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(Cheryl Carlin)

Heaven Scent

A 600-year-old pharmacy started by Florentine monks is now a trendy global marketer of perfumes and medieval elixirs

As a secular endeavor, the pharmacy could fully exploit the trends of the times. In the 1700s, it had expanded its product line from distilling medicines and perfumes to manufacturing alcohol. In the 19th century, as alcohol-laden patent medicines and tonics became all the rage in the United States, the pharmacy's liqueur, Alkermes—advertised as a way to "revive weary and lazy spirits"—became a top seller.

Today the pharmacy still occupies its historic quarters, but it has expanded into an international concern, with stores in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Eight years ago it opened a small factory two miles away, where the monks' ancient techniques have been streamlined, but where much of the manufacturing continues to be done by hand. The factory can turn out 500 bars of soap a day in any one of 25 varieties; each bar is then aged for a month before being chiseled by hand into its final shape.

For those who fancy themselves a modern-day Catherine de' Medici, the pharmacy produces a fragrance similar to the "water of the queen," although it now goes by the less regal name of Eau de Cologne Classica. Some 40 colognes, in fact, are offered, catering to a huge range of tastes. The current managing director, an urbane Florentine named Eugenio Alphandery, has expanded his clientele still further with a new fragrance, Nostalgia, based on his own passion—fast cars. A whiff of the cologne evokes nothing so much as leather seats, tires on a track and a hint of gasoline fumes.

Catherine de' Medici, where art thou?

Mishal Husain is an anchor for BBC World and lives in London.
Scott S. Warren works out of Durango, Colorado.

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