An “800-Year-Old Startup” Launches Its First Range of Eaux de Parfum

The Italian house of Santa Maria Novella has been making aromatic elixirs since before the Renaissance, but it has taken until now — and the chance rediscovery of a botanical curiosity — for it to segue into perfume.

Article by Victoria Pearson

santa maria novella_1The historic flagship store in Florence has been trading for centuries. Photograph courtesy of Santa Maria Novella.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that with advancing age, surprises tend to become less positive. A parking ticket. A sobering diagnosis. An unanticipated home repair. As time marches relentlessly onwards, joyful revelations become few and far between, making them all the more precious when they do strike. 

Gian Luca Perris, the chief executive officer and “nose” of the 800-year-old Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (commonly known as just Santa Maria Novella), describes one such rare — and special — surprise. At the insistence of the brand’s product development manager, Eleonora Gavino, Perris and his team ventured out to the gardens of Florence’s Villa Medicea di Castello in search of “Bizzarria”, a rare periclinal chimaera (a plant comprising genetically distinct tissues) of bitter orange, etrog and lemon. First observed in 1644, it was believed lost to time until a chance rediscovery of the plant in 1980, among other botanical curiosities, on the Medici villa’s grounds. 

When the team arrived at the garden, “not only was Bizzarria unveiling herself,” as Perris puts it during a trip to Australia, but they realised they had found “a magic place”. Perris describes encountering hundreds of types of citrus and an endless array of herbs, aromatic plants and flower fruits. “We literally were sniffing everything in their garden and saying, ‘Oh, this is so magical, we have to talk about this stuff,’ ” he recalls.

Scent has been a guiding force in Perris’s career. Born in Rome, he studied economics and commerce at university, but soon fell into the family business: perfumery. His father, Michele Perris, founded the fragrance, skincare and pharmaceutical company Perris Group in Milan in 1981. The younger Perris eventually launched his own range within the house under the name Perris Monte Carlo.

In 2020, the Italian investment holding company Italmobiliare approached Perris about becoming CEO of Santa Maria Novella, in which it had recently purchased a majority stake (it took full ownership the following year). Founded in Florence in 1221, Santa Maria Novella was originally established as a Dominican friars’ convent, cultivating herbs to make medicines for their monastery’s infirmary. Over time, it expanded its offering to include aromatic waters and tinctures — it created a bergamot-based scent for the future Queen of France Catherine de’ Medici in 1533 — before officially launching commercial activities in 1612. The brand, which is today synonymous with artisanal soaps, rosewater, candles, lotions and its iconic terracotta pomegranate room freshener, thrived during the Renaissance and has withstood wars and plagues. However, upon his appointment, Perris recognised that the company needed to overcome lingering challenges in order to carve out a successful future.

“When we arrived, there was no structure, basically,” says Perris. “It was a relatively big brand worldwide, but we had no management. There was nobody taking care of the APAC market,” he adds, referring to the Asia-Pacific region. “There was nobody as a commercial director worldwide, there was nobody on marketing. There was nobody specifically on ecommerce. So we really had to restructure every step of competencies.” In other words, says Perris, it was an “800-year-old startup”.

santa maria novella_2
the Gelsomino scent blends floral, spicy and woody notes. Photograph courtesy of Santa Maria Novella.
Gian Luca Perris_santa Maria Novella
Photograph courtesy of Santa Maria Novella.

Fortuitously, Perris took the helm prior to the brand’s 800th birthday in 2021. To commemorate the milestone, his team conjured a product that both represented the city of Florence — as much a part of Santa Maria Novella’s DNA as any herb or botanical — and capitalised on Perris’s olfactory expertise: L’Iris. “The iris was the perfect ingredient for this,” says Perris of the floral, an ancient symbol of the region. Although the brand is famed for its scented waters and eau de colognes, L’Iris was, surprisingly, Santa Maria Novella’s first eau de parfum — a blend of iris butter with jasmine, magnolia and leafy green notes. 

Following the popularity of L’Iris, Perris expanded the category this year to include three other eaux de parfum inspired by the di Castello gardens: Bizzarria (timur pepper, neroli, orange blossom, cedar and musk); Gelsomino (jasmine, bergamot, tangerine and geranium); and Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, white rose, Arabian jasmine and amber). Each is available in 50ml and 100ml bottles, priced $285 and $425, respectively. 

The collection, aptly named I Giardini Medicei, instilled within Perris the confidence to originate further. “Yes, we are blessed — we have so many nice products that we can sit and relax on,” he says. “But if we really want to remain in line with the market, we have to continue thinking of innovation.” 

A commitment to the UN Global Compact prompted the formation of a company-wide environmental, social and governance (ESG) program, and the brand is reducing the use of plastic in its packaging. Skincare is another area of development, with an extended range underway targeting hydration, which Perris hopes will be received with enthusiasm.

“The brand deserves to be a major player in the beauty world without losing this identity,” he says. “You have to find the right balance: do the right step and select the right distribution, only to go for the right product, not compromise.

“This is what I really wish for the brand, and I’m pretty sure it will arrive there.” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 28 of T Australia with the headline: “On The Scent”