The Mixed Legacy of Francois Coty

The Chinese heritage mansion in Georgetown, the capital of Penang island in Malaysia, may not have been the most obvious place to reflect on François Coty had it not been for the perfume flacons on display. The vanity tables in the ladies’ quarters featured L’Aimant scented talcs, cream powders, soaps and colognes. Some boxes were barely touched, with the bottles still set into the artfully rumpled peach satin. That these bottles traveled from France to this Southeast Asian town in the interwar era is a testament to Coty’s marketing genius.

malaysia-coty

The man who gave the multi-million dollar fragrance empire his name was a renegade. Decades before Estée Lauder purportedly made it acceptable for women to treat themselves to a bottle of perfume, he revolutionized the industry by breaking some of its rules. Coty cleverly matched the packaging to scents and created eye-catching designs and logos. He offered budget alternatives and scented products, from oils to creams and powders. He didn’t shy away from using new materials, and to this day, the accords he favored qualify as classics. Most of his fragrances charted new avenues in perfumery and set lasting trends.

While we may still admire his daring feat with Chypre, L’Aimant, Emeraude or L’Origan, Coty’s legacy has a dark underbelly. His insistence on external trappings and clever marketing  have left the industry struggling to define itself 100 years later. The onslaught of copy-cat products and clever concepts but dull scents can in part be attributed to this ambitious, visionary but ultimately flawed individual. His politics were even more unsavory. An ardent admirer of Benito Mussolini, he used his perfume business fortune to launch a right-wing newspaper, L’Ami du peuple, and support fascist groups. Politics would eventually be his downfall, along with the 1929 Wall Street crash and a messy divorce that reduced Coty’s personal fortune to naught.

As I researched these topics, I came across a New Yorker article from its May 3rd, 1930 issue titled Perfume and Politics. While it was written during the years when Coty’s fortune was in steady decline, it still presents the perfumer as a person of power and influence. Don’t expect much opprobrium; the writer takes much care to exonerate Coty from some of the most damning charges, explaining his far right-leaning views as a “business necessity” (a depressingly familiar refrain used to excuse today’s morally bankrupt policies).

The main reason I recommend this article is not politics, but perfume. Learning how Coty perfected his formulas, along with a team of “imported French smellers” and chemists or how much jasmine essence was worth ($800 a pound in contrast to today’s $9,000) is a precious glimpse into perfumery’s past. The industry has been changing so dramatically that the 30s seem like another universe, in which much of the work was still done by hand and most ingredients were still natural.

Some things don’t change, and they’re the unique regional preferences accounting for perfume tastes. Did you know that “American women like middling-passionate fantasy odors and no posy smells, whereas the chillier, land-loving British dames require only the chastest invented odors and pure garden bouquets. Blunt amber and heliotrope, most passionate of beast and blossom odors, intoxicate all the Spanish-speaking señoritas. Amber and rose in their rarest forms, considered by perfumers to be the peak of their art, please the French”?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, vintage Coty L’Aimant

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70 Comments

  • The Scented Salon: Imagining those unopened bottles standing still in time as the ladies lived and died is at once depressing and inspiring. Inspiring because perfume “things” age and change but do not decompose. Depressing because no one really enjoyed the experience of the scent hidden inside the presentation bottles.

    As with several well-known perfumers, the world of war allowed bravery and cowardice to emerge full-frontally. I have not smelled any original Coty products but I do pass by the horrid concoctions created under this name today that are sold at the pharmacy with a nostalgic sigh. March 19, 2015 at 9:26am Reply

    • Michaela: You are right about the ‘horrid concoctions’. But Coty also carries very interesting inexpensive fragrances like Eau de Gaga or Madonna Truth or Dare, and ‘normally’ priced ones, like Bottega Veneta, if I remember well. March 19, 2015 at 10:36am Reply

      • Victoria: Bottega Veneta line overall is terrific and super well-done, and even many celebrity fragrances from Coty are decent. One may not like Eau de Gaga, but at least, it’s a solid, well-done, affordable fragrance. It doesn’t pretend to be some rare grand cru, just a fun, uplifting fragrance. March 19, 2015 at 11:16am Reply

        • Ellen: I didn’t even know Bottega Veneta was Coty’s brand! March 19, 2015 at 1:51pm Reply

          • Victoria: Yes, they have a license over their fragrance division, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t think that they actually own it, but I need to double check. March 19, 2015 at 4:08pm Reply

      • limegreen: What an interesting history lesson!
        Muguet des Bois is a nice (and affordable!) Coty. I looked it up and discovered to my surprise that it’s done by Henri Robert (of no. 19 fame).
        Does anyone know — Coty had an earlier Muguet, did Robert reformulate it into MdB? March 19, 2015 at 5:28pm Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t think. MdB was created in 1942 by Robert. True muguet accords would have been hard to create in Coty’s time, because it was before the necessary aroma-chemicals were invented. March 19, 2015 at 6:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Perhaps, they were a gift and the recipient just liked to look at them. After all, in the hot humid climate of Penang, heavy French-style perfumes really don’t work. As my Indonesian friend put it, “you want to feel clean, you don’t put a cologne in our climate. You just take a shower.” March 19, 2015 at 11:25am Reply

    • Joy: A friend of my mothers wore Emeraude always with her fur coat, likely the only fur coat in our little agrarian town. The combination of that heavy perfume and the fur coat was truly awful. She was a hugger and kisser, so one always got an up close dose of the cloying fragrance combo. March 19, 2015 at 6:37pm Reply

  • Michaela: Beautiful glimpse in the old times! Coty was, no doubt, a character and exceptionally good in marketing.
    I also liked the 1930 article a lot. Perfumers relied on sperm whales, musk oxes and male civet. ‘These three beasts form the main trio necessary to the making of most fine perfumes today, for they furnish the fatty fixatives which prevent the perfume itself from evaporating. Then alcohol must be added to the fixatives to preserve them from decay, and doubtless something must be done to the alcohol to preserve it from being drunk.’ Never thought of drinking perfume! 🙂
    Funny how ladies tastes from the whole world were respected. Ladies, and not gentlemen. March 19, 2015 at 9:40am Reply

    • Michaela: My first perfume as a teen was Hyacinth by Coty, which I was very proud of. More lily of the valley scent than hyacinth, refreshing, luminous spring in a bottle. And it was long lasting, too. March 19, 2015 at 9:44am Reply

      • Victoria: That one I haven’t tried, but I have seen the packaging. Very nice! March 19, 2015 at 11:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Today, thankfully, the beasts don’t need to be harmed for their essences (although musk deer is still hunted for Chinese medicine preparations), and the synthetic replacements are very good. As for the drinking perfume part, as a kid, I once tried to imitate Scarlett O’Hara and rinse my mouth with cologne. Friends, don’t do it. Horrible doesn’t begin to describe it.

      In the Soviet days, a cologne called Chypre (not but by Coty, though) was a favorite choice of alcoholics, because it was either cheaper or more widely available than vodka. March 19, 2015 at 11:23am Reply

      • Austenfan: You were such an enterprising little girl!

        I once tried to eat soap actually, out of curiosity of course. March 19, 2015 at 6:03pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yikes! I don’t imagine that it went better than my cologne experience. March 19, 2015 at 6:27pm Reply

        • Michaela: What?! :)))
          Sorry you had to discover it the hard way. March 20, 2015 at 6:23am Reply

          • Victoria: Aha, I now recall tasting soap as a kid. My grandmother bought wild strawberry scented soap that had a pretty imprint of berries. Once, I found her stash and tried taking a small bite of the pink bar. It was my first realization that some things smell better than they taste. March 20, 2015 at 6:31am Reply

      • Michaela: Oh, poor girl! :)))

        Can’t imagine people would deliberately drink this. Terrible. March 20, 2015 at 6:21am Reply

        • Victoria: Yeah, addiction can be pretty awful. March 20, 2015 at 6:28am Reply

      • Austenfan: Still a lot safer than drinking anti-freeze, which I seem to remember happened quite a lot too. March 20, 2015 at 8:10am Reply

  • spe: Coty must have been one of the most colorful characters in the perfumery world. The writer mentions two attributes of a perfumer and then proceeds to omit any reference to Coty regarding one of them: good taste. March 19, 2015 at 10:37am Reply

    • Victoria: I completely agree with you, the writer of that article also didn’t convince me that Coty had good taste in a polished, “just so” sense of this term. His fragrances were avant-garde, but they were brash and many were difficult to wear in their original versions. It’s not surprising that we love Guerlain Mitsouko and Shalimar and forget about Chypre and Emeraude, their oldest siblings. Interestingly enough, the subsequent versions of Emeraude were reformulated a la Guerlain, toning down the harsh elements and adding more vanilla. March 19, 2015 at 10:45am Reply

      • OperaFan: Now That last part is interesting…. The inspirer imitating the very thing his own work inspired….
        Thank you for this very insightful post! March 20, 2015 at 8:01am Reply

        • Victoria: That made me smile. Yes, with perfume you can always go back and tweak here and there. 🙂 March 20, 2015 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Blacknall Allen: An intriguing post about a man who was equal parts scoundrel and genius. I’d add to your points that he was a tremendous lothario, was the possible inventor of vertical integration in business, and was a natural nose. I’ve also read that he was thrown out of the Houbigant offices for attempting to buy them out, and got into a tussle with the head of Renault motors over keeping a creche at one of his factories, oh and he was a tremendous anti-semite. What a life. March 19, 2015 at 11:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, yes, in his spare time from it all, he penned vitriolic anti-Semitic articles for his newspaper, and finally, he was taken to court over them. But in the end, Coty business went to his wife Yvonne after their divorce. March 19, 2015 at 11:18am Reply

  • Kat: Regional scent-preferences can be quite surprising and intriguing. I’d like to see a map of olfactory preferences – they do not just apply to perfume but toiletries/cosmetics in general. British toiletries rely on flowery notes – that’s nothing new. But recently I ordered a couple of soaps, lip balms etc. from Sweden for my niece who’s a big fan of everything Swedish. And all the stuff (different brands) was berry-scented. Opening that parcel was quite an overwhelming experience. March 19, 2015 at 1:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree, that’s so interesting. Regional scent preferences are fascinating, and although the global launches have blurred the lines a little bit, there are still distinctions. For instance, there is a particular kind of citrusy fruity-floral scent that instantly reads as Japanese to me. Or the aldehydic-floral scent of soaps and creams here in Belgium and in Ukraine (aldehydic floral scents for soaps and shower gels seem to be popular there, since they convey a clean impression). March 19, 2015 at 1:27pm Reply

      • Ellen: Are there big differences between American and British preferences today? Have things changed much since the article was written? March 19, 2015 at 1:53pm Reply

        • Victoria: It has changed since the 30s, and American women today like florals as much as their British counterparts, but there is a bigger taste for white florals in the US than you’d find in the UK. The top seller lists are not identical by any means, although some big sellers (Angel, J’Adore, Coco Mademoiselle) feature prominently on both lists. March 19, 2015 at 4:10pm Reply

  • Karen: Thanks for the interesting article and link. What struck me in the old newspaper article, was the complete control Coty had on the process. It’s difficult to imagine the same today, when sourcing out supplies (bottles/containers, atomizers, etc.) is a way to keep costs down.

    And although prices for raw ingredients seem absurdly low – there are sites to do calculations to get costs in today’s world. Did this after learning that the founder of the Walters Museum in Baltimore paid $1,000,000 in 1902 for the contents of an Italian palace – now that would be close to $1 billion.

    It also is a reminder since we now know about his anti-Semitism and other views, that who we now buy from can be influenced by knowledge of the designers/CEOs views. March 19, 2015 at 3:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: 800 dollars in today’s money is not a pittance at all, so the comparison is not ideal. But it’s still fun to reflect how different the industry used to be back in the day. Today so few people control the process start to finish, but it seems that Coty wasn’t doing it alone either. It also challenges the usual story that he was the sole perfumer in charge. Clearly, that’s not right, because he worked with other technical perfumers and as an amateur he couldn’t have possibly blended all of those marvels himself.

      His political views are part of Coty story too, because it affected his business, his decisions, his launches, how others treated his fragrances. March 19, 2015 at 4:20pm Reply

    • angeldiva: Hi Karen,
      Your observations are interesting! I hope you are loving the Iris perfume.
      On a personal note- thank-you so much for the relayed info. I am crazy busy, and facing some challenging medical tests.
      I did think of you! My elderly neighbor is bravely recovering from cataract surgery. So, I gave her my bottle of Ma Griffe. It was so generous of you to do your giveaway here on BdJ.
      I’m waiting to hear if the scent works for her, if not I’ll give her a bottle of something more modern in my collection.
      Please keep a positive thought for me:)
      Peace March 19, 2015 at 10:30pm Reply

      • Karen: Lots of love coming your way, and how sweet to pass on your Ma Griffe to your neighbor. Send a post when you can. The Iris is wonderful – a perfect addition for layering and I think will be nice on its own in warmer weather.(reminds me of a perfect weight cream cashmere sweater that can be worn on its own or under shirts, blouses). Plus just having a Yardley “something” makes me happy, remembering all their ads and lavender from the 60’s/70’s. March 20, 2015 at 6:08am Reply

        • angeldiva: Oh!
          Happy, happy happy. I have layered the Iris with Kenzo Flower with great effect as well.
          Thank-you so much, Karen!
          🙂 March 20, 2015 at 7:03am Reply

  • Joy: This is a fascinating story. I had no idea of Coty’s link to antisemitism. The story causes me to take a completely different view of his fragrances. I have read that Chanel was very pro Nazi.
    I remember sitting in study hall in the 60’s and a friend sat in the next row over. She always wore L’aimont. I loved that fragrance and had to buy a bottle.
    I never did like Emeraude except for the soap. It was too heavy; too much sillage; just too everything, even the green color.
    I would love to see more of these historic displays. They look so luxurious.
    Thank you, Victoria, for a thought provoking read! March 19, 2015 at 4:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: All of these are difficult topics to parse out, but they are a part of the story, and it’s important to talk about them. Perfume doesn’t exist in the vacuum, it’s a product of its time.
      Some companies today also support activities we might find unethical, so in the end, it’s a personal choice whether to buy their products or not. As long as the information is out, one can make their judgement call. It’s worth noting, though, after the 30s, Coty company was no longer in Coty’s hands, and now it’s managed by completely different entities still. So, it’s more of a story of one individual, with all of his genius and his flaws. March 19, 2015 at 5:10pm Reply

  • Bettina: Another factor in the wearing of fragrance in the tropics (and sub-tropics where I live) is mosquitos! In summer I have to avoid perfumes and scented products or become a magnet for biting insects. March 19, 2015 at 4:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ah, thank you for that reminder, Bettina! Yes, I remember being warned in India not to wear perfumes during the mosquito season. March 19, 2015 at 5:02pm Reply

    • limegreen: Citrus colognes (lemon, bergamot, grapefruit) or spice-laden perfumes (cinnamon, cloves) are my mosquito-repelling choices in the warm weather here. I don’t live in the sub-tropics though! March 19, 2015 at 5:19pm Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Interesting story about a strange, complex person. I thought: where is much light, there is much shadow as well.
    He is not the only antisemit in the world of fashion and perfume: the Boss firm designed the Nazi- uniforms. March 19, 2015 at 5:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t particular like that expression in this case, because there are plenty of smart, interesting individuals in the beauty and fashion world that don’t have such “dark shadows” like Coty. March 19, 2015 at 6:24pm Reply

  • Joy: Well stated Cornelia regarding light and shadow. Also, reminding us of war profiteers including architects, artists; the list goes on. March 19, 2015 at 6:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Some companies that were war profiteers ended up paying large restitution fees. Coty also paid for his politics (although it was the divorce that deprived him of his business.) March 19, 2015 at 6:44pm Reply

  • Ann: I had to share your photo with my husband and sons. We were in the Chinese Heritage Mansion in January and I was compulsively photographing the dressers and vanities covered in perfume bottles and beauty potions. I even peaked inside a few closed boxes of soap/perfume collections, just to see the old bottles and labels. While in Penang, I met a young man named Josh Lee who has produced two fragrances that are widely sold on the island–an Oud and something he calls George Town. I bought his Oud… his family was in the baking business, selling baking supplies–sugar, spices, marzipan, etc. and he grew up surrounded by scent. Although hot and humid, Penang is bursting with fragrance from incense, frangipani trees, and spices in everything. My father lives in Penang and he’s always finding new fragrant teas for me to try. I also smelled nutmeg oil and lemon grass in many homes. March 19, 2015 at 10:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree! Penang is a highly scented place, because it’s so hot and humid. With the perfumes of melua (Malay jasmine) and frangipani were so strong and rich that I never even felt I wanted to wear some other fragrance. And incense! It was the end of Chinese New Year festivities, and the whole place was perfumed with sandalwood, clove and cinnamon. The local aromatic blends like lemongrass, camphor, nutmeg have a pleasantly sharp sensations, and I can see how that would be good on a hot day.

      Interesting story about the young perfumer! And of course, Malaysian food is the total feast for all senses. March 20, 2015 at 6:24am Reply

      • Josh Lee: Thank you Ann. It was a pleasure to meet you and your husband too. April 27, 2015 at 6:47am Reply

  • angeldiva: I see a small bottle of Shocking by Schiapparelli!

    P. March 19, 2015 at 10:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: You have such sharp eyes! I didn’t spot it. March 20, 2015 at 6:25am Reply

      • angeldiva: Gee…
        If you didn’t spot it -I may be wrong. Isn’t it to the left of the Coty powder?
        It looks just like the ones on ebay.

        🙂 March 20, 2015 at 7:07am Reply

        • Victoria: You must be right! I have a photo with more of the table on view, so I will double check. March 20, 2015 at 12:11pm Reply

          • angeldiva: I’d rather be kind than right! lol
            Actually in my world -I love to be wrong! March 20, 2015 at 8:23pm Reply

            • Victoria: I can’t read the name on the box, but I spotted 4711, Goya and Ponds cream on the expanded version of this photo. March 23, 2015 at 11:55am Reply

  • Annabel Farrell: Went round this fascinating house about three years ago and, while these scent bottles were indeed amazing, what I remember most is the wonderful display of beautiful embroidered (and tiny) shoes! March 19, 2015 at 11:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: I really should write a separate post about it, because the Peranakan culture, mixing the Chinese and Malay influences, is fascinating, and we had such a good time visiting the house. The guides there were so enthusiastic and funny. March 20, 2015 at 6:27am Reply

  • mazlifa: Yes Victoria, you must write a separate post about the Peranakan. I’m from Penang and haven been reading and looking forward to your post daily for years. I was also in awe when I saw Coty’s product at the Blue Mansion. Thanks much for the history behind the perfume. March 20, 2015 at 7:36am Reply

    • Victoria: OK! I definitely will. 🙂 I loved my visit to Penang, food, architecture, temples, and of course, people.
      This was at the Peranakan Heritage House, although you’re right, I also saw Coty perfumes at the Blue Mansion. Now, that house was something else, and the vivid azure color looked beautiful in the sun. March 20, 2015 at 12:14pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Such a pity that such a great creator was in many ways not such a “nice” man. Knowing that Céline was anti-semitic has so far kept me from reading any of his work, which by many is considered excellent.

    I only realised last year that Malaysia is such a culinary melting pot. I occasionally watch MasterChef on the BBC and last years winner was a very charming Malaysian lady. March 20, 2015 at 8:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Louis Ferdinand Celine was such a vitriolic, toxic individual, and like you, I’m turned off his works. As for Coty, there has been much breathless prose devoted to him and no critical take on his legacy. He was in many ways one of the major trendsetters, but some trends he engendered have not been entirely positive.

      There was a show on Malaysia on the BBC called “A Cook Abroad,” with Rachel Khoo traveling around and tasting various dishes. It was a lot of fun, especially since she pretty much followed our path around Penang. March 20, 2015 at 12:30pm Reply

  • Rickyrebarco: This is fascinating. I did not know much at all about Mr. Coty’s personal life or how he ran his perfume business. Thanks for sharing! March 20, 2015 at 11:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you found it interesting! He certainly didn’t shy away from controversy. March 20, 2015 at 12:39pm Reply

  • marlene: All of these comments are interesting bits of history. Emeraude-a sophisticated(to this once young girl)and classy friend of my mother wore it. I got a bottle of my own at thirteen and wore it because I admired this lady. I did not really like it but it made me feel grown up. The power of scent! March 22, 2015 at 12:57am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree! Scents really can play a big role in how we see ourselves and others. Emeraude is certainly a dramatic perfume, a statement maker. March 23, 2015 at 11:53am Reply

  • Soraya: Slightly late in posting….

    I’m glad you covered Penang whilst you were in Malaysia! Being Malaysian, I do think it’s a lot more humid in Penang, it being an island and all. And yes, perfumes can get a bit overpowering in the weather.

    Lucky me I’m in Kuala Lumpur and mostly confined to an air-conditioned office. So I shamelessly spray on the ouds and muscs 🙂

    Probably the scent I associate most with Malaysia would be the “pandan” leaf. Used in cooking, baking, and even to scent some homemade talcum powder – it’s something that will always remind me of home 🙂 April 11, 2015 at 1:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Soraya! I enjoyed reading this and being reminded of my visit, and yes, the scent of pandan is evocative of Malaysia. I love it! How do you scent talcum powder with pandan leaves? Now, I’m curious to try it myself. April 12, 2015 at 1:38am Reply

      • Soraya: The traditional Malaysian talcum powder, or “cooling rice powder”…a fix-it-all when it comes to ensuring your skin is blemish-free and glows (so says my dearest Granny!)

        The pandanus leaf is used in the preparation of this powder. Basically you begin by soaking rice in water, together with pandan extract (pandan leaves that have been soaked and blended, then strained to get the liquid). The rice is left to soak for 30 days. Apparently the longer you soak it the better. I guess it’s fermenting longer so the result would be a more potent powder. The water that the rice soaks in must be changed every 2-3 days. Once the 30 days is up, the rice gets blended into a liquid and piped out into tiny dots onto a tray to let dry. The result is a pandan scented tray of tiny pellets that you store in a jar and reconstitute into a paste whenever you need to zap off a zit or just ease a rash. my granny used to crush these powder pellets into fine powder and use it generously on her grand kids ! 🙂 April 12, 2015 at 2:44pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much, Soraya! These are the kind of recipes I love learning about. Definitely need to try it! My Indian mother-in-law as a recipe for sweets that starts the same way–soaking rice for several days, then drying it and grinding into powder. You make dough with this powder and the resulting sweet is lacy and full of bubbles. Absolutely delicious! April 12, 2015 at 3:04pm Reply

          • Soraya: Indian sweets are my vice! Gulab jamun and ras malai….Devine!! April 17, 2015 at 5:34am Reply

  • Josh Lee: Hello Victoria! Not sure if you have noticed my perfumes (OUD by Josh Lee and George Town by Josh Lee) which were selling in the gift shop of the Chinese Heritage Mansion aka The Blue Mansion aka Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.

    Would be pleased to share my perfumes with you. Please let me know. April 27, 2015 at 6:53am Reply

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