The centuries-old Italian pharmacy remains one of the world’s most exclusive fragrance producer thanks to simple, delightful essences carefully packaged and true to tradition.
By Patricia Abaroa
In Florence, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is still housed in the historic building it has occupied for centuries. Founded in 1221 by Dominican friars, Farmaceutica di Santa Maria is one of the world’s oldest pharmacies. The monks, known for their devotion to charity and aiding the poor, used medicinal plants from their garden to make herbal remedies for themselves and the local population.
The popularity of Santa Maria Novella products endures to these days. Just like the firm itself, their fragrances, soaps and essences tell tales of the past. Since the 13th century, the company has been producing their world-renowned pot-pourri, adhering to their unchanging method: hand collected plants from the Florentine Hills are soaked with essence inside terracotta jars, which are then sealed with wax and aged for several months.
Rose Water, still a favorite today and used for a myriad of reasons, was among the first distillates created by the monks. Before the 1400s, it was sold as an antiseptic for house cleaning after the breakout of the plague. In 1533, Acqua della Regina (known today as Acqua di Colonia) was created for the trend-setting Queen of France Caterina de Medici, who is responsible for the popularity of the bergamot and citrus scent.
The pharmacy opened its doors to the public in 1612 after the reputation of the products created by the monks and news of their quality inventions reached the outside world. By the 18th century, recognition had spread beyond national borders and reached far-of lands including Russia and China.
The building where the pharmacy is located, decked with high vaulted ceilings, marble floors, glass stained windows and frescoes, continues to attract clients who are as fascinated by the products, as they are with the history of the brand and the marvelous architecture of the property. “Santa Maria Novella is part of Florentine history. The church, monastery and store are still intact. There’s authenticity to the brand, to its heritage. It remains true to its founding principles,” says Jon Bresler, CEO/President of LAFCO/Santa Maria Novella.
Today, Eugenio Altondery, a descendent of the monks, strives to keep and grow the legacy of Santa Maria Novella and runs the pharmacy. He looks for innovation to update methods and procedures while still using the raw materials that have attracted a bevy of devoted consumers for centuries. The products, which are never tested on animals, are made in situ at their own factory in Florence using regional ingredients whenever viable.
With shops in leading Italian cities, France, Spain, Switzerland, Great Britain, the US, Japan and Taiwan the company takes the ancient tradition of herbal care to consumers who value a brand that has discovered what works, and stuck with it. The creations are wonderful and pure, never overly complicated, with lovely packaging and delightful scents. This is enough to appeal to luxury-seeking clients, but the brand offers even more: a legacy that peaks the interest of the historian inside all of us. ■
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