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Santa Maria Novella, Florence. A 400-year-old perfumery projecting tradition forward

Recently appointed CEO, Gian Luca Perris, takes us through the history and the ethos of the perfumery established in Florence by Dominican monks

First a monastery, then a pharmacy, and now a store that is considered a museum: the halls of the Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, Italy, have lived multiple lives since 1221. When they established, the Dominican monks would cultivate and harvest the herbs and flowers to use in the potions, preparations, and medicines to treat the skin ailments of patients for their infirmary until the Seventeenth century when they became abundantly requested and opened their apothecary shop doors to the public. The commerce has been operating ever since. Today, the Florentine pharmacy has evolved into a perfumery and cosmetic brand with stores in regions of Italy and across Europe, Asia, and the United States. From ancient preparations to colognes and perfumes including skincare, candles, shampoos and lotions, the extent of their product ranges to incorporate cats and dogs. Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella’s products blend centuries-old traditions with innovation in technology, says CEO, Gian Luca Perris. 

Perris, an entrepreneur in the world of fragrances, was appointed CEO of the Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in September 2020 after the Italian Italmobiliare investment group increased its holding in the company. «I wouldn’t say that we create products as they did in the Medieval Times because it wouldn’t be true», he points out. «Products are conceptualized based on formulations from back in the day, today our products need to be certified, produced with techniques of this age according to industry standards and regulations». Transparency and trust for a company that has chosen to allocate zero budget for marketing and advertising activities, relying on the word-of-mouth among connoisseurs of the brand has lasted its due course of time. Hinting at a future plan to enhance the dialogue and the relationship with customers online. «There is a willingness to let the world know about the story of Santa Maria Novella. The approach to communication is evolving, thanks to social media and to consumers that are keen to have contact with companies». 

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Acqua di colonia bottle sell in store

Post the acquisition, Santa Maria Novella is navigating a phase, looking to open up to a broader audience without losing its authenticity, identity or aesthetic. The fonts and branding details – bottles, jars, and cases – represent a nostalgia-infused alternative to the appearances of those in the beauty sector. «In the rest of the world, we cannot present a location like the Antica Spezieria, the apothecary shop reserved for sale from 1612 to 1848 that was accessed from the ‘Great Cloister’ of Santa Maria Novella through the portal designed by Matteo Nigetti, or the store we have in via della Scala, in Florence. The products are what convey the brand’s image and message», Perri says. A message to expand into a label that counts over 600 products. «Our range is covered in a way that we can look into people and their needs», Perris says. «Markets, including Asia, prefer fresher and lighter colognes. Areas in the United States or Japan appreciate home fragrances, while others pander in skincare». Potpourri is a derivate of the line of perfumes that is intended for spaces, it has garnered attention over the years. The Rose Water toner is a staple that monks started producing as early as the Fourteenth century. It was used as a household cleanser following the plague with antibiotic and antiseptic properties. He clarifies: «Today, we have treatments in place, to guarantee that water is bacteriologically free. It is rose water, but we cannot compare it to the rose water from the Fourteenth century. For marketing reasons people would say: ‘We make rose water as the Dominican Monks did’, I do not condone informing consumers of stories that are not based on facts».

Phases of the products preparation processes are handmade to this day, within a few miles’ radius from the premises, the company has its manufacturing plant – from perfumery to cosmetics, liqueurs and dietary supplements, manual work continues to be churn in these departments. «The collection of ingredients, the treatment of wax products and candles, soaps and packaging processes are handmade, but we use machines to guarantee quality». Some raw materials and processes have disappeared, been banned or refined, through the centuries, but what has been preserved and passed down to this day is the philosophy rooted in the Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella lines. Looking back on history – within an industry that is dependent on advanced intelligence – a viable approach is to move forward. «A return to the consumption of natural approaches has become a phenomenon. Looking to pharmacopeia, what we do at Santa Maria Novella, is of relevance», Perris comments. The company has been investing in solutions – FSC certified paper and regenerated plastic. It is committed to the valorization of glass, and ongoing research into packaging materials with the environmental impact and recyclability in mind. A pledge to sourcing supplies locally, when available, plays a role, as Perris says: «An ingredient in our products is Balsamite, an herb we grow and harvest in our 15,000 square meters garden in Florence while others come from our local area». Cases and bottles are sourced from suppliers in Florence or in Italy, he adds. «The Italmobiliare group conducts an audit to understand how sustainable we are». Santa Maria Novella’s production facility has had solar panels installed, the firm researches and implements solutions for waste-water treatment and the use of non-harmful products, Perris notes.

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vault of the sacristy which now houses the store

When it comes to the workforce, the CEO points out women’s presence across company levels – in the perfumery industry at-large, he says. In the months since his appointment, he says he has witnessed a bond with employees: «People have been working here for the least ten years». At Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella the prices start from 10 Euros – for soap bars and aromatic waters – up to 100 Euros, for colognes. «The product is accessible, if you consider the quality presented to the consumer», Perris says. During the pandemic, despite travel and mobility restrictions, the brand has managed to confirm the loyalty of its customers, he adds: «Worldwide, we sold close to the quantity of products that we had in 2019». The Florentine store, which is a bustling international meeting point, has seen a decrease in footfall – «Florence, a touristic city, has been hit hard by the health emergency» – sales went ahead through international distributors and the online shops.

The Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the founding members of the Florentine Historical Enterprises Association. With the Presidency of Eugenio Alphandery in 2012, an engineer, who came to Santa Maria Novella when the Stefanis called him to fix a broken machine, the Association becomes the Italian Historical Enterprises Union and in 2019 the Italian Centenary Enterprises Union. The forty-one Associates are companies are constituted by the development of the activity by sharing values ​​such as the territory they belong to, experience and quality. Santa Maria Novella was cemented by Catherine de Medici, the daughter of Florentine ruler who became queen of France in 1547. She introduced the world to heels and forks – commissioned the perfumery to create her signature scent, which came to be called Acqua della Regina (Water of the Queen). The monks had the intuition to use alcohol. Acqua della Regina was the first European perfume to use alcohol instead of mixing it with oil or vinegar. In 1866 SMN went public. Soon after, the company’s last monastic director transferred its operations to his nephew, Cesare Augusto Stefani. Four generations of Stefanis have managed the company since.

IMAGE GALLERY

Santa Maria Novella
Via della Scala, 16
Florence, Italy

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