Cologne Wars

An old Bottle of Cologne water

An old Bottle of Cologne water

This does not refer to episode 9000 in the Star Wars epic. It is actually a scent epic, involving a courtroom battle over the trade mark “Farina” during the 19th century. The court decision may or may not have put an end to a couple of centuries of squabbling over who produced the original formula.  You see Eau de Cologne was big business.  Two firms had emerged as giants in the sparkly citric cologne trade, one was Roger et Gallet and the other was Muehlens whose product had come to epitomize cologne around the world.

Anyway why was cologne so special you are asking yourselves?  The formula is very old and there are about as many variations on it as there are on lasagna.  The recipe for “Hungary Water” which is a version of cologne, was supposed to be a beauty secret of the Queen of Hungary, and goes back some say to the 14th century.  However  Napoleon (see our post on The Emperor’s New Scent) really made Eau de Cologne fashionable for men because of his addiction to  the tangy stuff.  Some of his veterans noticed the preparation in and around Cologne in Germany where the fragrance was already being produced by Johann Maria Farina.  The firm of Muehlens also made cologne, and soon, so did Roger et Gallet in France.  Perhaps none of this would have mattered but the markets  for cologne were expanding worldwide and everyone wanted to be known as the originator of the true formula.

The Roger et Gallet version of Jean Marie de Farina

The Roger et Gallet version of Jean Marie de Farina

You might be excused for thinking that these were relatively small businesses.  Not really.  You might also think that the matter of trademark was not so important in the 1870’s (I did). Wrong again.  In fact Muehlens was one of the fastest expanding perfume makers of the late 19th century, with offices and factories in Sweden and Riga in Latvia ( this was to give them access to the Russian market) as well as the Cologne headquarters. 1900 saw the firm of Muehlens selling their scents in over twenty countries- including the US. *

The fracas with Roger et Gallet was provoked by Muehlens’ rising sales inside France. French courts took trademarks very seriously in those days which was one reason why perfume brand building was so successful in France.  Muehlens lost the case (hence the change of name to 4711 after their early Cologne street address) and Roger et Gallet continued to sell Jean Marie Farina with a pretty standard cologne note but a large floral heart of neroli and carnation, ending in rose.  Meanwhile 4711 was produced with a distinct rosemary

Muehlen's 4711

Muehlen’s 4711

in the midsection but a musk dry down, and interestingly the firm which started it all, Farina was selling Original Kolnisch Wasser with rose and rosemary in the heart and a musk ending.

One of my German grandmothers in law swore by 4711 and wore that alone for her lifetime, and that’s probably true of a large number of folks.  I do like the Roger et Gallet version myself, but have never tried the Original Kolnisch Wasser.  I would like to though.  I have a feeling that it’s the closest thing to the old Hungary Water or the Aqua Admirabilis that people used to down as a tonic or soak in a handerkerchief.

Do you have a favorite cologne?

My information here comes from Beauty Imagined by Geoffrey Jones, Oxford University Press


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8 thoughts on “Cologne Wars

  1. Fascinating post, Blacknall Allen. I must admit that I have never experienced ANY of these traditional colognes (um…does Jean Nate splash in the 1970’s count?) but I would like to. Their history is so compelling, and I think it would be fun to emulate our filthy ancestors and douse myself in these colognes.

    How would you compare the scents of these colognes to stronger true perfumes? Are they like weaker versions of perfumes with prominent green and citrus notes? These are some of my favorites…Vent Vert, Aliage, Eau du Campagne, Insense, et. al? Is there a connection?

    • It is a good story isn’t it?

      You’ve also asked a good question here. Cologne is lighter than all the other concentrations of perfume 8% tops in 85% proof alcohol. Anyway that is the French concentration.

      You clearly like the fresh green scents and the ones you mention are true perfumes but they do share a similarity with cologne in that they don’t have much of a base note. Many green perfumes simply evaporate after you reach the heart of the fragrance. Some like Chanel no 19 do have a base and then the fragrance becomes darker and more similar to green chypres.

      OK, so how do classic colognes compare with your green perfumes? They are probably too orange and lemony to resemble Vent Vert or Aliage. 4711 and some other colognes contain an herbal facet of rosemary or sometimes basil or clary sage. Of all of the fragrances you mention here the closest to colognes would be Insense and Eau de Campagne. The colognes would be lighter though and last less long on your skin. You might enjoy Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Imperiale because of the rosemary and herbal notes 😉

  2. I’m not a big colognes fan but I remember liking Mugler’s Cologne (a very original name 😉 ). I mean, I value the historical significance of the genre for the modern perfumery but I prefer to wear something more complex… or at least more floral.

    • Mugler’s Cologne was such a good one that even if citrus is not your thing you still got one of the best ones out there.

      I miss good old Eau d’ Hadrien the Annick Goutal. That was a really wonderful citrus/woody. Now it’s gone victim of all those EU restrictions on citrus in perfume. Does Brexit mean that British perfume may contain the restricted products? Just wondering…

      • Hmmm… What an interesting idea… I vote for the U.S. and U.K. perfume brands to make two versions of their best perfumes – for normal people and for those unfortunate ines, whose government can’t keep their noses from their subjects’ dressers 😉

  3. Very good story about Muehlen and the rivalries for cologne trade. Long ago I had one bottle of 4711. The blue and gold details on it were sumptuous. The fragrance was nice, too. It’s so great to know they’re still selling it in Germany after what, 200 years? That’s amazing.

    We were stationed in Baumholder, Germany in early 80s and I made one trip north to Cologne, saw the big spires of cathedral, but it was a dark gray cold day, the city felt depressed, or maybe it was just me. On the other hand, the bright almost Tiffany blue of the 4711 label is the opposite: spritely and uplifting. I like the citrus, it’s invigorating. I wish I had some now to assess again.

    I read online that a Carthusian monk gave the “recipe” of 4711 to Mr. Muehlens for a wedding present. The gift that keeps on giving.

    One fact intrigued me: you say the EU has restricted citrus in scents. I wonder why?

    (and one comment mentioned Jean Nate, its lemony splash had a hint of 4711, I remember how thrilled I was as a schoolgirl to use my grandmother’s, the little round black cap on the chartreuse bottle)

    • You’ve reminded me of Jean Nate’s lovely lemony note-just as refreshing as 4711.

      As to EU law I am not clear on why citrus was restricted. That may have been because sometimes citrus in sunlight can produce mild skin irritations in some people. Then folks often use aromatherapy and that contains numerous citrus oils, so I am not sure how serious the threat of irritation is. Bureaucracy!

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