The Cologne Wars – Who Comes Out Smelling Like a Rose?

I love perfume. like, looooove it. I probably have over 50 bottles, spritzers, misters, and vials, in every imaginable manifestation: oils, sprays, dabbers, aerosols, testers, creams, lotions, and even in solid form. When I die, they won’t have to embalm me; they can just pickle me in all my fragrances, because I’ll never use them all up during my lifetime.

Luckily, I’m not alone in my love of the fragrant stuff. Millions of people around the globe share in my obsession. Perfume is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Around $30-40 billion a year, in fact. We’ve been schmearing, spritzing and dabbing ourselves with fragrance for thousands of years, and with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Of course, many would argue that the French are some of the most skilled, prolific perfumers in the world. But, did you know that it was an Italian living in Germany who changed the perfume industry forever?

Giovanni (Johann) Maria Farina was born in 1685 in Italy. He moved to Cologne, Germany, and decided set up a perfume shop, which opened in 1709. Farina used oils and ingredients reminiscent of his home in the Mediterranean, such as lemon, lime, jasmine and rosemary. His recipe was quite a departure from the heavier, musky fragrances popular in Europe at the time. This combination of fragrances mixed with alcohol was an innovative approach, but perhaps it was this unique combination that helped make his perfume so popular. Even the aristocracy became enamored of his fragrance, which he named “cologne” after his new hometown. His fragrance was favoured by Mozart, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria of England, just to name a few.

Farina Fragrance Museum

Standing in front of the Farina Fragrance Museum

While visiting Cologne, we took the tour offered at the Farina museum, which included a wonderful peek into the cellars beneath the shop. (Apparently they also offered some historical tours by a costumed interpreter presenting himself as Johann Farina, telling his story from the first-person POV. Alas, we took the standard tour with a modern-day interpreter.)

As part of the price of admission, we were handed a lovely sample of Farina’s cologne, emblazoned with its trademark tulip design:

farina cologne

Farina cologne and a brochure about the company

We were ushered down the stairs and sat down in a cramped, dimly-lit little room in the cellar. Our guide taught us a little bit about the science of essence extraction and distillation, before getting down to the fun stuff.

Our tour guide offered several different glass bottles filled with varying scents for us to sniff. “Do you have what it takes to be a perfumer?” she asked challengingly. “You must have a very good nose to make it in this business.”

I like to think I have a good sniffer, and I was able to quickly identify the first two fragrances she wafted under my nose. I was very pleased with myself. But that sense of accomplishment didn’t last long. Apparently I can’t tell the difference between orange, tangerine, or clementine, but maybe that just makes my olfactory senses average. Still, I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be offered a job in the perfume industry.

Farina cologne brochure

So they won’t hire me for my olfactory skills, but I can still dream!

The tour continued upstairs, where the Rococo-style furnishings gave a distinctly French atmosphere. Italian, German and French influences seem to compliment each other well here.

Up to this point, the Farina story seemed to be quite a simple tale about a successful perfume company. But this was where the tale became complicated, and even a little maddening.

You see, back when Farina began his company, copyrights and trademarks didn’t exist. It wasn’t long before competitors sprang up, not only using the “eau de cologne” terminology, but even being so bold as to use the Farina name for their scents.

One man in particular, Wilhelm Mülhens, stands out in this story. Depending on what source you read, his role in the Farina franchise started one of two ways. Some stories say that in 1792 he received a secret recipe for “aqua mirabilis,” or miracle water, from a Carthusian monk as a wedding gift, which he decided to market as cologne. (Its original intended purpose was as a medicine for a variety of ailments.) Other sources claim that Johann Farina himself sold the formula for cologne to Mülhens. Mülhens did claim that he purchased the use of the Farina name, at least, from a member of the Farina family. The problem was, this Farina was no relation to Johann Farina, the perfumer.

Regardless of how he got his start, Mülhens entered the fragrance market with his own cologne version, and had no qualms about attaching the Farina name to his product. He also “licensed” use of the Farina name and the right to produce the product to numerous other perfumers, even though he had no legal standing to do so. Eventually the courts voided the illegal licenses and the businesses were forced to close.

It wasn’t long before Mülhens’ son travelled to Italy to seek out another man with the Farina surname to establish a company under the same name. More lawsuits ensued, and eventually, in 1881, Mülhens’ grandson was ordered to stop using the Farina name on their products. Wisely, he acquiesced. Instead, he decided to use the building number of the original Mülhens house and perfume factory as the new brand name:

4711 Cologne

Look familiar?

The details of how everything fell into place is even more convoluted than what I can piece together here, but in essence, this was the beginning of 4711 Cologne.

I still can’t decide whether the elder Mülhens was an opportunist, a scam artist, or a brilliant businessman. Maybe a bit of all three. But in taking the Farina tour and hearing the darker side of their business dealings with the Mülhens’ company through the centuries, one can’t help but detect some lingering hard feelings. Many of the imitators that capitalized on using the Farina name used inferior ingredients and techniques, which in turn damaged the Farina reputation a bit.

Brimming with curiosity, we walked to the 4711 store to make some comparisons. Where the Farina store has a calming, rich French flavour, the 4711 store feels more like a high-end department store, with its distinct turquoise and gold boxes and bottles perfectly aligned along the shelves. They too, offer a tour, but it was only offered once a day and only in German, so we decided against taking it. They also offer a fragrance workshop which would have been interesting, but we only had a few days in Cologne and there was a lot to see and do, so we had to use our time wisely. But I would have liked to hear their spin on their founder and how he started the business.

So, how similar are both fragrances? Well I can’t speak for the original recipes, of course, and I don’t know how “true” the current ingredients are to the original colognes. But here’s my take:

4711 is often described as an “old-lady” fragrance, one that reminds people of lace tablecloths, patterned wallpaper and their grandma. Maybe because their grandmothers actually wore it, and their grandmothers before that. I rather like it myself, though it’s not one of my favourites. It starts out citrusy on first dab but quickly dries to a powdery, floral finish, a bit like baby powder, parma violets and lilac, with a hint of melon thrown in to keep it from feeling too heavy. The citrus notes all but vanish once it dries, though.

Farina packs a wallop with the citrus notes, which linger much longer than in 4711. The floral notes mellow and aren’t overtly feminine, so it could almost pass as a unisex scent. Farina also doesn’t carry the powdery essence 4711 has, and is therefore brighter and crisper. It also has a melon-y hint to it like 4711, but overall seems more summery if you’re prone to changing your fragrance choices depending on the seasons.

So for me, between the two, I lean more towards Farina. It’s a bit more complex while also being lighter and more flirty, for lack of a better description. But I did treat myself to another 4711 fragrance while in their shop:

4711 perfume

Something I liked better than the original 4711 cologne!

After visiting both shops and sampling their wares, I can honestly say that there is room in Cologne for both companies, regardless of their past history. Check them out for yourself and decide:

4711: website

Farina: (the main webpage wasn’t working at the time of this writing. However the Wayback Machine has old versions saved) website

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