The ‘other’ Corsican
1873 – 1934
If one name and one name only could be used to represent modern perfumery, then it would have to be Coty. For François Coty towers like a colossus above the rest, and other names, no matter how prestigious, noble or ancient, are forced to sail beneath his proudly outstretched feet.
Francois Coty revolutionised the perfume world, opening up markets undreamed of before his time, setting standards never before attempted, and ever after, never equalled.
Before Coty, perfume was sold like iodine or witch-hazel, in uniformly nondescript chemist’s flasks, wrapped in a twist of brown paper. With the coming of Coty, the flasks were made by Réné Lalique and presented in cases of embossed Morocco leather.
Francois Coty was born Joseph Marie François Sporturno, on 27 August, 1873, In Ajaccio, Corsica. His mother’s maiden name was Coti, his father, a modest landowner.
Orphaned at an early age, he was raised by his grandmother, a remarkable woman whom Coty was later to trust with setting up his field of operations in the United States.
By sublime coincidence, Coty was born next door to the house where the Other Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, first saw the light of day, and was in fact, distantly related, being a descendant and Bonaparte’s first cousin, Isabelle.
Very much later Coty would be asked if there was any similarity between them, and he would reply that the only difference was that ‘Napoleon never had a penny.’
Popular belief will maintain that the greater the man, the more modest and unassuming he will prove to be, and that very often behind a glamorous image, one will find a shy, sober-suited businessman. Such was not the case with Coty; the man was even greater than the legend.
At 11 years of age, Coty was already working for his living for a cloth merchant at Marseilles. After a spell as a clerk in an office, he joined the Army where he met Emmanuel Arene, who remembered him when he later became a senator back home in Corsica, and took him on as his secretary.
Bored stupid with a job which seemed to consist of throwing letters into waste-paper baskets, our hero set off for Paris, the City of Light, where he landed a job selling ostrich feathers, much in demand for the extravagant hats of the day, and met up with a young chemist by the name of Raymond Goery. (Shared digs)
Raymond Goery made Eau de Cologne for the hairdresser next door. Coty thought the Eau de Cologne quite dreadful, and the packaging even worse, but became enthused with the potential possibilities of perfume, so much so, that he threw up his job as a feather salesman and took off for Grasse, then as now, the spiritual home of perfume, where he spent two years soaking up as much knowledge as he could.
When he thought he knew sufficient, he returned to Ajaccio and borrowed 10,000 francs from his grandmother to set up his own business.
He found premises at 61, Rue de la Boetie, Paris, and set about creating his own products.
His first creation was a rose perfume: La Rose Jacqueminot, which he presented in a square-cut crystal Baccarat bottle with a carved stopper and embossed gold label, contained in an old-rose coloured Morocco leather case.
He then set about the soul-destroying process of trying to sell it. No-one was interested: “Another rose? You must be joking...”
The Gods would not allow this, and the buyer of one large store [Grand Magasins du Louvre] near the Louvre duly went home and threw the handkerchief on which he had tested Coty’s perfume into the dirty linen basket.
His wife, electrified by the smell, demanded to know what it was. Wives can be powerful creatures, and the buyer consequently placed a modest order with Coty for 500 bottles. The proviso being that the perfume was presented under the store’s name.
“No,” said Coty, “I’ll make you something similar under your name, as long as you take an equal quantity under mine, and mine will be called La Rose Jacqueminot.” The buyer agreed.
Coty had the business acumen to realise that the more a product cost, the more desirable it would be, consequently he priced his products higher than most.
Coty supervised the delivery and arranged the display himself and managed to “drop” one of the bottles, which smashed on the marble floor.
The buyer was apoplectic, until a crowd gathered asking where the heavenly smell was coming from, and bought up the entire stock.
Years later, Charlie Revson would employ the same technique.[i]
Coty set his sights high and aimed for top quality. He did not want to be just another perfumer, he wanted to be the best, and the prices he asked for his perfumes reflected this.
In the years to come when his reputation was established, Coty would proclaim: “Exclusivity is a myth”, and aim his products at the vast middle-market, content to be the best known, best loved and best selling name in the perfumery world, but at the beginning, the target was “Class” and he rented a window at 23 Place Vendôme to display his wares. It would not be long before he took over the entire premises.
La Rose Jacqueminot was closely followed by L’Origan, Jasmin de Corse and Chypre, and Coty continued to seek better ways to present them.
|Chypre de Coty - 1917|
In 1905, he badgered Crystalleries Baccarat into creating new designed for perfume bottles, and 5 years later, persuaded Rene Lalique, acknowledged master of Art Nouveau, at that time specialising in jewellery, to try his hand at flacon design.
Fate had taken a hand, yet again, in having Rene Lalique’s showroom placed conveniently next door at number 24.
Intrigued by the possibilities and discipline imposed by such a brief, Lalique took up the challenge and created breathtakingly beautiful containers through a process known as “cire-perdue” or “lost wax”. The proposed object, whether ornament, vase, bowl, perfume bottle or motor-car mascot, was carved out of wax and then submerged in molten glass. As the glass cooled, the wax melted, and one was left with a mould from which future models could be cast. Thus bottles adorned with sinuous nymphs, their long hair caught up in the drifting smoke (perfume = through smoke) began to appear on fashionable dressing tables.
[Lalique] was to design 16 major flacons for Coty and a great many smaller bottles, he also provided the designs for the labels and the powder box destined to become the most famous face-powder box in the world.
His first designs included L’Ambre Antique, L’Effleurt, and Le Styx. Au Coeur des Calices and Cyclamen were to follow.
Today, the results of this amalgamation fetch thousands of pounds at auction.
Between 1907-1908, Coty moved from the Rue de la Boetie to Suresnes sur Seine opposite the Bois de Boulogne for his laboratories, and to Puteaux for his glassworks and packaging plant.
Always the patriot, Coty enlisted in the army at the outbreak World War One in 1914, but not before he had set up markets in Moscow and America.
He was invalided out in 1915 having lost an eye in action, and fitted with a glass eye which would give him a disconcertingly fixed stare for the rest of his life.
Not one to lose time by such inconvenience, he sent his magnificent grandmother to America to manage his operations over there. She soon realised that if they installed their own plants in the USA they could avoid Customs import duties on complete products and ensure a highly competitive price.
Consequently the bottles, stoppers, boxes and essences were sent over separately, with American alcohol (which they considered superior to French) added later and the whole assembled Stateside.
No longer content with perfume alone, Coty went into make-up, creating his famous “air-spun” face powder in 1917.
To this day, there is no more famous powder box than the orange, white and gold decorated with swansdown powder-puffs designed by Rene Lalique, and the first boxes were produced by Dragére Frères and decorated with 18 carat gold.
The profit on each box was a single cent, and if for some reason a box was returned by a dissatisfied customer, the gold would be painstakingly be scraped off to be used again.
By the end of the war, 30,000 boxes a day were being sold in America alone.
|The famous Coty 'Airspun' loose powder|
Every shade of face-powder was available scented with every fragrance in the Coty range, a gamble that resulted in increased sales of perfumes and toilet waters. No-one knew better than Coty the truth of the gambler’s motto: “frightened money never wins”.
In 1963, Coty face-powder was reduced to one fragrance alone: L’Origan.
The Coty signature, the most famous ‘logo’ in the world of perfumery came about by accident. Forced to sign an agreement against his will, the resulting angry scrawl formed an aesthetically perfect and artistic trade-mark, and Coty was the first to laugh at the irony of it.
In 1920, he opened factories in Argentina, Brazil, and Great Britain. Italy followed in 1923.
By now, his visiting cards read:
Artist, Industrialist, Technician,
Economist, Financier, Sociologist
- Understatement was in not in his vocabulary.
Throughout the ‘20’s and ‘30’s Coty sponsored an hour-long radio show in America once a week, hosted by artists like Maurice Chevalier. Huge display bottles of perfume were sent to Hollywood to be used as free ‘props’ in films.
Audiences naturally recognised these ‘props’ and bought the perfume when they saw it in their local stores.
Large-scale promotions were organised in department stores with entire windows taken up in spring to promote Le Muguet des Bois and mirror the tradition in France of exchanging sprigs of Lily of the Valley on the First of May to ensure good luck for the rest of the year.
“Gift sets” were introduced for St. Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas. Each season saw a new presentation.
|Coty Gift Box|
A C.B. Cochrane revue staged in London in 1926 featured a tableau of showgirls representing seven of the Coty fragrances, with a centre showgirl more magnificent than the rest. The perfumes portrayed were Eméraud, Jacqueminot Rose, L’Ambre Antique, L’Or, La Jacynthe, L’Origan, and La Violette.
If Charlie Revson had a patron saint, it would have had to have been Francois Coty.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 closed down Coty’s Russian market and made him violently anti-communist for life.
Nothing could have been more ironic, for there was no greater ‘man of the people’ than Coty. His philanthropy and personal generosity to friends – and even enemies in need was legendary.
After being invalided out of the war in 1915, he set up a Field Hospital and received a certificate of thanks from the Red Cross. Every employee with relations serving in the war was given financial help. When floods devastated areas of France, he provided 4 farms for the most deserving peasants.
The most considerate of employers, a man who loathed poverty and could not bear to see it in any form, his employees enjoyed better conditions than could be found anywhere. As just one example, in the heat-wave of 1935, all of them were sent home early.
Asked for 5,000 francs to help support nurseries and foster-homes, he gave 100,000.
By 1922 his gifts to his home town of Ajaccio included subsidising 50 sports clubs, the School of Commerce and the lace-making industry, helping the Clergy to assist the needy, erecting a War Memorial, restoring Napoleon’s Grotto, and financing a relief map of Corsica.
Attracted by politics, he stood for Senator in Corsica in 1923. Asked why he chose Senator rather than the more prestigious office of Deputy, he replied that the word “Senator” carried more ‘clout’ in the United States. Nevertheless, he failed to get elected.
Eight years later, he was elected Mayor of Ajaccio – an office he held until his death.
He led a triumphant procession through the streets with streamers and bunting, as the population cried “Vive Coty!”
Like a conquering hero, Francois Coty marched down the centre of his home town. However, before achieving this position, Coty had the good sense to clear it with the local bandit chief, Romanetti. Without Romanetti’s approval, he would not have stood a chance.
Consequently, Coty arranged a meeting with Romanetti. A journey that began by car and ended up on foot up the mountains with a nameless man in a brown corduroy suit. Romanetti and Coty apparently got on famously. So well in fact, that Romanetti later joined Coty in his hotel for drinks.
Acting on a tip-off, Police threw a cordon around the hotel and started to search the rooms.
“A fine thing,” said Coty as they hammered on his door, “a nice way to treat honoured guests.”
The Police were apologetic, but explained they had reason to believe Romanetti was on the premises. Coty flung open the wardrobe saying sarcastically that if Romanetti was not inside, then perhaps he was under the bed.
The Police apologised and withdrew.
Romanetti of course was under the bed, and Francois Coty had made a useful friend.
Devoted to his country as he was, and sensitive to the needs of his fellow citizens, in his personal life, Coty was the living personification of the maxim: “If you’ve got it – flaunt it”.
In his own way, he was an Empire Builder. Comparisons with his distant ancestor Napoleon Bonaparte cannot be dismissed out of hand. Apart from the glass eye, physically, he resembled the actor James Cagney; short, chunky, fair-haired, energy-packed, speaking in staccato bursts, he was always immaculately dressed and wore a dazzling sapphire ring on his little finger.
Like many self-made men, he was shy in company, ever conscious of his lack of a formal education, but his success inevitably ensured that mixed in increasingly illustrious circles.
He bought the Dubarry Pavilion at Louvenciennes and had it completely restored, filling it with paintings and carpets in the style of Louis XVth. His chateau d’Artigny in the Loire Valley, which he bought in 1912 – a scant 8 years after he hawked his little bottle of Jacqueminot Rose around the stores – took him 20 years to complete.
The floor was inlaid with gold, the washstands were of porphyry, the doors opened automatically as you approached, and the air was conditioned. There were 50 acres of grounds.
He kept racehorses and his own private aeroplanes, and if he failed in his attempt to run his own private radio station, he did manage to buy two newspapers; - one of which was Le Figaro.
His influence was such that where the government had been trying to reach an agreement with Mussolini for months, Coty managed it over a drink in 1923. Later, in 1927, he also met with Neville Chamberlain.
When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in “The Spirit of St. Louis” on the first ever solo flight, Coty the patriot donated his ‘plane, “Point d’Interrogation” to the pilots Coste and Bellonte, so that France could make the return flight.
Another of his ‘planes, “Le Trait d’Union” broke the distance record previously held by Mermoz. He was given the news as he was being piloted by his own son, Roland, in yet another of his private aircraft.
He paid his journalists on Le Figaro more than anyone else, so that they could dress well and stay at the best hotels and eat at the best restaurants and be the envy of their less fortunate fellows.
Loyalty to his employees went just so far however, and when one feature writer was unwise enough to pen a piece in praise of Goethe, in which he bemoaned the lack of modern-day men of genius, Coty barked: “What about me?” – And sacked him on the spot.
“L’Ami du Peuple”, his other more down-market newspaper, was founded in 1928 because Coty said he wanted “to serve my country and tell her the truth”. In price, it undercut every other newspaper on the stands which cause a furore and a court-case, which Coty won.
With “L’Ami du Peuple” Coty became Citizen Kane.
He used the paper to propound his most treasured beliefs and schemes. He demanded votes for women, the election of the President by the people, the channelling of fresh water to Paris from a lake at Neuchatel, a canal to connect the Atlantic ocean with the Black Sea, the suppression of noise in the streets, chemical additives to be banned in bread, and more light-hearted campaigns centred on teaching schoolchildren to wash themselves properly and have better table manners.
In true Citizen Kane style: “I’ve bought a horse!” Appeared in banner headlines on the front page, while a fairly important government reshuffle was tucked away inside.
Such a man makes enemies, and Coty did.
At one point, he refused to eat or drink in other people’s houses in case the food was poisoned, and received his friends in the keep of his chateau which he had turned into a fortress.
When he died, there were friends who voiced suspicions that it had not been a natural death.
In 1929, he was divorced by his wife, Yvonne le Baron – not without cause. He was later to marry the woman with whom he had already fathered 5 illegitimate children, but he lived to regret having driven her (Yvonne) away.
As part of the divorce settlement, Yvonne le Baron received Le Figaro. Under French law, she was entitled to half Coty’s estate, and this marked the beginning of his decline. In 1932 he was forced to sell his chateau which panicked small shareholders of Coty-France into selling their stock.
Loss of confidence spread to the United States and Coty-America collapsed.
Banks demanded immediate repayments of overdrafts and like a house of cards; Coty’s world came tumbling down.
In 1933, “L’Ami du Peuple” went out of circulation followed by Coty himself, who was to die, aged 60, on 24 July, 1934.
At his funeral, his coffin was followed at a discreet distance by an unknown very pretty young woman, weeping behind her veil.
In 1963, “Coty Perfumes” was acquired by Pfizer, and 70,000 bottles were destroyed in the subsequent clearout.
[i] An alternative version of the story runs:
The year was 1904. The place was the Grands Magasins du Louvre, a major Parisian department store. Coty had come to show his latest creation, La Rose Jacqueminot. None of his previous creations had found a market. But instead of being enthusiastic, the store's buyer was showing Coty the door — without allowing Coty to even open the bottle!
At this point Coty — by design or in anger — smashed his sample bottle on a counter or on the floor. Immediately the aroma of La Rose Jacqueminot filled the air ... and brought women swarming to Coty's side, asking the name of this wonderful fragrance ... and where they could buy it. (It has been suggested that Coty paid them for this enactment.)