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Eau de Cologne, a case of ancient Industrial espionage?

Written by John Kercher

I noticed a discussion going on about Eau de Cologne where recipes were exchanged and Napoleon Cologne mentioned. Since I have some time on my hands right now, I thought it to be a good opportunity to let you know where Colognes originated, how they got their names and a few facts instead of myths about Napoleon!

The origin of Eau de Cologne might seem difficult to determine, but nothing is more farther from the truth than that. In fact, its roots can be easily traced as it is fully documented in the “Rheinisch-Westfälischen Wirtschafts-Archive” (RWWA) which can be found in the City of Cologne in Germany.) There all purchases, sales, correspondence, production and controversies about Eau de Cologne can be traced on the hands of original documents dating back to 1709.

Süskind describes in his famous novel “Das Parfum” the environment and the City where the Eau de Cologne fragrance was developed. He sets his novel in Paris but it was in fact Cologne where it all started. Cologne in 1709 was a “smelly” city recuperating from the last Plague epidemic which went through the City in 1667. Tanneries were to be found everywhere and the residue of the tanning process where thrown in gutters only to be washed away when the river Rhine flooded the streets, leaving its muddy residues which soon mixed with the ever present Horse manure that covered the streets.

Newcomers, Jews and Protestants were not very welcome in the City, but if one was Catholic no hindrances were placed in his or her path to establish residence there or commence some kind of business venture. Not surprisingly therefore that many Italians settled in the City, as did Johann Baptists Farina in 1709.

In a building known as the “Französich Kram” a location where taxfree goods such as silk, spices, fragrance- and healing waters were sold he started his business. He came from a small village, Maria Maggiore now in the Italian Novara Province.

From the Französich Kram merchants sold Aqua Mirabilis, Eau de la Reine Hongrie, Angelwater and Eau Imperiale. The later nowadays being attributed as Napoleon Cologne, but available long before he appeared on the scene!

Fact was though, that French was the Merchant language so many products were given French names. Eau de la Reine Hongrie sounded much better than “water of the Queen of Hungary”!

As early as 1622 several “Aqua Mirabilis” were available in Cologne so in order to distinguish one from another it became fashionable to add the manufacturers name or initial to it. Farina added an extra feature to his product, by placing a lacquer seal on the bottles bearing his name. Farina once wrote to his brother Baptist in 1708 that his Farina Aqua Mirabilis was unbelievably nice! “ I have composed a fragrance which reminds me of an Italian spring-morning when , after a shower, daffodils and orange blossom release their smell”.

Farina had brought the art of fine-distillation with him to Cologne and his knowledge of essences and maceration and extraction came from the famous Italian perfumers from the Gennari family. And he was a real fanatic when it came to the quality of raw material from which he distilled his oils. From suppliers of Bergamot he insisted on being told under which weather conditions it had been harvested and of Cedrat he insisted on knowing the exact distillation process. Often, when he was not satisfied with the quality of certain essential oils he bought from distillers, he would go out and obtain car loads of fruit and herbs himself, which he macerated and distilled himself in Cologne.

Slowly his fame grew and in 1723 he moved his business to the, than most prestigious, location Haus Obenmarsforten 23, opposite the Jűlichs-Platz. Farina’s recipe and his distillation skills enabled him to make a stable product with a never changing fragrance, something unheard of in those days.

His ability to converse in French and the quality of his product soon were noticed by the “nobility” and it didn’t take long or Clemens August, the local ruler was sending him many customers and even the Soldier King Friedrich Wilhelm von Prussia was among his clients. Farina’s Aqua Mirabilis was soon a much sought after product, sold in many countries and soon Farina changed the name of his product, to honor his home town, and the name Eau de Cologne was born.

The ingredients used by Farina were mainly Italian limes, Bergamot, Neroli and Petitgrain as well as Oranges, Lemons, Grapefruits and Cedrat. To use these raw materials and turn them into the famous Farini Eau de Cologne were for long a well kept secret. All Royal families were among his customers and in the archives at Cologne over 2000 letters can be seen from New York and from as far as Royal Courts in Asia orders were obtained. It has to be remembered that Aqua Mirabilis was not sold as a fragrance product, but as a medicinal compound. For fragrance expensive perfumes were bought by the upper class.

But then, in 1750 came a certain Anton Farina from the city of Düsseldorf to Cologne and started a small shop selling his own Aqua Mirabilis which he bought from his Uncle but marketed it under his own name. In the history books it is here that for the first time the name Feminis comes to the surface. It was he who, perhaps unintentional or for money (who knows) , was the cause of creating the greatest competition for Farini, a situation that exists till today.

The three most famous Colognes date back to that day! These are “Jean Marie Farina/Roger & Gallet , Kőlnisch Wasser/Farina Gegenűber and Kőlnisch Wasser 4711/ 4711 Mühlens.

Here are the different compositions:

Jean Marie Farina/Roger & Gallet

Topnote: Bergamot, lemon, petitgrain, orange, mandarin and rosemary.
Middle note: Neroli, carnation
Base note: Rose

Kőlnisch Wasser/Farina Gegenűber

Top note: Bergamot, Lemon, orange, petigrain and neroli.
Middle note: Rosemary, rose and carnation
Base note: Musk

Kőlnisch Wasser 4711/ 4711 Mühlens.

Top note: Bergamot, orange, lemon, petitgrain and neroli
Middle note: Rosemary, Rose
Base note: Musk.

Nowadays the most famous street in Cologne is the Glockengasse number 4711. When the commander of the French revolutionary forces, General Daurier, ordered in 1794 that all houses in Cologne had to have a consecutive number he unknowingly created one of the world most famous brand names as it was in this house that Wilhelm Mühlens had his office and residence.

Wilhelm Mühlens then thirty years old, had obtained, two years earlier the recipe for Farini’s Aqua Mirabilis (miracle water) from a Carthusian monk by the name of Franz Carl Georg Farina. This monk was a nephew of Johann Paul Feminis who had been very close to many members of the Farina family. He gave the parchment scrolls to Wilhelm as a wedding present who didn’t think much of it at first.

Granted, Feminis had even before the Farina’s made an Aqua Mirabilis that was used during many of the Plague epidemics but it was hardly any different that the many Farina recipes that by now were on the market. All relatives with the name Farina could buy from their Uncles distillery unlimited number of liters which they marketed under their own name. Over 40 such “Farini” aquas were available so how could he go into competition with them?

The young merchant on the Glockengasse was know to be in the “investment” business and what he did, besides producing his own Aqua Mirabilis, was to trade in Money, wine, Mineral water and even in Sea Fish! But soon he also has success with his Miracle water, this was largely due to the fact that opposite his house a Stage coach station was situated. Travelers were approached by Wilhelm and almost everyone bought a bottle of his Eau de Cologne and soon the Aqua Mirabilis was not only used for medicinal purposes, but also a simple refreshing compound for travelers.

But in 1810, a law issued by Napoleon compelled that on the label of every medicinal compound the composition had to be named. The clever Muhlens immediately thought of a way to bypass these laws and with every bottle of his Aqua Mirabilis instructions for use” printed. In these instructions there was not a word indicating that this product was for medicinal purposes, but simply a fragrance and toilet water. Did he in the beginning market his 4711 product mentioning Farina, in respect to the Carthusian Monk, the third generation Muhlens in 1881 changed the name of their product mentioning as manufacturer Eau de Cologne & Parfumerie Farbrik Glockengasse Nr.4711.

Did you know that 4711 exclusive formula has been kept secret for over 200 years? Up until the mid-sixties the scent was prepared in locked vaults by Wilhelm Muhlen’s great, great, great grandson and so secret is the formula that only family members were allowed into the vault.

And this my friends is the true story about Eau de Cologne.

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