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Apr 13, 2012
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Ancient Italian perfumer celebrates 400-year anniversary

Apr 13, 2012

FLORENCE - Wafts of perfume thrill visitors as soon as they set foot in the frescoed halls of the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy in Florence, a perfumer to poets, film stars and noblewomen through the ages.

The Santa Maria Novella pharmacy / Photo: Santa Maria Novella pharmacy

The perfumer actually traces its roots back to 1221 by Dominican friars who cultivated medicinal herbs to make potions and balms and the company is housed in mediaeval halls with spectacular views on a cloister in the city centre.

The fame of their 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 (1519-1589) brought a bergamot-based perfume with her called "Eau de la Reine", a revolutionary new fragrance which 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, commercial director.

"Eau de la Reine" is still being produced by Santa Maria Novella, one of the products that has secured the success of the company despite economic crisis times. In 2011, Santa Maria Novella's turnover went up 37 percent.

The centuries-old pharmacy today has an immutable quality to it.

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 the Chinese province of Sichuan.

"I thought it was just a shop before coming here but this is fabulous," she said, as she admired 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.

'Clients getting younger and younger'

The shelves are filled with beauty creams, perfumes, tisaens, 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 4,500-square-metre (48,400-square-foot) space outside of the historic centre, where production is still very much handmade - from making soap bars, to decorating candles, to labelling.

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 the actresses Penelope Cruz and Monica Bellucci, to aristocrats like Princess Caroline of Monaco.

The company does not have to spend anything on publicity. Placement in films such as "Hannibal" with Anthony Hopkins and the 2006 James Bond movie "Casino Royale" help secure a steady stream of aficionados.

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.

The quality comes at a price, however. A small perfume bottle sells for 80 euros ($105) and a pot-pourri - a speciality of the house - is 15 euros.

The cheapest gift? A box of delicious pastilles at five euros.

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