Francois Coty is known for the cosmetics giant he created, and less happily for his politics, which in the France of the 1930s leaned considerably to the Right. But his real legacy may not be his political bent, nor yet his fabulous success in the world of cosmetics, but his innovations in the field of business.
For political historians Coty is the man who bought newspapers in France during the waning of the Third Republic, including the right wing L’Ami du Peuple, and who also flirted with Mussolini and his Fascist regime. The Manichean politics of the 30s have cast a long shadow over the rest of his life, and perhaps that is a shame, because the Ligurian Corsican from Ajaccio, was a great businessman. He became a multi-millionaire in a matter of two years after creating his first real perfume: La Rose Jacqueminot, and never looked back. He was born Joseph Maria Francois Spoturno in Corsica, child of a union that his relatives frowned upon. His mother died at twenty five, his father either abandoned his son, or else was killed at sea. The result was a childhood supervised by his great-grandmother and his grandmother, first in Ajaccio and later in Marseilles.
He began his adult career as an aid to the Corsican deputy Arene in the French Assembly. It was only while he was in Paris that he learned, by chance, that he had a natural facility as a “nose”, that is, an inborn ability to distinguish odors from one another in perfumes, and in the air.
He composed a cologne with the help of Raymond Goery, a Parisian pharmacist, and named it Cologne Coty after for his mother’s family, though Gallicized by the use of a y to end the name instead of the more Italian i. Then, shortly after his marriage in 1904 and some training in Grasse, he produced La Rose Jacqueminot, the rose note facilitated by his purchase of rose absolute from a supplier in bankruptcy. It was a great success, and Coty, a millionaire overnight, began his astonishing ascent.
Frankly that career would have been amazing from the standpoint of the fragrances he produced alone, several of them now considered great classics of French perfumery: L’Origan in 1905 a spice note that recreated his memories of the Corsican chaparral, Chypre in 1917, the first modern chypre note, Emeraude in 1921, and L’Aimant in 1927, still one of the top selling perfumes in Britain during the 1990s, seventy years later.
He was one of the first perfumers ever to consider packaging seriously, and made an alliance with Rene Lalique to create and market delicate art nouveau bottles for his scents. He created a whole factory complex he named La Cite des Parfums in Suresnes. Nor did he stop with perfume. He also created a new kind of face powder “air spun”, using a centrifugal machine to refine the powder particles, and made a second even more vast fortune from the process, even including the Asian market by means of a golden palette for oriental women.
His great business innovation however was the imposition of a vertical integraton upon the Coty Empire. This system gave him control over everything from marketing to research. From the fields of flowers to the plants that printed his labels, it was all his. Coty utilized every aspect of his business to generate returns, even going into the banking business to profit from the loans he made to his workers. He went so far as to establish a facility in Japan to scrape the gold leaf off of used boxes of face powder, and he turned a profit on that activity.
His personal life was filled with women and politics and real estate. He bought the Chateau d’Artigny, and many other houses, including places on the Riviera, in the Perigord, and rebuilt the residence of Mme. Du Barry, Louveciennes. He would have bought Chambord, but the government pooh-poohed the notion, which helped fuel his anger at the government.
This found expression in his support of far right politics. He was an avowed fascist of the Mussolini stripe, one time owner of Le Figaro and funder of various rightwing publications. He also helped found the right wing Solidarité Française, and proclaimed himself the French Mussolini. (Possibly it was that desire for total control at work. Modern plutocrats find it easier to rent politicians, to outsource the labor.)
His personal excesses, including a sizable illegitimate family, finally caught up with him in 1929 when his wife Yvonne divorced him in a financially painful split. He died only five years later, at sixty, of an aneurysm. He had by then become France’s first billionaire, and he had done it alone with nothing more than his abilities as a salesman and an acute sense of smell.