Grossmith: Reviving a British heritage brand
2023 . 12 . 14 |
Within the world of niche and artistic perfumery there is a group of brands referred to as “Sleeping Beauties”….those brands that had once been great but over time were forgotten….until a Prince Charming comes along to revive them. In the case of Grossmith, it’s a family affair where the fifth and sixth generations are lovingly breathing new life into a bygone international powerhouse.
About two years ago I met Simon, Amanda and Kate Brooke at Esxence. We got to chatting, and as they told me their story, I knew Essencional readers would be interested. Over a series of meetings, letters and phone calls, they gave me a peek behind the scenes into how they rebuilt this legacy brand while respecting its history, remaining authentic and being relevant today.
While researching your family tree, you discovered the brand and its link to your family. Tell me about the history you uncovered.
Simon Brooke: I discovered that in September 1868 my great grandfather George Brooke married Amelia Eliza Grossmith, the elder daughter of John Grossmith. I became progressively more curious and intrigued by the story of the founder, John Grossmith. His ancestors had settled in Bishops Waltham, Hampshire where most were farmers but some were “curriers”. A “currier” treated leather with oils to soften and fragrance it for use in saddlery and glove making.
I then discovered that John had founded the Grossmith perfume house in the City of London in 1835, having farmed lavender, thyme, rosemary and other herbs for use by curriers and others who needed oils for flavourings and perfumery. We understand that his son, John Lipscomb Grossmith, who trained in Grasse, was the innovator, creating fragrances that evoked travel to places that were inaccessible to ordinary people, such as Japan, India and ‘Arabia’.
By the turn of the century Grossmith had grown into a huge business selling fragrance-based products to customers all over the world and I realised that here I was in 2005 looking at a business empire that had disappeared but at one stage had been the English equivalent of Guerlain.
I began a quest to learn as much as I could in my spare time about the history of the brand mainly by collecting samples of heritage products from the 1850s to the 1970s.
Out of that process came the idea of what I termed a “New Beginning” for Grossmith and the revival of the brand.
What was your professional background before this venture? Did you have skills from that milieu that helped you in this project?
I was a Chartered Surveyor with a background in commercial property specialising in corporate real estate I had over thirty years of property experience but none in the perfume industry.
Amanda, my wife, had trained with Unilever as an accountant and in HR so between us we covered a lot of ground and could bring a considerable amount of professional and objective commercial experience to achieve a successful revival of Grossmith.
What I had learned throughout my property career was to recognize your own limitations and understand when to bring in specialist support. To revive Grossmith we knew that we needed to surround ourselves with “world experts” in branding, design, fragrance formulation, production and IP. We also soon realised that we needed a whole raft of suppliers, a logistics hub and a global retail network.
We also wanted to have a business that was family owned and managed without external investors and free of third party debt.
Let’s talk about reviving a heritage brand – how did you do it?
We knew that it was one thing for a commercial giant like Unilever or Procter and Gamble to pick up a heritage brand and bring it back to market but it would be quite different and considerably more powerful if it could be undertaken by descendants of the founder. We had the sort of legitimacy that other brands craved and some were inventing. We were in awe of our story and heritage, which is real, and we wanted to restore rather than modernize Grossmith.
We then asked ourselves what Jean-Paul Guerlain would do if he was in our position and contemplating the revival of Guerlain. The answer was obvious, he would begin by bringing back the most successful scents of their past and so we decided to do the same, ‘remastering’ three of our original fragrances – the most successful - and launching these in EDP and perfume.
We visited CosmoProf in 2008 which gave us an introduction to the mass market and on the same trip we attended the very first Esxence show. By October 2009 we were sufficiently advanced to be able to preview Grossmith at TFWA in Cannes where we established a network of key contacts.
Next, to begin to generate revenues we needed to appoint stockists in our primary markets and so in November 2009 Grossmith launched in London at Fortnum & Mason and in the Roja Dove Haute Perfumery in Harrods.
I was immediately on the road again, travelling to meet and to present Grossmith to prospective retail customers in the Middle East. In the spring of 2010 Grossmith launched in Bahrain, Dubai, Qatar and Oman. Grossmith has subsequently become well-known, respected and appreciated for its quality and authenticity throughout the Middle East.
Let’s come back to the fragrances - you have three collections: Classic, Royal and Black Label. What characterizes each, and let’s talk about one scent from each group.
During my research I discovered a living distant cousin who has two volumes of original formulae dating from around 1907 for perfumes and other fragrance-based products, as well as the medals Grossmith was awarded for perfumery at international exhibitions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the Great Exhibition of 1851. Our perfume formulae were predominantly composed of natural materials and so we selected and briefed Robertet who are renowned for their expertise in natural materials.
The Classics – Hasu-no-Hana, Phul-Nana and Shem-el-Nessim - are three of Grossmith’s most successful original fragrances from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries ‘remastered’ for the 21st century. We wanted them to be recreated as closely to the originals as possible while complying with regulations and without tweaking them for a modern audience. Phul-Nana, which means ‘lovely flower’ in Hindi, was created to evoke travel to faraway places in the imagination. It was complex and sensuous, unlike many Victorian single florals, and even today delights by how it changes from top to base.
The Royal Collection comprising Betrothal and Diamond Jubilee Bouquet was joined by King’s Salute which was launched in May this year to mark the Coronation. Opening with bright citrus and bold lavenders, King’s Salute dries down to a heart of iris and thyme with nuances of black pepper and cardamom. The fragrance was inspired by the King’s well-known love of his Gardens at Highgrove and John Grossmith’s farming of herbs in the early 1800s.
The Black Label Collection is entirely modern and was created for us by the perfumers at Robertet. These fragrances share the same complexity and sophistication of the originals while taking the house into the 21st century. Amelia, named in honour of Amelia Grossmith, the elder daughter of the founder, is a modern chypre, very understated and very much a skin scent rather than one with a big sillage.
In which markets is the brand sold and are there any you would like to open?
Our products are currently available through retailers in the UK (where Fortnum & Mason in London hosts our flagship counter), Europe, the Middle East, and the USA. During 2024, in addition to expansion in the Middle East we will be launching in Malaysia, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and mainland China. Eventually we hope to have a retailing presence in Australia and New Zealand.
What do you feel are some of the most important skills needed in the fragrance business and why?
Passion for the product, attention to detail, ability to listen, patience and stamina for everyone involved! We are not professional perfumers and we understand that it takes a lifetime to become an excellent perfumer but we have become enthusiastic evaluators! We listen and learn from all members of the wider team, especially our sales people who meet our end customers whose insights are invaluable.
How do you stay in touch with your network and your customers?
We are members of the British Society of Perfumers which brings us into close contact with creatives, young and not so young, in our industry.
In London in particular we enjoy and value our Meet the Makers events at Fortnum and Mason where we are able to meet our customers in an informal setting to talk to them about Grossmith and to hear what they like about us. We especially like to know where our customers from overseas do their shopping for Grossmith!
How do you see Grossmith evolving over the next few years? What should we expect to see from you in the future?
As a modern business we are aware of the conflicting dynamics between the presentation of a luxury product and environmental pressures and are working with our suppliers to reduce our carbon footprint and make our products more sustainable. It is not easy but we will persist.
We will continue to support the ambitious growth plans of many of our retailer partners, develop our markets around the world, launch new products (infrequently!), maintain our quality and tell our ever-growing story.
We will also build on our already enviable reputation in the fine fragrance sector while enjoying being small and truly exclusive. All four family members are actively involved in day to day running of the business. Having revived the dormant business our own business planning is for succession rather than sale and exit.
For more information visit Grossmith London