Ever since I made my own scented soap as a perfumery trainee, I’ve been fascinated by the transformation that happens when oils and lye come together. How could such simple materials produce a shiny white bar? And how could the addition of aromatic essences transform an ordinary soap into a small luxury?
The experience of making soap also taught me the difference between a mass-produced bar and an artisanal product. Like wine, soap needs to be aged. The process can be accelerated, but traditional makers take as long as a month to mature their bars to achieve a distinctive texture and to make the scent more rounded and complex. A well-made soap holds its shape and retains its fragrance until the last speck remains.
The term “Savon de Marseille” refers to a specific manufacturing method in open-air cauldrons. In the 17th century, it meant soaps made in and around the Marseille area and produced only from olive oil, but today the regulations allow other vegetable fats as well. Some of my favourite soaps are made by Marius Fabre, a family business founded in 1900. Its classic Savon de Marseille (€5.20 for 150g) leaves skin soft and moisturised. The bar has a natural aroma of olive oil that doesn’t linger, but when I want a Provençal fantasy, I turn to the scented soap collection. Fig, verbena, honeysuckle and orange-cinnamon (all €3.40 for 150g) are some of the fragrances that transport me to the sunny Mediterranean.
Another soapmaker with a long history and a diverse range of excellent hard-milled soaps is Claus Porto. Founded in the 19th century by two Germans based in Portugal, Ferdinand Claus and Georges Schweder, the company survived the turbulent events of the 20th century and entered the 21st with a reputation for beautiful packaging and innovative aromas. The soaps and their design are inspired by Portugal: Lisbon’s botanical gardens, Porto’s elaborate tiles and the scents of the sea coast. The Acacia Tuberose soaps (from €8 for 1.8oz) smells like a summer day, while Wild Moss (€8 for 50g) reminds me of an autumnal forest.
When exploring artisanal soapmakers, I would be remiss not to include one of Florence’s treasures, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. This venerable institution was founded by Dominican friars around 1221 as an infirmary for the monks. Eventually it began producing a range of balms and medicines for the general public. Today, Santa Maria Novella is a cosmetic and perfume house reputed for its simple but elegant formulas.One such example is its iris-scented soap Sapone Fior d’Iris ($18 for 100g). The fragrance is of iris roots and it lasts on the skin well after a shower, making this soap a perfect companion to an iris perfume like Santa Maria Novella Acqua di Colonia Iris (price on request) or Chanel 28 La Pausa (£150 for 75ml).
When I want a classic perfumed soap, I turn to Hermès. Its soaps include several varieties meant to accompany the fragrances in its collection – Calèche (£22 for 100g), Eau d’Orange Verte (£20 for 150g), Terre d’Hermès (£20 for 100g), among others. My choice these days is Eau des Merveilles (£16 for 100g), a soap that matches the original perfume created in 2004 by Ralf Schwieger and Nathalie Feisthauer. Eau des Merveilles evokes a beach on a winter day – driftwood entangled in dark fronds of seaweed, damp sand and bleached flowers. The soap likewise reprises the woods, petals and cool amber, but it makes them warmer and softer. The scent clings to skin, tender and caressing, reminding me that while a bar of soap is a simple thing, it’s also a thing of beauty.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog Boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.