Parma, the birthplace of Italian perfume

After Grasse, next stop Parma ! The other European city, pioneer of modern perfumery and emblem of the Italian dolce vita.

Modified on
May 18th 2022

Bertille Jamin


Parma IS the dolce vita. A gourmet gastronomy full of parmesan cheese and ham, a breathtaking architecture surrounded by lush vegetation, Parma is a love-it-or-hate-it city. Since 2020, when Parma was awarded the title of European Capital of Culture, the exhibition "Parma, la città del profumo" - Parma, the city of perfume - was held there, celebrating the Italian influence(and in particular Parmesan) in perfume. A chance to discover the olfactory history of Parma and its contemporary influence on the perfume industry.

The iconic violet di parma.


Viola Odorata, the well-known violet of Parma

In 1816, Marie Louise of Austria, wife of Napoleon, Duchess of Parma and great flower enthusiast, encouraged the harvesting of violets in Parma (not the wild violet, but the Viola Odorata, one of its most fragrant species). She was a very appreciated duchess by the people of Parma, and regularly received bouquets of violets from her poorer citizens, whom she generously tipped. She also incited the Carthusian monks - also chemist - of the Annunziata monastery to develop for her an eau de toilette called "Violetta di Parma" (Violet of Parma), which remained the exclusive property of the duchess for many years. This tiny, fragrant flower began to take up root in Parma in the mid-nineteenth century and has well-planted until today. 


"Marie Louise and the violet of Parma"

During the First and Second Empires, the popularity of this sweet smelling purple flower was well illustrated in the collections of the Glauco Lombardi Museum (in Parma), where many evidence of Marie Louise's admiration for this flower can be found in furniture and decorations. The botanical properties of the most famous "Violetta di Parma", cultivated in the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza, can still be admired today in the greenhouses of the Ducal Park. 


Parma, an unexpected romantic encounter with perfumery

If Marie Louise played an essential part in promoting Parma as a city of perfume, another distinguished man also participated in its growth. 

Many years later, Ludovico Borsari, the great Italian perfumer and founder of the renowned Borsari perfume house, took part in Parma's perfume blossoming. Grandson and son of a carpenter born in Parma on September 8, 1858, Lodovico Borsari was the quirky child of a family of eleven. He was a bold and fearless boy who enjoyed undertaking risky projects. Always on the lookout for new trends, he founded his perfume production in 1870, thereby becoming the origin of the perfume manufacturing legacy that has given the city of Parma a worldwide prestige. 

Since the time of Marie Louise, the companies in Parma, which at that time were solely affiliated with the court, started to grow and to adjust to the situation of the town. Thus, when Borsari opened his perfumery, he had at his disposal highly qualified craftsmen (such as the glassmaker Bormioli) to manufacture bottles and boxes and to print them (with a silk-screen printing technique typical of the period). Fun fact, our perfumer wished to reintroduce violet perfume production as it was in Marie Louise's time and proceeded to ask the Annunziata monks the secret recipe for this perfume, which had been hidden until then. After insisting many times, he was given the formula of the " Acqua di Violetta », which made his business extremely popular.  


Famous iconic Violetta di Parma - Borsari bottle in its authentic wooden box

If you're ever in Parma, you can always stop by the historic Violetta di Parma Borsari store dating back to 1930. Besides learning more about the vibrant life of Ludovico Borsari, you can discover the products manufactured by his company during the first half of the 20th century and the contemporary local glass industry represented - among others - by the Bormioli company.

For almost two centuries, Parma has maintained a special position in the world of perfumery, first due to the influence of Marie Louise, and later thanks to the entrepreneurship of Borsari.

The production of Parma perfume

Even though perfume houses are fundamental for development of the Italian perfume market, they also require all the packaging which helps make perfume attractive: caps, glasses, cardboard, printing...

In this way, with the establishment of the perfume houses belonging to entrepreneurs such as Borsari, many companies were born in small laboratories and grew to become some of the world's leading references in the field of packaging, bottle and cap manufacturing and the printing of perfume labels.

Bormioli, a glass company founded in 1300 (first in France, then in Genoa), is one of the businesses whose activities led to the establishment of a stable perfume supply chain in Parma, specializing in the production of perfume bottles in the 1950s and 1960s, as a result of the strong market demand. During the 20th century, Bormioli saw the arrival of more and more perfume companies (OPSO, Trionfale, Ducale, Adam, Morris, Italart) as well as companies specializing in printing, paper processing and packaging materials.


Official picture of the Bormioli glassworks displaying its perfume bottle production

Two centuries of professionalism and entrepreneurial mindset have made the city of Parma an internationally renowned hub of perfume production, with a number of companies specializing in essence creation and the production of all the components required for the product. The entire supply chain related to the world of perfume still leaves Parma as a unique place in Italy.

Growth and recession of the perfume market in Italy

This industrial network evolved over the decades until it reached its peak in the 1960s, only to be overtaken by a fast globalization of the world. 

The post-second world war European market potential was massive. While Europeans were beginning to confidently embrace consumption again, only a handful of companies, notably French, dominated a booming market. The middle class was larger than at the beginning of the 20th century, fueling a growing interest in the quest for elegance and the accessories associated with it - including men's and women's perfumes. The customer of the time were more and more inclined towards imported merchandise: the "made in Parma" shoemakers were ret hot (Barrett e Alexander in particular were gaining ground on the European market). However, as far as perfume goes, the most famous products were still "perfumes" and "eaux de cologne" bearing the French names of Napoleon, Adam, Jacques Horace.

Parma has not said its final word. With the help of the creative talent of Erberto Carboni, the Violetta di Parma came back, along with other local delicacies. The originality and the avant-garde nature of Carboni's advertising should be highlighted, as he manages to adapt his graphic expression to the diversity of his clients.


Different advertising banners made by Erberto Carboni

A few years later, the economical recovery of the 60's gave way to a new adulation for "design" products. The familial and traditional side of the perfume industry in Parma was not in sync with the new demand and with the expectations of a globalized market mainly ruled by a few multinationals. There have been a few unsuccessful attempts to overcome this phenomenon, such as Florbath in the 1970s and 1980s, which aimed to unify the leading companies in Parma under a single brand to compete within the world market.

Nowadays, some Italian brands from Parma are making a comeback on the international scene and are redefining a market strongly dominated by Haute Couture brands - including some Italian ones. 

Acqua di Parma, a godsend for Parma perfume

Acqua di Parma is a good example of the resurgence of a number of Italian brands.

The perfume house Acqua di Parma was born in 1916 in the city of Parma with Colonia - its first perfume which remained a symbol of the house and whose subtle and refreshing scent contrasted with the perfume trends of the time. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the house embodied Parma's golden age in the perfume industry, although the brand was mainly found in tailor stores - many Cinecitta celebrities were fond of the brand.


Official visual of the Colonia bottle by Acqua di Parma

Over the years, Acqua di Parma expanded its collection, again with products entirely handcrafted in Italy, now offering women's perfumes, home fragrances reminiscent of Mediterranean scents, luxury handcrafted leather goods, as well as bath linens and candles.

The company was acquired in 1993 by Luca di Montezemolo (President of Ferrari at the time), Diego della Valle (Chairman and CEO of Tod's) and Paolo Borgomanero ( major shareholder of the La Perla Lingerie Group), resulting in strong corporate branding and growth - including the opening of a boutique in Via del Gesù, Milan's luxury hub. In 2003, the business trio sold Acqua di Parma to Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, who is known to be very fond of 

Today, the Italian brand holds a special place in the hearts of perfume afficionados around the world. Laura Burdese, the brand's current CEO affectionately comments:

"What I always want to preserve about Acqua di Parma is its 'non-commercial' side. Acqua di Parma was born from the will of an aristocrat, during his travels to New York, London and Paris, can you imagine him, more than 100 years ago, during those trips that lasted sometimes for months? He created his own Eau de Cologne for his friends and family, to take a part of Italy with him " she says, "We create fragrances that don't overwhelm," she adds proudly.

« Parma, la città del profumo », and its ambition

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of perfumery expertise, the city of Parma will be adorned with culture for the exhibition "Parma, la città del profumo" in 2020 and 2021. 


Official banner of the exhibition "Parma, la città del profumo"

A complete overview of the perfume history of Parma has been set up for the exhibition with conferences on the subject, explanations on the making process of a perfume and testimonies of Italian companies and companies from Parma.

The 200-year anniversary of Parma's perfume history is also the opportunity to develop fragrances, specially created for the event: a fragrance designed to tell the story of two centuries of olfactory notes throughout the history of the city of Parma. The project will be made available in a limited edition of 1,000 pieces and will support the cultural project "Parma, la città del profumo".



Parma, la città del profumo" bottle

It is an Eau de Cologne with citrus notes combined with a typical regional composition of violets, accompanied by woody base notes.