption city. For almost two centuries, his perfume will flood the skins and handkerchiefs of the high society.

In Paris in 1806, the grandson Farina creates the Maison Jean-Marie Farina located at 331 rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It is taken over sixty years later by Armand Roger and Charles Gallet. The original formula of this admirable water is given to them and is still marketed today, now called Eau de Cologne Extra-Vieille.

The history of Eau de Cologne is closely linked to Maison Farina, the first factory of this new kind of perfume.

From left to right you will discover the first bottle of Eau de Cologne with its typical tapered shape, the first factory built in Cologne and the decree that has made the Farina family supplier of the Court of Eau de Cologne.

A healing water?

Regarding its success and in absence of regulation, many Eau de Cologne made their appearance under the name of Farina in the late 1700s. However, they had nothing in common with the original company. To distinguish themselves on a competitive market, perfumers claim the incredible virtues of their products. Eau de Cologne acquires a very good medical reputation. Doctors encouraged frictions, ablutions and even put some… in the soup! An explanatory note was even attached to each bottle, detailing the possible uses and effects of this water. Eau de Cologne would cure headaches by inhaling its scent for a few minutes, or still slow down the heartbeat of elderly people who would swallow several drops.

Perfumed medicine

In order to protect himself from diseases, Napoleon munched “Farina ducks”: pieces of sugar soaked in Eau de Cologne. The Eau de la Reine d’Hongrie is a variation based on rosemary. According to legend, it would have allowed the sovereign to regain youth and beauty, and to be proposed by the King of Poland… at over 70 years old.

Yet a major consumer of Eau de Cologne but feeling the scam, Napoleon created the secret remedies commission in 1810. It requires apothecary perfumers to disclose their formulas to judge the veracity of their therapeutic virtues. This decree will formalize the separation of pharmacy and perfumery.

So what Eau de Cologne is made of finally?

This scented water was originally composed of spirit-of-wine, lemon balm water and spirit of rosemary, embellished with essence of bergamot, neroli and lemon.

Eau de Cologne is mainly made of alcohol, which must therefore be highly qualitative. But the core of this scented water comes from its hesperides essential oils. To this alcohol base is added bergamot, lemon, orange, neroli, petit grain, sometimes some aromatics, and orange blossom. An olfactory construction that is not made to last on the skin since these essential oils are extremely volatile. “Soothing” top notes such as orange blossom or lavender and hints of distilled essences are identified.

Success story

To cope with a growing demand, most of perfumers decided to create their own Eau de Cologne. Amber, imperial, with violet of Toulouse or English lavender, Eau de Cologne was revisited and reinvented in a thousand ways. It is exported to America with Eau of Florida and even in Asia in the nineteenth century.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, synthetic ingredients appear. The expensive natural raw materials are gradually replaced and the Eau de Cologne becomes affordable, perfuming therefore a major part of the population. From the 30s, it is the best-selling perfumery product, used by the whole family: men, women and children!

It is at the end of the 70’s that this fragrance begins to be neglected. New generations prefer even more accessible perfumes with a much longer persistence on the skin. But since the beginning of the 2000s, the Eau de Cologne is trendy again. It has been modernized and has found a new audience in a society seeking simpler and reassuring scents.

Today, the name Eau de Cologne is used to define a category of perfume. They contain mainly citrus, neroli, lavender and rosemary essences, dosed at about 5%.

Does the Eau de Cologne remind you of childhood memories? Do you prefer very light fragrances or more concentrated and intense perfumes?

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