Our history: 1919 to 1950

1919-1930: The “Société Française des Produits Aromatiques”

The Gattefossé family suffered greatly during the war and both Abel and Robert lost their lives. The family business had also weakened financially, so René-Maurice decided to create a new business and seek external investors. In 1919, with several industry partners on board, he created the “Société Française des Produits Aromatiques (SFPA), anciens établissements Gattefossé” (the French Aromatic Products Company, formerly Gattefossé establishments). René-Maurice contributed Gattefossé & Sons’ business assets to the new company, but even so, he retained just 8% of shares.

Ateliers SFPA anciens etablissements Gattefosse 1920

Soon after, SFPA left the Monchat district of Lyon for the neighboring city of Villeurbanne. A huge factory was built, housing a dozen workshops and laboratories fitted with state-of-the-art equipment. Alongside the factory buildings, there was a garden for aromatic crops which functioned as a nursery where half-scale testing could be carried out.

The business started to see excellent results not long after moving to the new premises. At that time, perfumery was still the company’s primary activity. The business had developed relationships with suppliers all over the world; it imported clove oil and cinnamon essence from Madagascar, niaouli and star anise essential oils from Indochina, and cedarwood oil from Morocco. Rose oil came from Bulgaria and mint oils from America. Advertisements said the SFPA “only worked with the purest and most refined products”. Customers could purchase the Argos range, a collection of citrus essential oils from Sicily (lemon, orange, bergamot, etc.), several products made from blended raw materials, and so-called “artificial” fragrances such as “Lotex” (violet, jasmine, quinine and mimosa) and “Taylor” (acacia, white rose and oregano). As throughout the previous decade, René-Maurice wrote publications to accompany Gattefossé products as they were brought to market. He wanted to help customers use synthetic raw materials in the most effective way.

At the same time, the SFPA started developing an efficient network for the business by opening a number of offices around the world. René-Maurice’s nephew, Louis Schmuck was put in charge of the Paris office, and his younger brother Jean was entrusted with prospecting for new plant species in Morocco and the colonies.

Jean also became Editor-in-Chief of La Parfumerie Moderne, which continued to spread its “propaganda” throughout the world of French perfumery. The SFPA also directly benefited from valuable information published in the magazine about the raw materials used to create its products. Eminent botanists published the results of their work in the pages of La Parfumerie Moderne. And René-Maurice continued to contribute articles promoting the therapeutic properties of essences, although his readership was limited. The decade drew to a subdued close. The SFPA embarked on a full-scale diversification initiative that was undoubtedly too ambitious, and results proved disappointing to shareholders. While the business was producing aromatic compositions such as Salvone and Nardol, it was also developing new product ranges that took the company’s trade in a different direction. Products included dyes for perfume and rice powder, necklaces containing fragrances, and even insecticides and veterinary dressings. The start of the Great Depression in 1929 did not help matters, and in 1930, several stockholders asked to pull out. René-Maurice offered to buy back their shares, but to do so, he had no other choice than to sell the factory in Villeurbanne and significantly downsize the business.


1931-1950: Lipid chemistry, dermatology and aromatherapy

In 1931, the business was once more owned entirely by the family. But independence came at a high price: the SFPA was forced to retreat to Monchat, where the premises were much more cramped, and just twenty or so employees kept up the manufacture of perfume and cosmetic compositions.

Henri-Marcel Gattefossé et Emile Malhler

The arrival of a new generation marked a turning point for the business. René-Maurice’s son Henri-Marcel Gattefossé (who went by the name Marcel) and son-in-law Émile Mahler both joined the company as chemists (see picture). After meeting Doctor Jonquières, Marcel contributed to the development and manufacture of veterinary products and then dermatological materials, while Émile started producing emulsified excipients, introducing lipid chemistry and formulation to the business. This was a key period in the history of Gattefossé because it largely determined the organization’s direction over the decades to come, and still today, lipid chemistry is central to the company’s activities.

Gattefossé’s “new generation” excipients produced from fatty acid esters (glycerol monostearate) would go on to be of interest to both the cosmeticand pharmaceutical sectors and were initially used in hospitals. In fact, from 1938, Marcel tested new emulsified creams invented by Émile at the Antiquaille hospital in Lyon, working in the syphilis department run by Professor Jean Gaté. The creams proved to be excellent substitutes for Vaseline and other types of petroleum jelly and marked the company’s first steps in dermatology.

OUvrage aromathérapie les huiles essentielles hormones végétales René-Maurice Gattefossé

In the same department, at the same time, René-Maurice was experimenting with the therapeutic effects of essential oils, and was also using his son-in-law’s emulsified excipients in his preparations. At that time, René-Maurice had not long published a book entitled L’Aromathérapie, a term he invented. The publication included a report on the work he had carried out over the previous twenty years and analysis of scientific, chemical and pharmacological data available on aromatherapy. Towards the end of the 1930s, he conducted an increasing number of clinical trials, looking ahead to a second edition. However, it never saw the light of day.

While the company was pursuing dermatological activities and collaborating with hospitals, it started to increase the amount of work it was carrying out in the cosmetics sector until that became the strongest part of the business. The SFPA sold bases for creams and lotions, plus raw materials for use in hair products, make-up including powders and lipstick, face masks and even toothpaste.

However, development came to a halt at the start of the Second World War. Both Marcel and Émile were enlisted. In 1940, wanting to ensure the company had sufficient supplies, René-Maurice purchased a farmhouse near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he grew lavender, mint, sage and other aromatic herbs. He also found this to be a suitable environment for writing numerous works on cosmetics, and as the war came to a close, cosmetics continued to be an important part of the company’s research.

In 1946, Marcel and René-Maurice saw their research developments come to fruition when they were issued a patent for the manufacturing processes developed to create the creams tested at the Antiquaille hospital. That same year, the SFPA firmly established its credibility in the field of cosmetics when it was granted a further patent for a type of hair oil. In 1949, the growing importance of the cosmetics market was highlighted once more with the creation of the Société Française de Cosmétologie, with Louis Schmuck as secretary-general.

On 21st April 1950, René-Maurice was visiting his brother Jean in Casablanca, Morocco, when he died suddenly from a pulmonary edema. His widow, Blanche, was named company Chair, his son Marcel became Managing Director and his son-in-law Émile was made Technical Director.