On a recent trip to Cologne I visited the flagship store of legendary fragrance brand 4711 in Glockengasse street. 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser is one of the most famous German perfume brands, with an interesting and rather convoluted brand history.
Most people who wear perfumes will be familiar with the different fragrance concentrations: Eau de Parfum (the strongest and most expensive perfume variant), Eau de Toilette (less concentrated, less expensive and usually the most popular fragrance type) and, of course, the light and refreshing Eau de Cologne.
As the French term indicates (Eau de Cologne literally translates as “Water of Cologne”), this fragrance format was inaugurated right here in the German city of Cologne, by Italian fragrance maker Johann Maria Farina (1685-1766). In 1709 Farina created a refreshing fragrance based on citrus fruits and herbs and called this scented water “eau de cologne” to honour his adoptive city.
Although Farina came up with the first Eau de Cologne, the most famous “Cologne water” is arguably 4711. 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser (“Original Cologne Water”) was officially launched in 1792. The brand name goes back to the house number of local businessman Wilhelm Muelhens (1762-1841). According to company lore, Muelhens received the formula for an Aqua Mirabilis (“Miracle Water”) from a Carthusian monk named Franz Maria Farina as a wedding present. This fragrance recipe became the basis for 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser.
From the early 19th century onwards Muelhens concentrated on manufacturing and marketing his 4711 perfume. 4711’s original company name was “Franz Maria Farina, Glockengasse 4711, Cöln”, by the way. Unsurprisingly, the family of Johann Maria Farina who, after all, also manufactured an Eau de Cologne, objected to the Muelhens’ use of their name.
Both families became embroiled in a prolonged legal battle over the use of the Farina name. The dispute went on for almost 80 years until, in 1881, the Muelhens family had to concede defeat and Wilhelm Muelhens’ son Ferdinand, by then the company owner, registered the company as “Eau de Cologne- und Parfümerie-Fabrik Glockengasse 4711”.
An international success
By the mid-19th century, 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser had become internationally famous, with customers from all over the world and subsidiaries in the US and Russia. The company supplied several European courts with its fragrance, including the Tsar of Russia, the Prince of Wales and the Emperor of Austria.
The 4711 blend also received a number of awards in the 19th and 20th century. And the Muelhens family expanded the product portfolio, introducing shaving soaps, talcum powders, creams and bar soaps as well as several other fragrances that are still available today: Tosca, for example, which was launched in 1921, and Sir Irisch Moos (1969).
Today 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser is a very popular German souvenir. The glass flacons carry a distinctive turquoise and gold label and a red cap – if you’ve ever travelled in Germany you might have seen it. Most German drugstores and perfumeries carry the 4711 fragrances and in the Cologne area you’ll find the perfume in practically all souvenir shops.
The current bottle design goes back all the way to 1820, when distiller Peter Heinrich Molanus came up with a hexagonal flacon which offered a large label space and was easy to stack and transport. Today 4711 still uses the Molanus design, with some slight alterations. The scent composition is also virtually unchanged and the formula is said to be a closely guarded secret. 4711 is a fresh, zesty concoction with revitalizing notes bergamot, lemon and orange, tempered by calming lavender and rosemary and accords of bitter orange-scented neroli. It’s a very recognizable unisex scent.
And the 4711 store in Glockengasse 4 is definitely worth a visit. Downstairs is the retail area which features the entire range of 4711 fragrances in different flacon sizes as well as the limited editions. There is a rather cool 4711 fountain near the door – dip your fingers in it for some quick refreshment. Upstairs is a fragrance museum which exhibits old fragrance bottles and advertising images and there are also a couple of lecture rooms for guided visits and fragrance seminars.
Today the 4711 brand belongs to German perfumery group Mäurer & Wirtz. Like so many beauty brands, 4711 changed hands several times over the past twenty years: up until 1994, the 4711 brand was still owned by the Muelhens family. Then the brand was sold to hair care manufacturer Wella which in turn was acquired in 2003 by consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble. And in 2006, P&G sold the Muelhens brands, including 4711 and Tosca, to fragrance company Mäurer & Wirtz.
A new life
Over the past decade, Mäurer & Wirtz has successfully rejuvenated the 4711 brand. In 2009, M&W launched the Aqua Colonia sub-range of fragrances, followed in 2011 by an updated version of the original 4711: Nouveau Cologne. I like the Aqua Colonia range in particular: the standard range comprises five unusual, aromatic blends which are built around two main fragrance notes each – Blood Orange & Basil, Lemon & Ginger, Mandarine & Cardamom, Pink Pepper & Grapefruit and Lime & Nutmeg. In addition, there are regular limited editions like Hazel & Tonka (a gorgeous scent!) and Plum & Honey which came out for Christmas 2014. Each fragrance is accompanied by a shower gel, body lotion and liquid hand soap.
Nouveau Cologne features notes of peony, blackcurrant and sandalwood but the blend still has the characteristic 4711 freshness. The Nouveau Cologne flacon also shows its brand heritage but in a modern and stylish design, with clean and simple lines and a distinctive blue-and-white label. Mäurer & Wirtz’s latest brand launch under the 4711 umbrella brand is Wunderwasser 4711 (“Wonder Water”, presumably an homage to the “aqua mirabilis” heritage of the classic 4711) which was introduced in 2014.
To return to Farina’s Eau de Cologne: this perfume is actually still in existence and according to what I’ve read, it is an international bestseller. A true niche brand: little known except amongst its loyal customers, a lot more expensive than 4711 and they also have a flagship store and museum in Cologne. I walked past the Farina house almost by accident and was quite charmed. Look out for a Farina profile soon! [EDIT 5/7/15: The Farina post is now online.]