ABOARD AMADEUS SILVER II – Women in Napoleon’s days were prone to fainting. After smelling the heavy perfume men and women used to mask their stinky body odor back then, I can sure understand. My head started swirling, too.
“They didn’t shower in those days because they were afraid that water had germs,” said Maria Munoz Orantes, guiding me through the history of Eau de Cologne at the Farina House Museum in Cologne, Germany. “Instead, they used lots of perfume to cover their own personal smell.”
Uncorking a bottle, Marias gave me a sniff of the strong lavender scent used in the ornate Rococo period. “Ladies used to faint because the perfume smell was so strong it would take their breath away,” she said. “This is just a little smell. Think of a whole room filled with people who smelled like this.”
Then along came a perfumer who created a light and fresh scent. It became an immediate and expensive bestseller among nobility. Johann Maria Farina became known as “the father of modern perfume,” Maria said. “He had the absolute nose.”
Although a shore excursion to Farina House wasn’t part of the schedule for the Amadeus Silver II, I decided to go on my own. Cologne is a very walkable city so I headed out with my map and plenty of time to stroll the city.
Creating the new cologne
Born in Italy in 1685, Farina learned the ancient art of perfume making from his grandmother. He moved to Cologne in 1706 to work with his older brother. At the age of 23, Farina created his trademark scent – Eau de Cologne. He set up his fragrance company in 1709.
In something new for the time, Farina was able to recreate the identical, unmistakable scent time after time. In the early 18th century, it was scarcely conceivable that a perfume would always smell the same.
“My fragrance is reminiscent of a spring morning after the rain: of orange, lemons, grapefruit, bergamot and blossoms,” Farina described. “A sheer symphony of scents … It gives me great refreshment, strengthens my senses and imagination.”
The unisex fragrance is made from essences of lemon, orange, bergamot, mandarin, lime, cedar and grapefruit. “That is still how it is made today,” Maria said. “He named it after his new hometown – Eau de Cologne.”
Farina’s scent became a favorite of nobility. “Napoleon ordered 30 bottles a month,” Maria said. It is said that the famous emperor used the fragrant water extravagantly and supposedly had special boots designed where he could stash an emergency bottle of cologne.
Over the years, Eau de Cologne has compiled a long list of famous clients, including Casanova, Voltare, Balzac, Madame Dubarry, Mozart, Kaiser Wilhelm, Thomas Mann, Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Disraeli, Konrad Adenaur, Marlene Dietrich, Indira Gandhi, Princess Diana, Bill Clinton and many more.
“This is the same place where the same family has made the same product for more than 300 years,” Maria said.
Farina House tours tell of cologne’s history
Pre-scheduled tours are offered of the perfume shop’s museum, which is far larger than it looks with exhibits both upstairs and downstairs. Among the wonderful memorabilia are exquisite silver goblets from which Ludwig II of Bavaria drank as a guest at the perfumery. In the 18th century, making a purchase at the Farina House was an art form.
A sad display in the museum contains one large barrel. Eau de Cologne has to mature for two years before it can fully unfold its fragrance. Originally only barrels made from the wood of Lebanon cedars were used for storage.
“Farina had 12 barrels and he called them his 12 disciples,” Maria said. “Only one barrel is left. The rest were destroyed by bombing during the war.”
One of my favorite pieces in the museum is a Portuguese desk where Farina worked until 1760. He kept all the company records and wrote dozens of letters every day. Today, Farina’s archives are the largest and most complete business records in Europe.
At the end of his life, Farina could boast that he had supplied Eau de Cologne to the rich and famous of his era. “There is no imperial or royal house in Europe that I did not supply,” he wrote shortly before his death.
Of course, with such success came many imitators, our guide said. The museum showcases criminal stories of counterfeiters from the time when brands had no legal protection.
Besides the wonderful scent, J.M. Farina’s Eau de Cologne can be identified by two marks. The first trademark registered under the German law on trademark protection of 1875 is the Rococo-style flourishes of Farina’s signature on the label.
The other symbol is the red tulip. In the 17th century, the tulip was a precious item that bloomed in the gardens of Turkish palaces. The Dutch paid huge amounts of money for a bulb of this beautiful flower. Desiring an image of great beauty, rarity and expense for his trademark, Farina chose a red tulip.
When I was walking to the Farina House on my own, it was easy to recognize my destination from a block away. The big red window awnings and the shop windows have the easily recognized tulip symbols.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch