In 2021 the world’s oldest skin, body care, and perfume brand is turning 800 years old. Just to reiterate — this year marks Officina Santa Maria Novella’s eight-hundredth birthday.
I first heard rumblings of the ancient Italian brand in 2014, when I worked as a beauty intern. Coworkers spoke of Santa Maria Novella’s bath salts as though they were the elixir of eternal youth. For my mom’s birthday that year — a woman who could live in a bathtub if she could — my siblings and I decided to give her the product, and after her first soak with the Melograno cologne-scented salts she refused to use anything else ever again. This is the epitome of Santa Maria Novella’s allure.
After my mother passed I found myself headed to the brand’s location in New York City’s Soho neighborhood to be near her signature scent. The store is tucked on the side of Lafayette Street, and there’s so much to take in when you walk through the doors: the ornate woodwork shelving the products, the beautiful cherubs adorning the baby products, the hand-painted ceramic jars that scream Italian art. Where does a brand like this, indifferent to the usual rumblings of the beauty industry, even come from?
If it feels like Santa Maria Novella has always been around, that’s because it’s not much of a stretch. “In Florence in 1221, the covenant of Santa Maria Novella was founded by Dominican friars,” Alice Tedeschi, the brand’s chief marketing officer, tells me. In the early 1300s, she says, the friars treated a wealthy sick merchant, and in return, he gifted the covenant with the construction of a chapel which was finished in 1334. This is the crux of what makes the flagship “store” unlike the pristine shops dotting Fifth Avenue in NYC or the Champs-Élysées in Paris. If you find yourself in the brand’s Florence location, you’ll browse products inside the ornate 700-year-old chapel. And yes — it looks exactly the way you’d picture a Renaissance-era interior, complete with chandeliers and hand-painted religious frescoes.
The plague that took hold of Europe by 1347 marked another defining moment for the brand — the birth of Santa Maria Novella’s first signature product. “When the black plague hit Florence, the friars were taking care of their community,” says Tedeschi. She relates the pandemic to COVID — while hand sanitizer has been a tool in stopping the spread in 2021, people used perfumed waters in the 14th century, which Tedeschi says hold antiseptic properties. Those waters Santa Maria Novella made so long ago are still available today under the names Acqua di Rose (rose water), Acqua di Fior d’Arancio, and more.
Then, in 1533, Catherine de’Medici was preparing to marry the soon-to-be King Henry II of France, and wanted a gift to carry to him through the royal court. A friend, Tedeschi says, recommended she reach out to the friars who worked with Santa Maria Novella’s pharmacy. The result was the Acqua de la Regina fragrance, which in English literally translates to the “the Queen’s Water.” The regal scent is the brand’s most enduringly popular product, according to Tedeschi, and is still sold today under the name Acqua di Santa Maria Novella.
The convent became the official aroma laboratory, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, in 1612. The brand’s rose water and perfumes established its place in history, and fragrance is still the common thread through its lineage. According to Tedeschi, Santa Maria Novella still uses its ancient preparation methods to create its lavender salts, aromatic vinegar, and almond paste.
The scents are hypnotizing and carefully made — Tedeschi says the friars initially cultivated the ingredients in the vegetable garden on the grounds of the convent. That garden is still maintained, although product ingredients are sourced and prepared from local suppliers in Tuscany. It’s hard to verbalize the effect a fragrance can have on you or how to explain the notes that make one so sublime — but I will say that I’ve become obsessed with the Camomilla Bath Gel, which smells like being a child asleep in a floral garden, the petals lulling you into a peaceful trance.
Despite its storied history, Santa Maria Novella’s business hasn’t been immune to COVID. In response to the pandemic, it moved away from its traditional marketing-adverse tactics. “In the past, our beautiful museum store was super active and was the place where we got to know our clients,” Tedeschi says. With tourism down, Santa Maria Novella had to find new ways to interact with customers. “We really opened up to the digital and e-commerce markets,” she says. You can now get a sense of the ancient beauty brand through Instagram, where Highlights show snippets of body creams being made and glimpses of the Florence chapel.
Notably, Santa Maria Novella has never bowed to the beauty world’s ever-changing trends. “With every decision we make, we always look back to why something was sought out by friars or by the experts that ran the pharmacy back in time,” says Tedeschi.
Before we end our conversation, I ask Tedeschi what we can expect from the brand in the future. “We have big news coming, but it’s something I cannot unveil yet,” she says coyly. “I can only tell you that everything started in 1221, and this year is 2021.” For a brand that’s celebrating 800 years on the planet — after plagues and world wars — the news will be nothing short of monumental.