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Stories of perfumes and perfumers. The Bertelli brothers, pharmacists and perfumers

Stories of perfumes and perfumers. The Bertelli brothers, pharmacists and perfumers

04 August 2021

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

Analyzing the successes and failures of others can be useful not so much to imitate them or avoid repeating the same mistakes, but to free yourself from your own mental schematism and thus release unexpected energies.

The history of human progress is also studded with random inventions and fortuitous discoveries. Many researchers and scientists became protagonists of epochal findings thanks to an error or a failed attempt which turned into a positive result; in the Anglo-Saxon world, they call it serendipity.

There are inventors who did not thoroughly understand the importance of what they had created. Such is the case of Coca-Cola that was invented on May 8th, 1886 by Dr. John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist located in Atlanta, Georgia. At first, the product was just a syrup declared “excellent” and sold for five cents a glass as a take-away beverage. Dr. Pemberton never fully grasped the potential of the drink he conceived. He gradually traded company ownership shares to various partners and, shortly before his death in 1888, sold the Coca-Cola recipe to Asa G. Candler, a skilled city businessman who realized its full value.

Likewise, there are commonly used machines and objects which are today utilized for purposes other than those thought of by their creators. Just as, for instance, the first whirlpool tub that had very different functions from the current ones: the initial item, in fact, was designed as a hydrotherapy device to relieve pain. The whirlpool tub was invented in 1949 by Candido Jacuzzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States, for his son Kenny who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.

However, many examples show us that tenacity, determination, ingenuity and a hint of luck are the hallmarks of several success stories. In particular, one aspect we recognize as typically Italian, a symbol of Made in Italy all over the world, is creativity. Italy demonstrates, yesterday as nowadays, to be rich in creative and daring minds, full of passion in every area and sector. Creativity in art, in fashion, but equally in design, in architecture, in researching a new fragrance, in inventing new games, in experimenting with food and in all the domains where we can remark to “excel.”

The case of the brothers Achille and Vittorio Bertelli is an Italian success story proving how the wealth of knowledge and experience are crucial in achieving each goal. An evidence of how “mathematically correct” is the definition by Henri Poincaré, who asserted: “Creativity is the combination of existing elements and new connections that will be useful.”

Setting off to chase a dream

In the second half of the 19th century a dream had travelled the entire peninsula from north to south. Far away, beyond the ocean ­ since to cross the sea you had to get on a ship and the waves were as high as mountains ­ there was a continent which welcomed the outcasts, fed them and gave them a job: America, a land blessed by God, where the forests had trunks so huge that not even ten men holding hands could surround them, and to go through a city at least one day walk was required, and again, where there were herds of oxen so large that to see them passing it took no less than a week.

Achille Bertelli, a recently graduated pharmacist, fantasized about those extraordinary aspects of the New World when, in the month of April 1885, left the Port of Genoa on a steamer overfull with emigrants, keeping in his pocket the meager savings he accumulated by teaching private lessons to his less gifted fellow students. On the American continent, in towns pulsating with life and needing every little things, he was persuaded great career prospects awaited him. Where there were workers, there was actually a necessity for assistance.

Once he landed in New York Harbour, the days had passed, then the weeks and the months, but the pharmacist Achille Bertelli had not yet made a fortune.
The sick people in need of medicines were an immeasurable number, all the same no one could afford to pay the few cents Dr. Bertelli requested for his formulations, and when he had tried to come out of the working-class neighborhood where he lived in order to offer his drugs to wealthier people, gangs of thugs had asked him for bribes.

The young Achille Bertelli, having depleted the small capital which had supported him in a foreign land during all those months, decided to return home.
Aboard the merchant ship, working as a sailor, Achille sadly thought back to his unhappy stay.
Sitting in the bunk, he removed from his haversack, one by one, the few things that reminded him of his unfulfilled dream. Among them, there was the bag with the powder to soothe his back pains which had worsened in those months due to the humidity of the room he had occupied.

Such powder was miraculous: much more effective than the medicaments he himself made. It had been given to him by an Asian man who lived in his own building block when one morning, in an attempt to get out of bed, he was immobilized and in pain. He had asked for help, frightened by the sudden paralysis that prevented him from moving, and after multiple cries, the kind, round, all smiley face of the Asian neighbor had appeared at the door.

“No problem,” the man assured him after having ascertained the extent of the ailment. He had quickly retraced his steps to come back soon after with a bag containing a reddish powder.
With difficulty and excruciating pains that took his breath away, Dr. Bertelli had turned around in a prone position. The neighbor had then sprinkled the dust on the loins of the patient and at sunset the latter could already rise from his bed and walk safely around the room.
The Asian man had also listed the components of the painkiller preparation, among which a particular chili pepper, that grew in the distant lands where he was born, stood out.

Making one’s fortune… in Italy

After a three-month voyage, the ship landed in the Port of Genoa and in a few days Achille Bertelli was back home, once again in Milan.
The sailor haversack was placed in the attic and forgotten there for a few months, until...
The advertisement declared the absolute novelty of the invention: Bayerscor had produced a self-adhesive plaster which made bandages superfluous. A small cut on the chin caused by careless use of the razor? Here the bleeding from the wound could be easily stanched with a small patch, without dispensable bandages.

It was the solution Achille Bertelli was looking for: a sticking plaster, to be placed on the painful part, sprinkled with the miraculous powder that healed lumbago and sciatica.
The compound would act while the patient, free to move and walk, could take care of her/his commitments.

Dr. Bertelli rushed to the attic in search of the bag and the notes for preparing the compound.
As he listed the substances, he pondered where he could find the necessary items.
It was not difficult to obtain the missing component, after all Milan was the import-export capital, and in his hometown he started the activity he had so much dreamed of undertaking in the New World.
The success was immediate and the Bertelli Patch became the cure-all for thousands of sufferers who found the pharmaceutical formulation, distributed on the practical self-adhesive support, exceptional.

The launch of the enterprise was dazzling and Achille Bertelli did not stop at the first success. As a good pharmacist he created preparations to heal coughs, sore throats, Sapol soaps for body hygiene in various scents, and Venus cream (which later became the name of an entire cosmetic line), essential for delicate skin. Specialties that gained vast popularity in a very short time. The idea to make Sapol soap known became famous: the promoters wore special shoes with a stamp bearing the name of the product attached to the sole. Before entering the cafes or meeting places, the stamps were inked, in order to leave the imprint of the brand on the floors of those locations.
By the late 19th century, the Bertelli Premier Company opened branches in Rome, Turin, Genoa, Naples and Palermo.

In the world of fragrances

It was a small step from pharmacy to perfumery, and to expand the firm and start the new business, Achille Bertelli got help from his brother Vittorio, the right person to pursue such new initiative.
Vittorio Bertelli did not have the adventurous spirit of his brother, but in exchange he was a careful observer of the contemporary Milanese society which, in terms of cosmetics, laid down the law throughout the country.

Vittorio too was a traveler, however as destination his itineraries favored places for pleasant stays, and in his trips to Paris he had personally been able to ascertain how fascinating a scent could be.
What power did such “magical” liquid possess, anonymous and inert when it was enclosed into the inside of a crystal bottle, and diabolical stirrer of the senses when it was released from its prison?
This was Vittorio’s thinking while he was already elaborating innovative strategies for the new Bertelli Fragrance House just launched.

Milan, even more than Rome or Parma, was at the time the capital of perfume. Small or large fragrance houses operating in the city and its hinterland were countless. Some of them, like Migone, with a centennial history, were by now rooted in the urban fabric with an aristocratic and wealthy clientele, others dedicated themselves to creating scents for middle-class or petty-bourgeois ladies.

Vittorio Bertelli decided to start off the production with a great perfume suitable for the nonconformist lady who was preparing herself to enter the new century, and he sought the inspiration for the creation of a groundbreaking fragrance, that ­ in addition to shaking up the all Italian archaic concept of using the scent uniquely to eliminate bad odors ­ would be considered an indispensable element to her own charm by the refined woman.

The scented cinema

In those years a new invention was causing a sensation filling the nightclubs, the music hall theaters and the variety shows. Moving images were projected by a mysterious machine with coils, lights and optical devices onto a canvas stretched against a wall.

Soon enough, having realized the enormous possibilities of the new invention, some forerunners of modern cinematographic art began to make short movies to be screened in theaters which were increasingly organized to become places dedicated to filmic performance. After the first “documentaries,” a photographer ­ Roberto Troncone, pioneer of the Neapolitan motion picture industry ­ initiated the production of movies.

Following the plots of the novels of the age, the tales on celluloid fatally unraveled among love stories and infidelities, abandonments and reunifications.
Vittorio Bertelli was a passionate spectator as well. Enchanted, he followed the events of the protagonists and the more he witnessed the dramatic hugs full of passion ­ made gigantic and detailed by the screen ­ the more he realized that something was missing. Not on the screen, where the scene could not have been more explicit and realistic, but inside the movie theater.

What Vittorio felt the need of were not so much the actors words which could be imagined, as the essential nature of the story unfolded on the screen. The viewer, to be all the more involved, Bertelli thought, had to physically perceive the scented essence that emanated from the seductive figures of the heroines. This would create an ideal combination between the senses of sight and smell, to stimulate the spectator imagination even more.

A reckless, bold and cutting edge idea which could be the testing ground for a new perfume market.
It was therefore time to give shape to the project he had been cherishing for some time. The production of a fragrance for a modern and evolved audience of filmgoers: Grand Parfum.
However, Vittorio's innovative intentions were not limited solely to the type of scent: in a completely reformist way, he imagined that the elixir should be enclosed in a bottle which, at first glance, conferred prestige on what it contained.


The importance of a precious bottle

In those years, it was customary for the various fragrance houses to acquire standard bottles in glass factories, as perfumers paid more attention to the product than to the container (there was still a decade to go before René Lalique made L’Effleurt bottle, progenitor of a long series of bottles specially designed for each new scent), without caring whether the same bottle had been purchased or not by a competitor: a label would later identify the fragrance house and the product itself.

Yet still, this was not what Vittorio Bertelli wanted. The bottle for Grand Parfum had to be “different.” He consequently conceived ornaments in gilded metal that decorated and embellished the crystal bottle with motifs of classic elegance. Two small sculptures inspired by D’Annunzio aesthetics, representing the Phoenix ­ the bird rising from its ashes ­ and the brazier ­ a burning symbol of eternal fidelity ­ adorned the bottle sides and back, while on the front of it an elaborate emblem, also modeled in metal to ensure a long duration of the precious object, displayed the names of the perfume and of the fragrance house. Two finely worked bands wrapped the bottle at its top and bottom, joining the images and making the motif uniform.
An ideal bottle for a sumptuous present.


Successful celebrity endorsements

Gifting the actresses with his incomparable scent, Vittorio Bertelli then began to pay regular visits to the movie studios which rose up almost everywhere, not only in Milan, at Bovisa district, but even in Rome and Naples.

The stars who in those years shone in the cinema firmament and who unsettled the forbidden dreams of a myriad of spectators, Wanda Morris, Loretta Barra, Liana Kàdmina, Natascia Kulokova, Nera Stheffen, fascinated by that gentleman with calm manners and with the gift of the gab, were convinced by him to abandon the so fashionable French fragrances Piver, Pinaud, Violet, in order to wear Grand Parfum.

Vittorio Bertelli thus had the opportunity to bring to the viewers attention ­ by highlighting it in written on the film posters ­ that the skin of the leading lady smelled entirely of Grand Parfum by Bertelli.
Vittorio then hired a lot of valets who, scattered in the theatres of the cities where the movies were shown, released the magical essence in the room during the scenes of most ardent passion, when the main characters yielded to their desire.

The effect was shocking, to such a degree that the right-minded people raged against the all too realistic participation in a cinematic fiction, causing the depletion, within a few days, of the precious bottle of scent on sale in perfumeries, and therefore decreeing the success of Grand Parfum, and consequently, of the Bertelli Fragrance House which had produced it.

Owing to their managerial and advertising skills, the two Bertelli brothers had launched the eponymous company, making it quickly become one of the primary manufacturers of Italian cosmetics.
Characterized by important awards in Italy and abroad, the enterprise long journey began, with the productions of fragrances that marked the society of the period.

A path which was to be interrupted in the 1960s, when, after the demise of the protagonists, Bertelli & C. was sold to Gruppo Lepetit and then to Kelémata, firms that after not many years preferred to abandon nearly all Bertelli’s perfumery brands.

Today, two products of the renowned company are still on the market: the Bertelli Patch and the Venus cream, a cosmetic that for more than four generations represented the ideal remedy for the skin care of our grandmothers.


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