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Stories of perfumes and perfumers. Bicidi: fragrances to enhance beauty and wellness

Stories of perfumes and perfumers. Bicidi: fragrances to enhance beauty and wellness

20 October 2021

The great fragrance houses and perfumers that made the art and style of Italian perfumery known all over the world.

The realm of perfumes is an art, a language made up of emotions that can range from literature, music, painting to cinema and, of course, to fashion as well.

Pervasive and invisible, the fragrances escape such observation and remain the silent heralds of beauty. Created to highlight the peculiarities of a person or a place, they are representations of an elusive beauty captivating the senses and capturing the imagination so leading us into wonderful worlds created by artists/perfumers for whom balance, harmony and proportion ­ in a nutshell, the universal concept of beauty ­ are the arrival and departure points of their olfactory creations.

Moreover, beauty is also much more than just appearance. The beauty enveloping us when we wear a fragrance that we really feel “ours” gives us confidence in ourselves, in what we want to be and in our relationship with other people, and beauty remains anyhow connected with the development of self-esteem and personal well-being.

Inevitably, those who deal with the matter at hand sooner or later understand how inescapable is the bond uniting the search for beauty with perfumes and with the original power of the sense of smell.

And it is for this reason that, irresistibly attracted by such natural tie between beauty and scents, in Italy many of the Fragrance Houses, which eventually came to be pillars of the national perfume manufacturing, at first emerged as collateral element of a different activity where “beautiful and good” were the implied references.

Bertelli, for instance, kicked off as a pharmaceutical company and only afterwards grew into a producer of “hygienic scents;” Saccò & Borsari, founders of the eponymous fragrance house, were barbers and hairdressers, masters of scissors and razors, and the lavenders and lotions by them manufactured represented a secondary business for the use and consumption of their customers; they became perfumers at a later stage, following the creation of Violetta di Parma.

Profumerie Lanza’s owners, who in the 1920s, after abandoning the production of “scented waters and oils,” associated with Mira creating the corporate colossus Mira-Lanza. In the beginning, they fabricated candles (they were the major Piedmontese manufacturers), and just ensuing the purchase of an oil mill they converted to producers of soaps and then of fragrances.

In the early twentieth century, a singularity was the perfumery venture of Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, future founder of Gi.Vi.Emme, even if when starting off the nobleman branded his scents with the pharmaceutical brand Carlo Erba, using for their dissemination the distribution network of that company.

Maison BICIDI, born in Verona as a beauty institute in the 1920s, was no exception. With the expansion of its activity and the multiplication of branches in various Italian cities, without dropping the primary business, it was as well dedicated to the creation of fragrances, initially for the rich clientele who frequented their own salons, then for distribution in a few deluxe perfume shops.

Upon the body care and beauty institutes, that represented a far-reaching reality of which at least in Italy we have lost memory, it is worthwhile to dwell.

Birth and development of the beauty institutes

Originated in ancient times for a small niche of well-to-do people, and a typically female prerogative for a fairly good span, the parlors dedicated to beauty and body care (widespread for over a century before as beauty institutes and more recently as beauty centers) are nowadays frequented by a large number of customers belonging to any gender.

In the late nineteenth century, beauty institutes were organized in line with the modern concept by Madame de Lucas who opened her first Salon in Paris in 1890, introducing methods of massage and body care with creams and vegetable oils, and applying scrupulous hygiene sanitary rules.

In France, Madame Monteil in the thirties did not promise ultra-fast weight loss, instant breast firming, disappearance of wrinkles in a few sessions or stature heightening, but she obtained satisfactory results with a slow and effective therapy, often researching, analyzing and treating the causes which resulted in physical problems.

Soon the fashion of the salons de beauté spread also into the Italian peninsula. In addition to BICIDI, one of the most famous in Milan was Istituto Hermes, based in Piazza del Duomo, that directly manufactured its own cosmetics, soaps and fragrances.

The success of the beauty institutes, although limited to the upper middle class, reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, a period when Hollywood-style films, with smooth-faced and perfectly made-up divas, raged in our cinemas. Icons of the epoch were Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich: the first one celebrated for the innovative look in which the make-up reached its perfection, spotlighting the symmetrical face with very large eyes, mostly with lowered eyelids and parted lips that gave her a tone of unattainable alabaster beauty; the second with the fatal make-up of an oxygenated blonde, plucked and raised eyebrows, broad forehead and a cleverly hollow-cheeked face, poised between love sufferance and indifference.

In Italy, the ladies of the wealthy class, wives and daughters of state officials, wealthy merchants or entrepreneurs, as well as those who usually enjoyed their evenings at the elegant nocturnal haunts of the big cities, bewitched by the mysterious charm of the divas, tended to emulate them and willingly subjected themselves to grueling make-up sessions.

Attention to the body and to a refined beauty

Women who, due to age or physical conditions, had lost hope of possessing the traits of a movie star, loved to relax and laze in the massage and make-up rooms or, again, very lightly tan with special lamps using the suntan lotion Ambra Solare, without giving up though the aim of shaping their own figure to follow a fashion which, proposing skin tight and enwrapped gowns to put emphasis on the shapes, required slender, graceful and harmonious bodies.

A surge in the turnout to the salons occurred when the high fashion designers imposed large vents on the back of their dresses. The bare back, commonly neglected because it had always been covered by clothing, became an element of beauty, elegance and seduction: the muscles of the shoulders required treatments with massages and physical exercises, and the skin had to be toned with specific creams.
“Beauty is not a gift, it is a habit” declared Germaine Monteil who in 1935 founded her cosmetics house.
It was Monteil herself who introduced the routine of thorough face cleansing and of the use of day cream and night cream.

The imperative “One becomes beautiful” was born and the cinematography showed how, thanks to impeccable make-up, simple saleswomen or provincial employees could turn into attractive stars.
The beauty institutes promised to deliver such ideal and the ladies of the upper middle class ran to Paris, where the writer Colette had opened her Salon for the care and harmony of the person.

Even the women’s magazines of the time (the newsstands displayed about forty publications including Dea, Sovrana, La Donna, Moda) contributed to the maddening search for beauty by proposing fascinating and inimitable fashion sketches brought into being by the pencil and imagination of Filiberto Mateldi and his wife Brunetta, and above all by the genius of Marcello Dudovich and Gino Boccasile.

The female audience, always confident in miracles, relied therefore on the expert hands of masseuses and beauticians in the hope of achieving those ideals of beauty that could be admired in the pages of magazines.

Beauty through fragrances

It was almost natural for BICIDI to start the production of exclusive creams to be used within its own organization, and of original fragrances to complete the work of harmony and elegance operated on the figure “manipulated” by beauticians and masseuses.

Hence some extremely refined perfumes were born, such as Yaorana, Nez-opal, Autour de Toi, Sogno veneziano.

The bottles were made in different sizes and shapes according to the type of customers who bought the item.

The luxury editions were manufactured in minimal quantities by the master blowers of Murano, who took care of the specimens down to the smallest detail, one by one. The possession of those bottles, produced in a very limited edition by an Institute famous for the quality of its services, thus amounted to a status symbol for the elegant ladies of the Italian society.

For BICIDI and the other beauty institutes that populated the large Italian cities, the problems began in 1935 when the League of Nations approved economic sanctions against Italy, guilty of having assaulted Ethiopia: credits were canceled, imports of raw materials were prohibited and exports were put at risk with obvious repercussions on the economy.

The Italian autarchy ­ in other words, the necessity for self-sufficiency ­ was promulgated, and the regime fed its myth by banning everything that was not strictly necessary for the subsistence of the citizens.

Tea was replaced with hibiscus tea, coal with lignite, wool with lanital, and coffee, which was defined “harmful to health,” was abolished. Rags, paper, copper and aluminum pots were collected, leather was substituted by various mixtures, and women wore cork soles shoes.

Although the sanctions were short-lived, the totalitarian dictatorship which ruled Italy in that period was stubborn in considering make-up a waste, and body care with lotions and balms an all-female frivolity. Despite frequenting was not forbidden, beauty institutes incurred in public shaming.

The daily Il Giornale d’Italia wrote: “We young people, who are convinced make-up is contrary to the new spirit of Italianness, want to wage a war against this Parisian import, these tomato colored faces and nails of all hues, these two-piece swimsuits and orthopedic shoes.”

In order to adapt to the saving standards that by now events imposed, BICIDI, thriving in the cosmetics sector, in 1940 studied a soap manufactured in strict frugality, which however would reflect the logic of qualitative research typical of the Institute, namely with the indispensable requirements for not damaging the normal components of the epidermis, keeping it supple, soft and incomparably young after bathing. It consequently launched on the market “Lavicrema il non sapone” (Lavicrema the soap-free soap).

However, those were the last sparks of a Maison that had made of the research on female beauty its own emblem.

BICIDI Institutes of Rome, Milan, Naples continued for a while to welcome in their parlors a clientele who did not want to give up their femininity, but with Italy entering the war and the enlargement of the conflict to all world powers, the Italian beauty institutes turned out to be inappropriate and unsuitable for the policy of sacrifices and privations which was emerging. The body care salons suffered the blow and did not know how to recover once the conflict was over.

In the early fifties, so ended the venture of BICIDI, a company with a high quality perfume production which had made thousands of women dream in search of that mysterious charm only expert personnel, adequate care and valuable cosmetics could ensure.

Ten years later, with the economic boom and the rebirth of Italy, beauty will return to occupy an important place in the habits and lives of Italians who will even become its ambassadors all around the world through fashion, design, haute cuisine and, of course, through the creation of exceptional fragrances.


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