I first discovered Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella about ten years ago during a summer spent in Florence for a fashion illustration class. I had heard about the little “farmacia” from several friends in the class. It was mentioned as the one shop above all others in Florence – the plentiful leather glove shops, the artisanal paperies, the high-end designers on Via Tuornabuoni – not to be missed. I set out with a map to find the world’s oldest, still-operating farmacia somewhere adjacent to it’s namesake basilica, the famous 13th century Santa Maria Novella. It turned out the only map I needed was my nose; steps down from the striking white and green marble facade of the chiesa was the charming apothecary, drawing me toward it with aroma like a siren.
Even though I was only 19, you could argue I was late to get on the bandwagon. Santa Maria Novella products have had a loyal following and an animated history that date back 8 centuries. In 1221 the farmaceutica was founded by the Dominican friars who worshiped at the basilica. They began creating balms, ointment and remedies from the medicinal herbs in their gardens to use in the convent’s small infirmary. By 1600, the reputation of their herbal remedies had spread far and wide and demand was strong enough that the friars opened the pharmacy to the public. Toward the end of the 1800’s when the Italian government confiscated church assets, the pharmacy became a state-owned enterprise ran by the nephew of the last monastic director. The nephew eventually bought the business and four successive generations of the same family have run it ever since, preserving the traditions, formulas, and artisanal procedures established by the early Dominican fathers.
Having read somewhere in recent years that the distributor Lafco had partnered with SMN to bring it here to the States, I had been meaning to reacquaint myself with the Florentine brand that I remembered vividly from my Italian summer a decade ago. Finally, I popped in last week during a trip to New York. It’s an unassuming shop downtown that 20-somethings whiz by on their way to SoulCycle at Astor place and others pass with indifference as they take in a podcast on their way to work. Look up. Make time. It’s a magical little place full of unique time-loved curiosities.
These products have remained unchanged for centuries, bearing ingredients and formulas that rely on the old-world acuity of herbal powers. Some of the most distinctive are: the “pasta di mandorle” (almond paste for healing skin); “olio nutriente notte” (skin nourishing night oil to use during the change of season); “olio cosmetico” (an azulene-chamomile based fluid to revitalize skin); “crema al polline“ (a facial moisturizer with wrinkle-fighting pollen); “crema al miele” (honey hair mask to recondition brittle hair with honey from the Santa Maria Novella beehives in Tuscany) and of course their most popular items, the “acqua di fior d’arancia” (orange blossom water made from the distillation of orange blossom petals for toning and refreshing the skin, with an aroma that can even soothe the common cold) and the “acqua di rose” (rose water from distilled rose petals to be used on the face for refreshing and soothing skin, on linens and throughout the house for aroma and antiseptic purposes). I also love that they offer old-school apothecary standards like tonics and talcum powders, shaving products and mouthwash.
Going to the store is a lovely throwback because there is an old-world approach to treatment. Tell them your problem – oily scalp, eczema, allergies, wrinkles – and they’ll retrieve just the right ointment for you. Pollen, lavender, mimosa, honey, chamomile, calendula, rose, macadamia, tobacco, vanilla, iris, and mint are just a few of the powerful botanical elements you’ll come across perusing their menu of products. And each product has an authentic aroma which reflects the natural raw materials at work. Trusting your nose again is a welcome change to the overwhelming synthetic fragrances that are so pervasive in commercial drugstore products these days. The store manager was affable and welcoming and the staff cheery and informative. They take pride in knowing their products and sharing that knowledge with you.
Eau de Colognes:
So what did I walk out with? A bright fragrance with notes of citrus, bergamot, clove blossom and white flowers called Santa Maria Novella Cologne.
When I told the shop attendant that this particular one was my favorite she explained that it was in fact the company’s oldest scent, and told me of it’s historic origin. Legend has it that in 1533 Caterina De Medici, just 14 years old and newlywed to the future king of France, commissioned the friars to create a signature scent to take with her to France. Caterina loved her “acqua della regina” (water of the queen) so much that she gave it out as gifts during her reign. I found it remarkable how contemporary the scent feels despite it’s age. I’ll surely be going back in the spring for the Orange Blossom Cologne – a light and lovely scent like faint florals in a breeze and fresh laundry washed with a European detergent (why do they always smell so much better than ours?). Santa Maria Novella has 42 colognes which are technically all unisex though some lean more feminine and some more masculine. I’m not just saying this: it’s easy to find several that you love. Most are wearable and interesting. The purer scents like rose, vanilla and vetiver would make lovely gifts for friends who wear signature notes.
A further word on gift ideas:
The beautiful sets of bar soaps make lovely hostess or housewarming gifts.
The baby products are a thoughtful gift for a new mom.
Another good option: the potent little jars of bath oil which create aroma while cleansing.
The bath oil scents (vetiver, sandalwood, pomegranate, carnation, citrus, gardenia) are divine and the packaging is dear, romantic even. In fact, across all product categories, the packaging denotes a lovely artisanal look to correspond to the all-natural homegrown ethos employed by the monks centuries ago.
In the past decade the company has expanded their retail business and distribution to stockists around the globe so you no longer have to go to Florence to get it. Here in the US, they have 5 stores: NY, LA, Dallas, Bal Harbour and Chevy Chase. (NY store info here). If you can’t get to any of those, their whole assortment is available online at www.santamarianovellausa.com. Beauty habit and Aedes also carry some of the line.
Snoop around and you’ll start noticing big names who love this venerable Florentine company: Soul Cycle founder Elizabeth Cutler, stylist Garance Doré, designer Zac Posen, designer Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Catherine Zeta Jones, Hillary Clinton, etc…