François Coty, born on May 3, 1874, was a complicated man. His real name was Joseph Maris François Spoturno. He was a perfume manufacturer and newspaper magnate, but also fascist and anti-Semite. He was born in Corsica and he was related to another famous Corsican named Bonaparte. His parents died when he was little and he was raised by an aunt in Marseilles.
He moved to Marseilles and changed his name to Coty, a variation on his mother’s maiden name,to make himself sound more French, just as that other Corsican had changed his name from Buonaparte for the same reason. He met a pharmacist who was experimenting with perfume making and Coty learned enough from him to launch his own perfume. He went from store to store trying to interest buyers with no success until fate stepped in. He dropped a bottle of his rose fragrance on a department store counter and when it shattered, customers flocked to demand the scent. He sold out his entire stock and was invited to provide more.
Coty was also a brilliant marketer who understood that the packaging was essential to the success of a perfume. He collaborated with Baccarat and Lalique to create beautiful bottles and labels. He sold perfumes in simpler bottles to less affluent women. He came up with the concept of a multi-part gift set, with perfume plus powder or lotions. He became a millionaire based on this principle: “Give a woman the best product to be made, market it in the perfect flask, beautiful in its simplicity yet impeccable in its taste, ask a reasonable price for it, and you will witness the birth of a business the size of which the world has never seen.” He had 9,000 employees and made 100,000 bottles of perfume a day.
After World War I, Coty decided to take on the American market. He sent raw ingredients from France to escape high duties on manufactured luxury goods and had the perfume made in America. He later did the same things in the United Kingdom and Romania. The next step was an expansion into cosmetics and skin care. At the time of the stock market crash, his wealth was estimated at $34 million in US currency. He bought one fabulous home after another.
But Coty had a dark side. He also used his money to try to buy his way into politics, with only moderate success. He bought newspapers, the conservative Figaro that he took to the extreme right, and then he launched a paper directed at the working class. Those in power began to distance themselves from his increasingly vocal fascist positions. He was taken to court for libeling a Jewish war-veteran’s association. He had mistress after mistress and fathered numerous illegitimate children. His wife Yvonne decided to divorce him. His empire had already been weakened by the crash. His newspapers were bleeding money. He defaulted on his final payment to his ex-wife, and she got everything. Coty died in 1934 of pneumonia and complications from an aneurysm. After his death, Yvonne sold the perfume and cosmetics business to the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. They cheapened the brand and eventually sold it to a German firm. That man who had made a fortune based on the finest quality lost it all.
Today’s expression, qui sème le vent, récolte la tempête (key sem luh vehn raycolt la tompet) means “Who sows the wind, reaps the storm” or the equivalent of our expression “you reap what you sow.” Despite his business acumen, Coty was brought down from the heights by his appalling life choices. Kind of like another Corsican who was brought low by hubris.