An interview with Johann Maria Farina

    by Tom Clark, 18 June 2009

    An interview with Johann Maria Farina
    For any perfume lover, the Farina Haus at Obenmarspforten 21 in Cologne, Germany is something of a shrine – the birthplace of Eau de Cologne, a revolution in perfumery, and the seat unto this day of the world’ oldest fragrance house, Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichsplatz, founded in 1709. Formerly also the site of its production, it now houses a spacious store, as well as a museum which features an impressive array of historical artefacts and documents. After a guided tour by “Johann Maria Farina” (1685-1766), garbed in resplendent Rococo attire, I was led through an inconspicuous door to the office of the present-day Johann Maria Farina, managing director and direct 8th generation descendant of his namesake.

    The 300th anniversary of the firm is keeping him extremely busy these days, but he graciously shared two hours of his time to talk Eau de Cologne, past and present. Besides personally handling the blending of bases and essential oils, the trained perfumer and pharmacist has always been concerned with setting the historical record straight and protecting the Farina name from a seemingly never ending stream of plagiarizers, of which 4711 is only the best-known. Not surprisingly our conversation thus began with a friendly correction of the basenotes fragrance pyramid which falsely identified rose as an ingredient of Farina Gegenüber Eau de Cologne (an error that can be traced back to the H&R perfume guide)…            

    Tom Clark: Most fragrance pyramids tend towards fiction anyway, don’t they? Few houses openly admit to the use of synthetics, for example.

    Johann Maria Farina: Well, you don’t want to lay all your cards on the table, but the fragrance pyramid does have the advantage of helping consumers to picture a fragrance. If you take Dior’s Eau Sauvage, which contains a synthetic iso-jasmonate that creates a jasmine note – it’s legitimate to put “jasmine” in the pyramid, even if the actual substance is not natural. The phenomenal aspect about this is that Eau Sauvage could not have come into existence without this synthetic. The same with Chanel No. 5 [and aldehydes]. And in our case it is the bergamot, which began to be cultivated 20 years – at the earliest – prior to the invention of our Eau de Cologne – so Eau de Cologne simply could not have been invented one hundred years earlier than it was.

    TC: Is there a principal difference then between Eau de Cologne and the earlier Eau Admirable?

    JMF: Eau Admirable is a collective term for blended waters. If you research the literature from about 1500 onwards, you will find solutions of lead in water and all kinds of other tinctures designated as Eau Admirable. It is a generic term that gives no indication of ingredients or usage. It’s like ‘perfume,’only even broader. In the 17th and 18th century many alcohol-based waters and fragrant waters were also called Eau Admirable. Later, in the 19th century, Eau de Cologne imitators began to claim that Eau Admirable was the precursor of Eau de Cologne, which is wrong. But this myth has persisted throughout 20th century perfume literature. When Farina called his product Eau Admirable he was using a collective term and when it became better known he called it Eau de Cologne precisely to distinguish it from the generic designation. He couldn’t know Eau de Cologne would itself become generic after his death. This really only began after the French Revolution.

    TC: What is the relation between the firm of Jean Marie Farina in Paris which ultimately became part of Roger et Gallet, who market an Eau de Cologne Extra Vieille Jean Marie Farina to this day?

    JMF: He was a great nephew of Johann Maria Farina, which is why we still entertain friendly relations with Roger et Gallet and cooperate in battling plagiarizers. The Cologne house was in the third generation, when Jean Marie was born in the family’s ancestral home town, Santa Maria Maggiore. He eventually settled in Paris, founded his own house and used the term Eau de Cologne, to which we had no objections. Once the brand became part of Roger et Gallet, we made an agreement that they would use the term “Eau de Cologne Extra Vieille” and we would use “Original Eau de Cologne”

    TC: The formula is entirely different, though.

    JMF: Yes, there is no relation. He started out in 1806, at age 21 and Eau de Cologne already existed as a generic term then. He was very, very successful, not just in the cologne business, but despite what is occasionally claimed, it was Farina in Cologne that supplied Napoleon.

    TC: Considering Napoleon’s excessive use of perfume pretty much everybody must have supplied him?

    JMF: He used cologne profusely, he was a very cleanly person. A bottle a day, I suppose.  But he didn’t drink it. That’s a fairy tale.

    TC: Cologne drinking is something frequently referred to in perfume literature – diluted perhaps, but certainly as medicine.

    JMF: Well, actually it was much too expensive to be used as medicine. Around 1720-30 a  rosoli flacon cost one Reichstaler. Now consider that a high ranking Councillor made 120 Reichstaler a year, an independent artisan with apprenctices and all made about four Reichstaler a month. Eau de Cologne was an absolute luxury product. Also, there are far more potable liquids. The essential oils we use smell wonderful, but they taste very bitter. There is one period when Eau de Cologne was declared a medicine: during the French Revolution. Luxury had a bad reputation and for tax and commercial reasons Eau de Cologne sometimes became Eau Médicinale. Numerous plagiarizers adopted that strategy and would sell highly diluted colognes as all-purpose potions. They propagated the medicinal myth which has endured to this day.         

    TC: There is that medical approbation for Eau de Cologne from the city’s university, dated 1727, a forgery…

    JMF: This first appeared in Paris in the late 18th century as an alleged translation, after the University of Cologne had been closed. The professor who supposedly wrote it never existed, he is not on file in the university archives.

    TC: The constant attempts at constructing narratives of Eau de Cologne’s origin and claiming the invention for one’s house are very interesting from a historian’s perspective.

    JMF: This became a marketing ploy in the 19th century. Farina in Paris traced his formula to [Gian Paolo] Feminis, a historical figure [who lived in Cologne prior to Johann Maria Farina and sold Eau Admirable]. But Jean Marie actually had no business contacts whatsoever in Cologne. The Feminis story was just a way to distinguish himself from the Cologne Farinas. They way in which this was taken up by third parties is a different story. But at the time this issue of who invented Eau de Cologne was not really all that important. It became so in the 20th century, when some houses emphatically claimed to be the oldest. Farina Gegenüber was never too concerned with these fairy tales due to its economic strength. Keep in mind we were European market leaders for two hundred years, until World War I. These competitors were small fry, they simply were not that important.

    TC: Still, was not the Farina family and corporate identity shaped by the need to constantly defend yourself against innumerable plagiarizers and forgeries?

    JMF: Yes, it was. We fought 2000 court cases against more than 1200 forgeries and imitations. The problem was not that a customer bought the imitation instead of the original. Our kind of clients would not have acquired a two-Euro flacon at the street corner, since after all, the content did not really smell at all similar. The problem was the damage to our image. Cheap bottles with the Farina name on them obviously created uncertainty about our product. That was a nuisance in the past and it still is today and that is why we pursue these cases. A brand is defined by its trustworthiness, its value and distinctiveness and such imitations compromise these qualities.

    TC: So were there actually any other genuine Farinas in the cologne business?

    JMF: There was one parallel house in the late 18th century run by an uncle of the French Farina. You could say that in the 18th century Eau de Cologne was synonymous with Farina and only since the French Revolution did other people really get involved in the business.

    TC: Was Wilhelm Mülhens [the founder of what became 4711] the first person to falsely adopt the Farina name?

    JMF: He was one of many. The Farina in Bonn [not related to the cologne producing family], who sold his name to Mülhens, offered it to others as well, as did Mülhens. They sold it to at least fifty people, a crazy story. These were usually one-man operations, irrelevant economically, but irritating.   


    From top to bottom: Promotional material from 1830, 1926, 1953 and 2009

    TC: When searching Ebay today one can still find bottles from the 1950s and 1960s: Farina zur Stadt Mailand etc.

    JMF: Yes, most of these go back to a second phase of plagiarism around 1850. The descendents of that Farina in Bonn kept selling their name – the family is still around today. These companies were relaunched and outlawed and relaunched again and again. They were founded elsewhere and then moved to Cologne, so it was difficult to keep track of them, not like today where you have the internet. Finally some of them managed to claim trade mark rights due to a certain length of existence. Farina am Dom, for example: that was a pharmacist at the Altermarkt in Cologne who bought himself a straw man whose name happened to be Johann Maria Farina. So he created Johann Maria Farina am Dom zu Köln, was sued, had to add his own name and was finally bought up by 4711. They acquired many of these firms, and Farina Gegenüber bought the rest. We terminated them, while 4711 used them as a weapon against us, by throwing low grade cologne on the market under the Farina name. They used Farina am Dom or Farina gegenüber dem Jülichsplatz Nr. 5 from the 1950s through the 1980s, until Mülhens got into financial trouble itself. I have terminated 140 Farina brands in the last ten years and when Procter & Gamble decided to sell off 4711 in 2006 they buried these companies, because I had deprived them of all their brands. And that was that.

    TC: I am wondering how the Farina and Mülhens families interacted with each other socially? The Farinas were prominent citizens and the Mülhens were becoming increasingly successful through the 19th century. Were they hostile or did they avoid one another, were there Romeo and Juliet stories of warring clans? 

    JMF: No, the relations between the families were not unfriendly or hostile. For one, Mülhens was not as big in the 19th century as is suggested today. And in 1881 they had to give up their Farina name after a court case, but the litigant was not us, but Roger et Gallet in Paris. That case served a pseudo-Farina in Cologne as a precedent to sue Mülhens over the use of the name in Germany. Ironically this was a descendant of the Farina in Bonn whom Mülhens originally bought the name off.

    TC: But your family was deeply involved in the development of German trademark legislation.

    JMF: True, but the relation between the families was neutral. I actually took dance lessons in the same class as Ferdinand Mülhens’ daughter and my brother rode horseback with his other daughters. The conflict took place between the companies’ legal departments, and they fought tooth and nail, while we entertained a cordial relationship with the Mülhens and still do.

    As to trade mark infringements, 4711 was originally called Franz Maria Farina, but our priority were the companies that used the Johann Maria Farina moniker. And for that reason one member of our family spent most of his life fighting for the establishment of German trade mark laws. After thirty years of petitioning and lobbying the law was passed in 1875. But we had already established trademarks earlier elsewhere, for example 1870 in Italy, where this particular Farina was also involved. We are certainly among the oldest trademark holders.

    TC: Is it true you were taken over by Roger et Gallet in 1975?

    JMF: We merged, but it did not work. Their sales representatives wanted to push Gallet products, ours Farina Gegenüber. Then the R&G owners, the Pelerin family, sold their interest  to Elf Aquitaine. So we split again in 1981. Next, a Swiss company, Doetsch Grether, held a major stake in the firm. Since 1999 the family has again owned one hundred percent. Ever since, we have been regaining ground in the German market. We have always turned over more in foreign markets, but German sales have been steadily increasing.

    TC: It is an amazing coincidence that the head of Farina Gegenüber bears the name Johann Maria Farina at the company’s 300th anniversary. Your father was the first company director in the 20th century who bore the name Farina. How did that come about?

    JMF: The family was large. When I was born there were sixty partners in the company, all directly related to Farina, but many went by other surnames. And not all were keen on or capable of running the business.

    TC: Is ownership still widely distributed among the family today?

    JMF: No, it is consolidated. There is my brother, my daughter and myself. We went back to the roots, so to say, when we took over all the company shares in 1999.

    TC: Was this move driven by a new vision for Farina Gegenüber?

    JMF: Yes, that was the right moment to buy out Doetsch Grether, who were just giving negative input anyway, and for a family member to take the helm again.  

    TC: The market for classic Eau de Cologne seems to be in crisis, the 4711 and R&G brands have not been doing too well.  

    JMF: That is a different market from ours. We are a niche brand, like other older firms such as Penhaligon’s or Floris, a field too small for the multinationals, though they’re in it now with Acqua di Parma and the like. But this segment is luckily unhinged from broader economic trends, it is not mass market.   

    TC: The Eau de Cologne renaissance seems to have started with the revival of Acqua di Parma, before it was bought by LVMH.  

    Well, the popularity of these scents – you know Acqua di Parma is also somewhat derivative, a slightly different composition…

    TC: But it does contain rose…

    JMF: Yes, but when we launched Russisch Leder they immediately followed with Acqua di Russia. Parma always looked to Cologne. Contrary to Eau Sauvage, which was a true enhancement of Eau de Cologne – one really has to differentiate there. Anyhow, the reason for this popularity is that for all of the modernity of our day and age, people are tired of this mass of new perfumes being constantly thrown at them, it has become impossible even to keep track, and just want good old traditional products. That was different forty years ago in Germany. Old fragrances were out, people wanted something new and modern and this was a problem for Farina and a reason for the decline in sales. That was also when our designs were modernized – a cardinal error, I believe. We have returned to the pre-1960s look in the last ten years.

    TC: Penhaligon’s became part of corporate America and Floris seems to be retiring some of its classic fragrances and introducing contemporary styles.
    JMF: Well, we do have a whole line of contemporary fragrances, but Eau de Cologne is by far our best seller, because it is the original.

    TC: What do your distribution channels look like?

    JMF: We supply owner-operated perfumeries, fill many direct orders, we also supply pharmacies – some have been customers for over two hundred years.

    TC: How important are foreign markets?

    JMF: Eighty-five percent.

    TC: And do you have particularly strong markets? How about the US?

    JMF: The US and Eastern Europe are weak. The Mediterranean is important, France, the Middle and Far East, South America.

    TC: Interesting, some Americans have told me Farina is easily available. It is obviously not yours.

    JMF: That is precisely the problem. But America has always been difficult. We even used to have a US subsidiary, but to be honest, it never made a profit, though we have been present there for a long time.  

    TC: Did you ship to North America in colonial times?

    JMF: It is amazing how far distribution reached in the late 18th century. The quantities were small of course, but we were shipping world-wide: Brazil, North America, India. If anyone wanted it, he got it, just like today. If somebody from Mongolia orders, we deliver, though we don’t have a huge distribution network of our own. We are a global player on a small scale, but this is what makes us immune to crisis. And we are doing just fine.

    TC: Will you tell me how much cologne you produce?

    JMF: No, that would be a breach of tradition. Let me put it this way: we are not smaller than we used to be. It is only that the market around us has grown much bigger.

    TC: Production has moved to the city perimeter.

    JMF: Yes, but it is still on Cologne soil, of course. Some manufacturing and packaging processes are handled elsewhere, e.g. in Paris, but the essences are blended here.


    TC: How has buying essential oils changed through the years?

    JMF: It used to be much more difficult. That’s why we can sell our cologne at a much lower price than in the past. Oils are much cheaper now, due to effective transportation and enhanced production and processing techniques. We have better information systems. I know what harvests will be like well in advance for bergamot or jasmine. Acreage has increased, too, though it is stagnant now or slightly shrinking, because big players like P&G or L’Oréal hesitate to use naturals in most cases. If they mass-produced a luxury product with, say, real bergamot oil, they would have to corner the market and prices would skyrocket – there will probably be 120 tons of bergamot oil this year. So they have had to switch to synthetics. Opium is a typical example – very high essential oil content at the outset, but as it became more and more successful, they had to increasingly replace the naturals with synthetics.

    TC: You are lucky you do not require ingredients such as natural sandalwood.

    JMF: But we do.

    TC: That’s hard to find, though, isn’t it, at least the genuine Mysore variety?

    JMF: Not really.

    TC: But it is awfully expensive.

    JMF: Yes indeed. We do not need much of it, of course. In terms of quantity, we primarily need citrus, some jasmine… but sandalwood is no problem, if you require, say five or ten kilograms. If you needed one, two hundred kilos, you’d be in trouble, you would overstrain the market. Same with jasmine, which costs between eight and 15,000 Euros a kilo. Even if you had the money, you could not buy 500 kilograms. In a way the market for essential oils has remained what it always was and should be  – very exclusive, not suitable for mass products, and that’s what I like about it. Purchasing has become more direct – producers provide samples from the current harvests and I test which provenances and quantities of bergamot I will need to recreate our fragrance. It’s like with champagne – your Veuve Clicquot is supposed to taste the same from year to year, so we have to blend oils from different regions. This is why the formula as such wouldn’t enable you to recreate the perfume. You need to know which provenances to blend and the know-how of doing so. Like with coffee, tea,…

    TC: Whisky

    JMF: Right. Blending is the most difficult and frustrating part of the process, but succeeding is very satisfying.

    TC: One of the biggest challenges for you must be the new IRFA regulations. There are currently attempts to ban certain citrus oils…

    JMF: That is not a challenge, it is a nightmare.

    TC: And while you can perhaps ignore IFRA, if this becomes European law….Many natural perfumers are bitterly complaining.

    JMF: You have identified our biggest problem. For example, bergamot contains high levels of furocumarins, which photosensitize the skin. We partly remove these through distillation, but the olfactory quality does suffer as a result. The fragrance still contains furocumarin, also due to other essential oils, like marigold. It is a problem.

    TC: I have a recent Farina bottle with an INCI declaration that lists oakmoss – another substance the use of which has been limited. What have you done about that? Taken it out?

    JMF: No, we have found a way. One thing you can do is simply to reduce the content and tweak the formula in such a way as to maintain the original smell of your fragrance. But it’s a serious problem. Actually everything that smells good is an allergene. I do have to say, though, all those disciples of nature, fair enough, but they often have no idea what they are talking about. Nothing is more allergenic, more toxic, than naturals. Synthetics are so unproblematic in this regard.

    TC: As the head of such a venerable house, what is your view of “modern” perfumery that is based on the use of synthetics?

    JMF: Oh, we employ synthetics too, it is unavoidable. Some olfactory nuances can only be achieved with synthetics today. I personally don’t see a clear demarcation between synthetic and non-synthetic anyway. A good perfume requires a mixture of natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic materials. There are substances derived from natural oils which are altered – semi-synthetics. There are isolates extracted from naturals for the purpose of amplifying certain characteristics – it is not a black and white issue.

    TC: That’s correct, but it seems very hard to communicate this to consumers. Perfume marketing from day one has omitted addressing the issue of synthetics.

    JMF: “All natural,” especially regarding allergies, is exactly the opposite of what it purports to be. I am not a champion of natural fragrances, because they rarely provide a convincing representation of nature. But try to explain that to consumers…

    TC: Is there a perfume you particularly like?

    When I’m not wearing our own, Eau Sauvage is number one – the most accomplished refinement of Eau de Cologne. And it’s only by virtue of that one iso jasmonate. Phenomenal. It’s powerful stuff. If you added it to our Eau de Cologne, you would get Eau Sauvage. Truly phenomenal.end of article

    Tom Clark

    About the author

    Tom Clark is a historian and Americanist , who discovered his passion for perfume through basenotes. He inevitably developed an interest in the cultural history of perfume and is currently exploring the uses of history by perfume houses in constructing their brand identity, as well as transatlantic differences in male perfume culture. Tom lives near Frankfurt, Germany and maintains the occasional blog state of the [car]nation.

    All articles by Tom Clark

    Categories: Farina Gegenüber

    From the Basenotes Fragrance Directory

    The following fragrances and houses are mentioned in this article. (In order of appearance...)

    Farina Gegenüber
    Roger & Gallet
    Sanofi Beauté
    LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton

    Kölnisch Wasser by Farina Gegenüber (1714).
    4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser by 4711 (1792).
    Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior (1966).
    No. 5 by Chanel (1921).
    Jean Marie Farina by Roger & Gallet (1806).
    Acqua di Parma Colonia by Acqua di Parma (1916).
    Russisch Leder by Farina Gegenüber (1967).

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