lundi 15 septembre 2008

Myrurgia 1916-1936

There is much more to Myrurgia than Maja soaps, though with her fan, her kiss-curls and her mantilla, the red and black Spanish dancer adorning the label has become the icon of folkloric Spain. In the wake of her scarlet ruffles, she carries all the España es Diferente clichés for which the Spanish themselves, though they threw their castagnettes in the sea after the Caudillo’s death, still have inordinate fondness…

Spain has a paradoxical relationship to its folklore since it was used by Franco both to hold the country back and to sell it to tourists in the 1960s. Despite firmly embracing modernity, it is quite possibly the sole European nation to have kept its traditional popular arts – bullfighting and flamenco – alive and thriving. The ubiquitous Maja (in Spanish, the word designates a beautiful girl of the popular classes) may very well be the mirror of this continuing, but not always reactionary, attachment to tradition.

Myrurgia’s story, as one of the three great perfume houses founded after WWI – with Parera and Dana – reflects this combination of attachment to folklore and push towards modernity. Because there’s a lot more to the Barcelona perfume house than Maja : from its birth in 1916 to the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it was linked to the Catalan and European avant-garde. The 2003 exhibition Myrurgia 1916-1939, Bellesa i Glamour at the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya bore witness to the extraordinary creativity of the company.

Esteve Monegal, perfumer and artist

Myrurgia’s owner, Esteve Monegal (1888-1970), was in fact one of the rising stars of Art Nouveau in Catalunia during his brief artistic career : as a youth, he read Nietzsche and admired Wagner ; later on, he became a major player in the Barcelona art scene, as a sculptor, teacher and theoretician…

However, en 1917, at the age of 29, Esteve Monegal officially renounced his artistic career to take over the perfume house founded by his father, who owned a thriving hardware store. From then on, with the help of his fellow artist Eduard Jener Casellas, he called on the best catalan artists and photographers to design his bottles, labels and ads. Myrurgia’s visual identity closely followed the period’s aesthetic trends, from Art Nouveau to Ballets Russes Orientalism, and from Art Deco (Myrurgia had a stand at the 1925 Paris Arts Decoratifs exhibition that gave the movement its name) to Surrealism : René Magritte himself designed some of the ads. The Myrurgia factory itself, built in 1928-30 by Antoni Puig Gairalt, is considered to be one of the landmarks of Rationalist industrial architecture in Catalunia.

Mysterious compositions

The Myrurgia exhibition catalogue unfortunately gives very little information on the perfumes themselves. Esteve Monegal himself, who apparently worked with François Coty before 1916, is said to have found the names and the notes : he bought his formulas from the Naef & Compagnie laboratory until 1921, when he hired Lucien Maisonier as the technical manager of his factory. We know that the great Jean Carles, of the Roure Laboratory, who worked a lot with Spanish companies (he authored Tabu and Canoë for Dana) composed some of the fragrances from 1927 onwards.

The Craze for Exotica in Interwar Years

The names and presentations of the fragrances bear witness to the craze for exotica in the society of the interwar years. Myrurgia’s first great success, and one of its longest-lasting, Maderas de Oriente (Woods of the Orient, 1918), a sandalwood, cedar and sycomore blend, reflects the Orientalist fashion launched by the Ballets Russes and Paul Poiret’s fashions, as do Hindustan (1922), Morisca (1917), or the Indian-miniature inspired box of Besame (1921).

The provocatively-named Orgia (1919) – would anyone dare to launch a fragrance with such a racy name today ? – probably echoes Esteve Monegal’s fascination with Antiquity. The very name Myrurgia was formed by a modified combination of the Greek words for «essence» and «factory».

But Monegal also exploited the rich vein of exoticism of his own country – acting on the self-exoticism that is so peculiar to Spain – by naming his fragrances Maja (1918), Tu Reja (Your Window Grille, 1921), Suspiro de Granada (Sigh of Granada, 1923), Sol de Triana (Sun of Triana, 1927), Goyesca (1929), Embrujo de Sevilla (Spell of Seville, 1933) or Clavel de Espana (Spanish Carnation, 1936).

Myrurgia, post-1936

The exhibition only covers the period preceding the Spanish Civil War,and with good cause: the country’s industry suffered both from the war and the ensuing embargo. Myrurgia survived mainly through exports to Latin America, before re-emerging in the 1960s with the tourist boom, when the Maja soaps became ubiquitous souvenirs of sunny Spain.

Today, after merging with Puig, Myrurgia mostly produces fragrances for Spanish brands like Adolfo Dominguez and Don Algodon, but only sells five of its classics : Colonia 1916 and Colonia 1916 Hierba Fresca, Maja, Joya and Embrujo de Sevilla. Of these, only the Colonia seems to have retained any sort of prestige. The rest are sold between shampoos and souvenirs in the Corte Inglès department stores. Their original formulas are a distant memory. Nevertheless, the smell of Maja soap can still conjure nostalgic recollections of fino-drenched evenings in Andalucia…

Myrurgia’s other discontinued fragrances

Colonia del 1916 (1918)
Sales de tracia (1918)
Principe de Asturias (1918)
Lirio (1918)
Pierrot (1918)
Rosa (1918)
Jazmin (1918)
Origanum (1919)
Tentacion (1920)
Besame (1921)
Fantasio (1921)
Flores del Mal (1921)
Chipre (1921)
Joya (1924)
Ariadna (1924)
Formosa (1924)
Lagrimas en Flor (1925)
Alado (1925)
Flor de Blason (1925)
Bien (1926, after-shave)
Mis Amores (1927)
Lido de Venecia (1927)
Ella (1930)
Hawaii (1933)
Jungla (1933)
Yanhia (1933)
Sprint (1933)
Faisa (1935)

Please note that the dates given are not necessarily those of the launches, mais those of the oldest bottles or ads shown in the catalogue. Most seem earlier than the years quoted in various Websites, including Myrurgia’s. Some are given later dates because they were relaunched between the 50s and the 70s. A limited edition of Maderas de Oriente was issued for the 2003 exhibition.

Image: Label for Orgia fragrances by Eduard Jener (1919)

15 commentaires:

  1. Thank you for the interesting history of Myrurgia. Your blog is very beautifully done, as well. I have a small bottle of the Orgia. It is a slightly soap/spice musk with aldehydes and carnation and orange flower touches. I think it is my favorite of this house, which I do not see mentioned very often.

  2. Thank you for the compliment, Millascent, and for telling us what Orgia smells like. Orange blossom and carnation are really the flowers most associated with Spain...
    Myrurgia seldom gets mentioned because, I think, almost all their scents are discontinued and the remaining ones are sold in drugstores -- at least Maja is, sometimes. I can't remember seeing the others outside of Spain and Latin America.

  3. This will be a very handy article for fellow afficionados; when I tried to research Myrurgia half a year ago, I had some trouble coming across a single point of good information.

    In fact, perhaps you can help me clarify...would the bottle of "1916" cologne I have be the "Colonia de 1916" you list?

  4. Scentself, I'm pretty sure your 1916 is the Colonia, which got a prize at the 1925 Arts Décoratifs exhibition, by the way.
    Finding the catalogue was a windfall: that's where I got all my info. Sadly, it seems to be published only in Catalan and Spanish, with a French translation at the end.

  5. Here you have an interview with Monegal, the actual perfumer:

    but it's hard to understand :(

  6. Thanks for the link, Octavian. This is an interview with Ramon Monegal, Myrurgia's perfumer, who I suppose is somehow related to Esteve Monegal, though I couldn't find their exact degree of kinship. I can't understand Catalan 100%, but the interview is pretty general.

  7. I'm from Spain and nevertheless, I have learnt here a lot about Myrurgia. Thank you very much!
    I know it can sound strange, but I've never smelt Maja or Joya. Actually, I'm only familiar with 1916 Colonia, which I like a lot.

    If I can be of any help with the translation of some information in Spanish or Catalan, just tell me. I can translate into English and French.

  8. Muchisimas gracias, Isa, pero de momento no necesito nada. Y la verdad es que el castellano lo leo bastante bien.
    Are you the one who translated some of my blog entries in the forum enfemenino?
    I'm glad I could enlighten you on Myrurgia. I got it all from the Barcelona exhibition catalogue. Unfortunately, the current versions of Maja and Joya are cheaply made. I would love to smell some of the old ones, especially Maderas de Oriente... There isn't much information on what they actually smelled like, que lastima!

  9. Hi Carmencanada!

    Yes, I've translated some of your articles, and from other blogs too. There are members of that forum (En Femenino) who don't understand English and I enjoy doing it and sharing all this wonderful entries and reviews with them. I hope it doesn't bother you.

  10. Isa, no problem at all, if you provide the link for those readers who do understand either French or English... I've noticed quite a few people are connecting from Spain now!

  11. Of course, I always provide the sources when I translate an entry. Thank you! :)
    I'm glad that there are lots of Spanish visitors because that means that there's a real interest in perfumes in Spain (I hope niche houses notice it too).

  12. Very good work! Thank you for posting all this wonderful info. if only the Puig group had realized the need for historical information on all the perfumes they have under their umbrella... Provenance, marketers! Provenance sells!

    Could you possibly post pictures of the various commercial phases of the perfumes? - Bottles, boxes, types of bottles, color - yes, color, - did different color represent a different formulation or degree as other houses do now (EDC, EDT, EDP, P), was it ever sold as a refill at the pharmacy, as other colognes did, etc.

    I have Maja from 1980 - which I would categorize as from the 1970's decade, Maja from 1999, still made in Spain, and very recent Maja - made in Mexico. The perfume is quite different. The new Maja perfume is almost identical to the soap scent, to the old soap scent, but not to the old perfume scent.

    The 1980 perfume has an enormous sillage for its perfume type, and a lengthy drydown. The newest perfume has very little sillage and almost immediate drydown effect.

    My 1980 Maja is a warm yellow, but yesterday I received an old Maja which is green. I have never seen a green Maja. The scent was a tad different than the yellow out of the bottle, a tad stronger with lots of clove jumping out. And reading a little more I found out that it is the Nueva Maja introduced in 1960. Any more about that?

    When did Puig move the manufacture of Maja to Mexico?

  13. Basuranegra, I'm afraid I don't have the documents to answer all your questions -- you know more about Maja than I do! I hope some day I can consult the Puig archives, because you're right, history adds such a rich layer to our enjoyment of older fragrances...

  14. Incredibly fascinating! I've been looking for information on Maja for years and gave up ... until now! I always come back to it. I was raised by my grandmother and whenever she ran out of Maja, I'd go tot he Mission District here in San Francisco to get more. I had a beautiful bottle from the '80s that I ran out of so I bought another more modern bottle y no me gusta! It's not the same, at all. Anyway, the information about Carmen is spectacular! Apparently, someone else thinks she was special as well. Check of this opera's homage to her work:

  15. Hello! my grandmother from Switzerland always used Goyesca hand soap. I don't see any mention of it in your blog or anywhere else for that matter. Do you know if it is still made or has a different name now? The information you have provided in the blog is amazing! thank you!