The current state of Florentine perfumer Santa Maria Novella raises interesting questions about quality and product perception.
Earlier in the year myself and Luke were given a tour around the brand’s new manufacturing facilities in Florence, as well as a look behind the scenes at the stunning shop in the centre of town.
Santa Maria Novella has been expanding fast in recent years, particularly in Asia, and bought the new factory in 2000 in order to cope with the demand. It has now outstripped that one, and is buying another with a multi-million euro refurb.
There is much to admire in that expansion. It has largely been under Santa Maria Novella’s control, rather than through agents. The products have not mushroomed: there were two new fragrances in 2012, but they were limited editions and have not been redone. And staff in all the new shops or concessions must fly to Florence for training, even if they come from New Zealand.
But it has required a step change in production.
Years ago, the manufacturing was all done on site, which means in the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in the centre of Florence. It’s a wonderful space, with a case for being the most beautiful shop in the world; there are domed ceilings, original wooden cabinets, and an on-site gardener curating unusual orchids.
But it’s not a place for industrial-level manufacture, indeed for machinery at all. Production was gradually moved out of the centre until it all ended up in the current building in the suburbs.
There, scale took over. Turbo emulsion machines, over 8ft-tall and working with 50kg drums of skin cream, made things much more efficient. Perfumes could be stored in pressurised metal tanks with precise measurements. It’s a far cry from the romance of the frescoed Basilica back in town.
But then such machines are 10-times bigger at other, international beauty companies. Those companies would never bother to produce so close to their traditional home. And far more importantly, the scale of production doesn’t necessarily make any difference to quality.
This is why I find the current state of Santa Maria Novella so interesting. They still do a lot of the production by hand – all of the scented wax blocks are poured individually, with the herbs being sprinkled in afterwards (see picture above). But they shouldn’t. It’s incredibly time-consuming and makes no difference to the quality of the product.
A lot of the packaging is done by hand, as well, something that Gianluca Foa of SMN (pictured above and below) emphasised. But again, does this really matter? It’s even debatable whether the packaging matters at all, let alone whether it’s done by hand. (Personally I’m prepared to pay for good packaging, particularly if it’s as nice as SMN’s.)
What Santa Maria Novella should emphasise is the quality points that do separate them from other perfume and beauty-product brands.
For example, anyone that has used an SMN soap will have noticed how it lasts 3-5 times longer than a regular soap. This is largely because it is aged – kept in a big temperature-controlled case and allowed to oxidise for 3-4 weeks. A lot of the water evaporates, making a more concentrated product.
(Above: the soaps being aged, and Gianluca showing one that is halfway through the ageing process)
Some of these processes have been replaced. The potpourri, for example, used to be aged for three months in terracotta jars. That was no better than doing so in modern vats, just more traditional, so it has been changed. But then the liqueurs are still stored in the original barrels. (Both shown below.)
Someone like SMN struggles a little bit to know which of these things to emphasise. Traditional techniques are a lot easier to push, but quality ingredients usually make more of a difference.
For me, it should be about clarity and transparency throughout. And I’m more than prepared to then buy in (to a certain extent) to the history, the family, and the frescoes.
I’ll do a separate post later on the history of SMN and the basilica itself
Photos: Luke Carby