Wafts of perfume thrill visitors as soon as they set foot in the frescoed halls of the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy in Florence, Italy, a perfumer to poets, film stars and noblewomen through the ages.
The perfumer actually traces its roots back to 1221 by Dominican friars who cultivated medicinal herbs to make potions and balms. The company is housed in medieval halls with spectacular views on a cloister in the city center.
The fame of its products soon spread beyond the walls of the monastery and in 1612 the pharmacy opened its doors to the public under the patronage of the Medici family, which became an ambassador for the brand in royal courts.
When she married French King Henry II, Catherine de Medici brought a bergamot-based perfume with her called “Eau de la Reine,” a revolutionary new fragrance that became wildly popular at the royal court.
“Perfumes were mixed with oil or vinegar before, but the monks had the intuition to use alcohol. ‘Eau de la Reine’ was the first famous European perfume to be produced with alcohol,” said Gianluca Foa, the pharmacy’s commercial director.
“Eau de la Reine” is still being produced by Santa Maria Novella, one of the products that have secured the success of the company despite the troubled world economy. Last year, Santa Maria Novella’s turnover went up 37 percent.
The windows and the counter are unchanged since 1612, even though the Dominicans were forced to leave in 1886 when the Italian state seized the monastery as part of a large-scale confiscation of church property.
It was then sold to the nephew of the last Dominican abbot and four generations of that same family have run the company ever since.
Eighty percent of the company’s clients now are foreign — like Sabrina from China.
“I thought it was just a shop before coming here, but this is fabulous,” she said, admiring the frescoes.
Different products sell better in different countries. Calendula cream sells well in China, mint geranium pastilles in Japan, idralia cream in South Korea.
The firm has also invested in refurbishing the deconsecrated church next door, San Niccolo, into a very special kind of archive.
The shelves are filled with beauty creams, perfumes, liquors and candles, all wrapped in simple yet elegant packaging.
Many of the ingredients come from Santa Maria Novella’s own plantations of medicinal herbs — far from the monastery garden walls.
The main laboratory is a 4,500m2 space outside of the historical center, where production is still very much handmade — from making soap bars, to decorating candles, to labeling.
Soap bars — like rolls of cheese — are dried out for two months in large airing cupboards before being sold off around the world.
The complexity of the production methods and the expense of the raw materials also help ensure there are few counterfeits around.
Santa Maria Novella’s discreet quality has attracted big names over the centuries: from the poets Dante and Lord Byron to actresses Penelope Cruz and Monica Bellucci, to aristocrats such as Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Santa Maria Novella has 200 outlets, including in Auckland and Hong Kong.
“Today, Santa Maria Novella’s clients are getting younger and younger. It’s good. They transmit the enthusiasm for our products and they live longer,” said Eugenio Alphandery, the company’s chief executive.