It isn’t often that one can say that an experience was shared with Napoleon, Mozart, and all the royalty of Europe. And yet, when I step into the Farina House in Cologne, that is exactly what I am able to do. As I walk upstairs for my private tour, I am sprayed with a small spritz of eau de cologne, a fragrance that was developed here in this very building. This scent has been worn by those famous people, and more, in a recipe that has been constant since 1709.
The German city of Köln is known in English and French as Cologne. Cologne is also the general term for men’s perfume (though it is explained to me on my tour that the technical difference between cologne and perfume is simply strength, and that either can be worn by any gender). This place is the reason. In 1709, Johann Maria Farina, an Italian perfume maker, opened his shop here in Cologne, becoming the first to mass-produce a fragrance that remained constant. (Prior to this, scents were made in small batches, and were unrepeatable, using different ingredients and ratios year to year.) In an era of a lack of bathing, where perfume was a necessity, his eau de cologne, water of Cologne, was an instant success, and his clientele soon included basically every European noble and person of import.
A tour of Farina House walks visitors through the history of the family, of perfumery, and even includes smell tests of various oils used in the signature brand here. (The full recipe is still a family secret.) My guide is none other than Johann Maria Farina himself – an actor, obviously, but one so dedicated that he answers all questions in character. Together over the course of an hour, we explore some fascinating aspects of the Farina family and process. All the while, my guide shares stories from the 300 plus years of history of eau de cologne.
One terrific set of glass cases shows the history of the various bottles used by Farina over the centuries. The originals were green, not to protect the valuable liquid inside – a bottle that would today cost €60 or so detailed in the day for the equivalent of €2000! – but because the glass was of poor quality. Today’s bottles are all clear so that consumers can appreciate the color of the perfume inside, though colored bottles would help protect it for longer. In the 20th century, Farina even took to having artists design bottles, including Kandinsky!
Farina discusses some of the clientele. A local noble would purchase an average of 40 bottles per month; it is no wonder he died in poverty. Napoleon had a special bottle holder fitted into his boot so that he could carry his Farina with him even in battle. Princess Diana was a regular user, and it is the scent worn by modern politicians like Bill Clinton. Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe… all adorned themselves in the Farina eau de cologne.
The highlight of the tour is in the basement, inside part of what was once the factory. (Farina is currently produced in the outskirts of Cologne, and is still owned by the Farina family.) Here, my guide puts traces of oils on little smelling sticks, and I attempt to guess what they are. Jasmine and some of the citrus scents are easier; violet and ambergris stump me completely.
The building itself retains only a small portion of the original facade, as World War Two bombing nearly destroyed the whole block. It is also only a small bit of what was once a large – at least for the time – factory floor filled with distillation equipment, master perfumers, and an all-female workforce.
As the tour ends, I visit the gift shop, eager to bring small carry-on sized bottles home as presents. Sizes range from tiny €8 bottles to huge, but still hold the same famous scent from centuries ago, adorned with the same tulip logo. (There is no tulip in Farina eau de cologne, but tulips were seen as being expensive in the eighteenth century, so the logo simply represents that luxury quality.)
While Cologne is home to many options for visitors to experience, this one is unique. The Farina House is the birthplace of modern perfume, and traces a history that is fascinating, not to mention a clientele that is a pretty awe-inspiring who’s who list of European and world culture. And I am now part of that lineage.
A huge thank you to Farina House for hosting me, and for your generous gift bag as an unexpected souvenir.
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