A History of Eau de Cologne

Posted on November 23rd, by What Men Should Smell Like in A Scented Blog. 15 comments

When vintage perfume fans discuss their favourites, names like Jicky, Fougere Royale and L’Origan regularly come up for discussion. These perfumes are natural favourites amongst vintage collectors, and originated from a time when perfumery was undergoing great change. From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, perfumes were evolving rapidly and advances in science aided chemists with the synthesis of molecules such as coumarin and vanillin. Taken from nature, these odours gave perfumers a new lease on creativity. This modern era also guided a change in Europe’s puritanical attitude towards perfume wearing. Compared with the relaxed attitude of today, 19th century European culture was regimented. There were strict guidelines that dictated which perfumes should be worn and which ones should be avoided. In 1833, Madame Celnart wrote in her book on social etiquette: “Strong odours such as musk, amber, orange blossom, tuberose and others of this kind, are strictly forbidden.” Odours that were perceived as being ostentatious or overtly sensual were avoided by anyone concerned with upholding a good reputation in society. The body was a matter of privacy and perfume was not worn on skin. Instead, perfume was applied sparingly to personal items such as gloves, handkerchiefs and fans. These old-fashioned perfumes were lighter than their modern counterparts, not long lasting and replicated the scent of a single flower or plant. Now that most of the perfumes and toilet waters of this bygone era are extinct, one of the only style references which has survived is the humble and sometimes overlooked Eau de Cologne.

Not to be confused with the Western terminology used to distinguish the difference between men and women’s fragrances, i.e. men wear cologne while women wear perfume, the Eau de Cologne title refers to a specific blend of citrus fruit, flowers and herbs, which are highly diluted in a mixture of alcohol and water. Eau de Cologne’s scent is characterised by the refreshing smell of bitter oils, pressed from the skins of lemon and bergamot fruit. Perfumers add other citrus notes to personalise their unique cologne accord. Cold-pressed oil from bitter orange is popular, along with lime oil, mandarin oil and those synthetic raw materials that support Eau de Cologne’s zesty structure. Behind this symphony of sparkling citrus notes lie a bed of aromatic lavender and a sliver of camphorous rosemary. Although the scent of orange flower was deemed too risqué for 19th century Europeans, oil distilled from the flowers of the bitter orange tree was accepted and neroli oil is an essential ingredient in Eau de Cologne. Perfumers often include a touch of rose or jasmine to enhance the fragrance’s floral character and petitgrain oil distilled from the twigs and leaves of the orange tree is utilised for its fresh green impact. Compared with modern perfumes, a unique characteristic of Eau de Cologne is the absence of a dominant base note. These days it is common for an Eau de Cologne to contain small amounts of musk, woods or balsams, which fix the fragrance to the wearer’s skin, but in 19th century Europe this practice would have attracted criticism. In 1855, a journalist reported in the June edition of Le Messager des Modes et de l’Industrie, “the perfume which Her Majesty Queen Victoria wore during her state visit to France was of superb quality, but it unfortunately included an unbecoming touch of musk.” So although today’s consumer demands long lasting fragrances, the perfume equivalent of the Energizer Bunny that keeps ‘going and going’ a traditional Eau de Cologne is designed to be fleeting, which means liberal and frequent use. As a result Eau de Cologne is often sold in large bottles containing up to 1000ml or 33fl.oz of liquid.

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Photos taken at the Musee International de la Parfumerie, Grasse, France – October 2012

Many stories exist about the creation of this legendary scent. Roger & Gallet, one of the world’s oldest producers of Eau de Cologne, attribute its origin to the late 1600s, when an Italian immigrant named Jean-Paul Feminis settled in the German town of Cologne. The Italian merchant opened a small perfumery, and his first perfume, Aqua Mirabilis, was a great success. This was a time when people believed disease was transmitted by bad odours and Aqua Mirabilis was advertised as the cure for all sorts of ailments. To maintain good health, Eau de Cologne was also recommended for internal use and it was a popular drink as well as a perfume. Rumour had it Feminis was gifted the miracle formula by a monk travelling through Europe from the Orient. The Santa Maria Novella apothecary in Florence may also have had an influence on Aqua Mirabilis’ invention since the Dominican monks had been making similar herbal preparations for more than a century before Feminis. As time passed, Feminis’ legacy changed ownership and by the early 19th century, Eau de Cologne had passed to Jean-Marie Farina, a young Italian living in Paris. Farina opened a perfumery on fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, which later became Roger & Gallet. Today they are a global brand and understanding the historic value of Farina’s work, Roger & Gallet continue to produce the house Eau de Cologne, calling it Jean Marie Farina Extra-Vieille, in honour of the scent’s founder. Alongside Roger & Gallet, 4711 Eau de Cologne is a name synonymous with German Eau de Cologne making. In the late 1700s, the Mulhens family opened a small perfume factory in Cologne. Their business name was decided during the French Occupation, when the French military numbered all of the village houses. The street address of the Mulhens factory became Glockengasse No. 4711 and in 1875, the Mulhens registered their trademark for 4711 Original Eau de Cologne, which to this day, is presented in the Mulhen’s iconic turquoise blue and gold labelled bottles.

Alongside the names of Roget & Gallet and 4711, luxury French perfume house Guerlain was built on the legend of Eau de Cologne. Founder, Pierre-Pascal-Francois Guerlain began his business in 1828 selling perfumes and vinegars from a small store on Paris’ rue de Rivoli. By 1842, Guerlain’s business was thriving and he was honoured with the appointment of official supplier to the grand duchess of Bade, the grand duchess of Wurtemberg and Her Majesty the Queen of Belgium. In 1853 Pierre-Pascal-Francois Guerlain created a fragrance, the first of many his family would create over the next century, which made the Guerlain name one of the most important names in perfume history. That fragrance was called Eau de Cologne Imperiale and it was presented to Empress Eugenie in honour of her marriage to Napoleon III. 2013 marks the 160th anniversary of that cologne, which today, continues to be one of the house’s biggest sellers amongst Guerlain aficionados. Since the creation of Eau de Cologne Imperiale in 1853, it has been a house tradition for each generation of Guerlain perfumer to create an Eau de Cologne in his own style. Aime Guerlain created Eau du Coq in 1894, adding a touch of sandalwood to the base of his cologne; perhaps it was a reference to his infamous Jicky, which came 6 years earlier. Jacques Guerlain launched his cologne in 1920 around a concept of citron fruit, called Fleurs de Cedrat and Jean-Paul Guerlain created Eau de Guerlain in 1974, a fragrance which perfume writer Luca Turin promoted in his Perfume Guide by saying: “If you want citrus, there is simply nothing better out there.” In 2008 Guerlain made the decision to appoint its first perfumer from outside the family. Perfumer Thierry Wasser was selected by the house and like all Guerlain perfumers, he was asked to create an Eau de Cologne that would continue the house tradition. In 2010, Guerlain launched Cologne du Parfumeur, which was one of the perfumer’s own personal scents. Thierry Wasser’s use of galbanum resin and green notes gave his interpretation of Eau de Cologne a freshness that focused less on the dated bergamot accord of his forebearers and pushed the genre into a contemporary field of its own.

Modern chemistry has been the midwife of many new varietals of Eau de Cologne and over the past decade the style has re-emerged and has been reinvented. New qualities of natural raw materials as well as innovations of manmade molecules have taken Eau de Cologne from discount pharmacy shelves to perfume haute couture. Both Chanel and Christian Dior added Eau de Cologne to the line up of fragrances they offer exclusively in their boutiques. Christian Dior’s Cologne Royale features a novel twist of Italian mint on a base of natural sandalwood and in 2007; Chanel revived an Eau de Cologne designed in 1929 by the house’s first perfumer, Ernest Beaux. While Francois Demachy’s reinvention of Eau de Cologne for Dior was injected with new notes, Jacques Polge created a classic Eau de Cologne for Chanel that focused on an astoundingly good quality of citrus oils and a contemporary musk in the base, which acted as a life support for the short-lived citrus notes. Also in this decade, Jean-Claude Ellena collaborated with Frederic Malle on a design brief to create an innovative cologne that still respected the spirit of the classic formula. The idea was based on custom-made bigarade oil, which had been molecular distilled at the laboratories of Monique Remy, IFF’s in-house naturals facility in Grasse. The designer oil was stripped of its colour and unnecessary elements, leaving Jean-Claude Ellena with the zesty freshness of the bitter orange. Surrounded by rose, cardamom, pepper and a base of cedar, Jean-Claude Ellena and Frederic Malle called it Cologne Bigarade. Each of these modern examples showcases the importance of using the highest quality raw materials available to the perfumer.  The beauty of such a simple perfume done well is sublime and even if, like most vintage perfume lovers, I can spend hours talking about the wonders of early 20th century perfumes by Guerlain and Coty, a well made Eau de Cologne is my answer to the question, ‘what fragrance do you always need to have by your side?’ Whether your preference is for classic 19th century Eau de Cologne by Guerlain or one with a modern twist, 2013’s selection offers a vast palette of choices, suitable for every taste and occasion.

Amongst my collection, my personal favourite Eau de Colognes, both traditional and modern include: Tom Ford Neroli Portofino, Chanel Eau de Cologne, 4711 Eau de Cologne, Santa Maria Novella Cologne, Guerlain Eau de Cologne Imperiale, Guerlain Eau du Coq, Frederic Malle Cologne Bigarade and Atelier Cologne Grand Neroli.

15 Responses to “A History of Eau de Cologne”

  1. What a fantastic article about the history of the Eau de cologne. Well researched! I’m not a fan of this genre of scents because they are so fleeting and disappear too quickly. I imagine during that time period they served their purpose in delivering a short burst of fragrance and not offend anyone or being too ostentatious with their scented selves.

  2. Lanier Smith says:

    Thank you so much Clayton for this immaculately beautiful history of Eau de Cologne. Eau de Cologne Imperiale will be my gift to family this Christmas along with the story. Marie Line who is the national rep for Guerlian here in the USA told me that the Empress Eugene used to drink Imperiale to ease her migraines. I can’t imagine that really helped. Anyway I loved reading this post and we are all sending it around to San Francisco Bay Area Perfumistas to read.
    Cheers dear Friend

    • What Men Should Smell Like says:

      It’s my absolute pleasure Michael and thanks for this kind comment! How nice your family will be receiving Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Imperiale for Christmas. Lucky them : ) I remember reading somewhere that the Empress used to drink her cologne and Napoleon used to soak a sugar lump in cologne as well. Your comment made me think, I should make an eau de cologne cocktail for friends this summer. I’m thinking lime, orange and lemon juice, sugar syrup, a sprig of rosemary, a splash of orange blossom water with vodka and cointreau on ice.


  3. Sabine says:

    Thank you the great article. I love the smell of colognes on my husband and sometimes steal a spritz or three…
    And despite the fact that I have been to Cologne many times, I didn’t know about the personal mix.

    • What Men Should Smell Like says:

      Thanks Sabine! I saw this on Youtube, a journalist visited 4711 and she had a consultation to mix her own cologne blend. Very similar to the workshops you can do in Grasse with companies like Fragonard or Molinard. A little ‘touristy’ but looks fun.

  4. John says:

    There is a Farina EdeC which claims to be the original, and which is not part of Roger et Gallet.


    It all gets very complicated. This Farina ‘Original’ is a very light citrus and demands frequent reapplication. It’s fresh, bitter-sweet and utterly delightful.

    • What Men Should Smell Like says:

      This is very true John. Researching this post I found a number of different versions of the original EDC story. It all gets a bit murky before the early 19th century with stories overlapping or containing variances. Thanks for the link, I didn’t know about this company.

  5. Sarah Colton says:

    Thrilled to see this article, Clayton, so rich in history and sense imagery. So informative and satisfying. Everything perfume (and cologne) lovers thrive on. I just posted it on my Facebook page.

    It’s late fall in Paris so my Eau de Cologne usage is limited to what I splash on for my b-r-i-s-k early morning runs, (these days, Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Imperiale) and dreams of summertime. From the heart of your fragrant Australianian springtime, might you have any ‘winter’ cologne recommendations for those of us chilling out in more northern climes?

    • What Men Should Smell Like says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for the comment. I hope the cool climate in Paris is treating you well. With the weather here in Sydney heating up, it is true, most of my Eau de Cologne bottles are enjoying frequent use! In a cooler climate, it’s not really a classic eau de cologne, but I love the hot water concept of Frederic Malle’s L’Eau d’Hiver.

      Enjoy your last week of Parisian Fall,

  6. Jordan River says:

    Great read. Most people stop at the city of Cologne and then write about one new release. I don’t have any cologne but will get there oneday someday. Hang on, I do have a bottle of Old Spice to review. I feel like I am channeling the wisdom of my grandfathers with that one. And I like it.

    • What Men Should Smell Like says:

      I have a visit to Cologne on my travel list Jordan. I saw a Youtube video of how you can go to 4711 and blend your on custom Eau de Cologne in the original factory. Lol- maybe we should set up a perfume travel agency : )

  7. Tora says:

    This was most excellent. I love succinct and detailed histories of subjects I care about. You nailed this one. Thank you.

    • What Men Should Smell Like says:

      Thanks for reading and the compliment Tora! I also had fun researching this post and learning more about the history of Eau de Cologne.

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