Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Evolution of Eau de Cologne

The language of fragrance, like flavor, is subject to interpretation based on culture and personal preference. When ingredients used in perfumery double as flavors found in food or drink, a quality of receptivity emerges. Attachments to likes and dislikes fade as a quality of openness emerges. The composition of Eau de Cologne illustrates this best as does the story of its creation. It's evolution in the Atelier Cologne line of fragrances marries modern perfumery to its roots, evoking a quality of reverential beauty one rarely sees in fragrance creation today.

Italian perfumer Giovanni Maria Farina was only 23 years old when he created Eau de Cologne in 1709. The fragrance revolved around a citrus bouquet that included lemon, orange, tangerine, bergamot, lime, grapefruit and neroli that was unique for its time. Lavender, rosemary, thyme, petitgrain (derived from orange leaf) and jasmine supported the citrus signature, but there was an element contained therein which could not be measured; Farina was homesick for Italy and his longing infused Eau de Cologne with memories of his roots.

In a letter to his brother, Jean Baptiste, he writes, "I have created a perfume which is reminiscent of an [Italian] spring morning following a soft shower where fragrances of wild narcissi combine with that of sweet orange flowers. This perfume refreshes me and stimulates both my senses and imagination..." The young fragrance maker, who learned the art of perfumery from his grandmother, was living in Cologne, Germany and worked for his uncle, who owned a luxury goods business. Giovanni Maria Farina accomplished two feats when he created Eau de Cologne; he reconciled his loneliness for the familiar scents of his birthplace while honoring his adopted hometown with a namesake fragrance. Farina made quite a career for himself and his customers included an impressive list of aristocrats as well as literati.

Europeans were attracted to the quality of lightness in Eau de Cologne which contrasted starkly with animalic ingredients like musk, civet, and ambergris which normally besieged their nostrils, (the heady materials were often mixed with spices to create a concentrated perfume). Eau de Cologne's application included use as a restorative by one Mrs. Duplessis from Nogent. Farina advised her to use Eau de Cologne on her husband's paralyzed limbs and prescribed a weekly tonic consisting of 50 drops of Eau de Cologne diluted in a glass of water. Today one would be ill advised to follow this folkloric prescription as modern perfumes are not edible.

In contemporary perfumery the term "cologne" refers to a finished fragrance with a low ratio of essential oils to alcohol. This range can vary anywhere from 2% to 8% and reflects Giovanni Maria Farina's Eau de Cologne formula. Citrus ingredients used in perfumery evaporate quickly due to their volatile nature. This is why one finds them dosed as top notes in perfumery; they make the first olfactory impression and provide a refreshing sensation that usually gives way to more complex synergistic ingredients.

Atelier Cologne founders Christopher Cervasel and Sylvie Ganter were in love with the history of Eau de Cologne and wanted to amplify its citrus bouquet while preserving its revitalizing quality. Advances in the art of perfumery combined with dosing of raw materials in the 12-20% range allowed them to actualize their olfactory dream and create a new category of fragrances called Colognes Absolues. Each fragrance in the Atelier Cologne collection is buoyed by the refreshing citrus quality of Eau de Cologne and possesses long-lasting sillage. There are six fragrances available, each with its own distinctive twist. The current anthology of scents includes: Orange Sanguine, Grand Néroli, Bois Blonds, Trèfle Pur, Oolang Infini and Vanille Insensée. A new addition to Atelier Cologne's offerings is in the works and will be released in the beginning of 2012.

Today the idea of an Eau de Cologne tonic is not impossible to achieve. One can look to modern bitters for  inspiration as many are citrus inspired and approved for imbibing. Bitters may be combined with carbonated water, simple syrup, flower waters, muddled herbs and a variety of alcoholic beverages to produce tempting tipples. Brands such as Angostura Bitters, Fee Brothers, and A.B. Smeby Bittering Company are a good place to start. Several A.B. Smeby formulas incorporate floral essences with enchanting descriptions that speak to the gustatory spirit of perfume. If Giovanni Maria Farina were alive today he would undoubtedly add "molecular mixologist" to his résumé; all of his influences live in the bitters world.

While editing this piece I discovered a formula for Eau de Cologne that belonged to my husband's grandmother, Jeanne Purdy. Grandma Purdy worked as a nurse and used the medical abbreviation "gtts" for measuring drops of essential oil to alcohol, (15 to 16 drops = 1cc = 1ml). The formula was hidden inside the top of one of her recipe boxes.

Giovanni Maria Farina was influenced by the history of perfumery when he created Eau de Cologne. Marie Anne de La Trémoille (Orsini), duchess of Bracciano and Princess of Nerola in 17th century Italy,  introduced the use of essence of Bitter Orange Flower (Neroli) as a perfume to be worn on skin. Farina embraced this ingredient in his Eau de Cologne formula which likely added to its acceptance.

The source for Giovanni Maria Farina's quote comes from: Markus Eckstein, Eau de Cologne, J.P. Bachem Verlag 2006, Cologne. 

William Dorman's "Perfumes-II" article in Volume 6 of Good Housekeeping is charming and worth a read. The feature, which appeared in 1888, focuses on citrus-based perfumes and can be found on pages 190 thru 191. "Perfumes and Perfumery: Cologne," the first part of this series, includes a formula that approximates Farina's Eau de Cologne on page 169.

The photograph of the fragrance ampoule containing Farina's Eau de Cologne and portrait of Giovanni Maria Farina (also referred to in the French style as Jean Marie Farina) is licensed under Creative Commons.

The picture of Atelier Cologne founders Christopher Cervasel and Sylvie Ganter is from the Atelier Cologne website. Rights revert back to the owners.

The photo of Jeanne Purdy's formula for Eau de Cologne taken by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.