There are a thousand ways to take shortcuts in the creation of any product, regardless of the industry or location. The fashion and cosmetics industries are built around taking shortcuts, designed to reduce production time and costs, resulting in greater profits. A lesser quality cotton, offshore manufacturing, diluting a natural ingredient with water or filler, or substituting the real thing for a chemical counterpart. The fact that brands like Zara, H&M and their kin exist are testament to the success of taking shortcuts, while selling an appealing image to the masses.
We’re fortunate, however, to still have businesses whose focus is exactly the opposite. At the top of the chain, Hermes dedicates itself to finding and using the very best materials and employing and developing committed craftspeople. This is, in part, thanks to their resoluteness in staying a family owned company (despite and attempted and hostile 20% acquisition by LVMH a few years ago) taking pressure off profits and allowing the organisation to focus on creating the best products possible, without exception or compromise.
The story that inspired this article was a visit back to the Pharmacia of Santa Maria Novella in January to see my friend Gianluca Foa. As we were walking around the back of house section of the Pharmacia I saw a large crate which was full of what looked like dried mushrooms. I stopped to ask Gianluca why they had mushrooms sitting in a back corridor, and what followed was my education into Santa Maria Novella’s Florentine Iris Root.
At Santa Maria Novella (SMN), Iris root is used in a number of face and body products due to its pleasing violet-like scent and its effective use as a base preparation for a number of products. The Florentine Iris (which is what SMN uses) contains twice the number of Ironi (scent giving molecules) of any other iris in the world. The production time is extensive compared to other volume based methods, as it requires a cultivation time (the time from planting to harvest) of 3 to 4 years, at which point the roots are dried, pressed and crushed into a fine powder. What I was looking at in the corridor were dried iris roots.
Once the roots are crushed, an extraction method is used to obtain the final product, a syrupy reduction known as Iris Absolute. From here, the numbers are staggering; from a ton of dried roots, only 100ml (just over 3 shot glasses) of Iris Absolute is extracted, at a market price of around 30,000Euro (or 300Euro per drop). Contrast this to its synthetic, less fragrant, shorter lasting, chemical impersonator available for a few dollars and it’s easy to see where this commitment to quality and bearing the costs involved is both a rare and inspiring decision for Santa Maria Novella to pursue.
It would be easy to choose a chemical iris and substitute it for the real thing, we’d be none the wiser, except for possibly noticing its scent disappearing more quickly, but to companies like Santa Maria Novella this decision simply doesn’t enter into the equation. It would go against the soul of 400 years of continuously operating tradition. Since the 1600’s, the focus remains to make things well, with the best possible ingredients and avoiding the use of artificial products wherever possible.
Whilst the global chains continue to churn out cheaply and poorly made disposable products, Santa Maria Novella and those like them are standing resolutely against the tide, focusing on quality and that’s something we can be grateful for.