An intriguing story about L'Oréal cosmetics
If "The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal that Rocked Paris" by Tom Sancton was a romance novel, I was up for it. But when I read the book jacket, I was disappointed but also intrigued.
Not a steamy romance like I thought; instead, a true story about a major scandal involving Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oréal Cosmetics fortune, and her daughter Francoise Bettencourt Meyers.
Liliane Bettencourt was considered the richest woman in the world (worth $44.3 billion) at the time of her death in September 2017 at age 94. You'll have to read the book to find out more about the infamous scandal between the heiresses Liliane and Francoise. This article is just about the history of L'Oréal.
I found this biography of the Schueller Family and the Bettencourts, and the history of L'Oréal, absolutely fascinating. There are so many different players; a Catholic, a Jew, a Communist Party supporter, an anti-Semite. What really fascinates me, though, is the story of Liliane's father, L'Oréal founder Eugene Schueller. Born in France with a German last name, he openly supported the Communist Party. Were L'Oréal cosmetics supporting a Communist philosophy? Another reason to read the book.
Eugene's father, Charles Schueller, owned a pastry shop in Paris. Eugene did not want to follow in his father's footsteps. He was aiming for something more remunerative. During Eugene's growing-up years, the pastry shop struggled, forcing the family to move out of Paris into a suburb where living expenses weren't as high.
Although the pastry shop nearly depleted the family's savings, the Schuellers were able to buy another bakery located near the College Saint Croix de Neuilly, an elite private school. Eugene was allowed to attend classes there in trade for bread for the school. He was an above-average student and earned outstanding grades before graduating from the Institute of Applied Chemistry in 1904. He took a job working at The Sorbonne as a research assistant for Professor Victor Auger.
This was a respectable job, but hardly the lucrative career Eugene imagined for himself. Not long after he took the job, though, things changed when the owner of a large barbershop asked Auger and his assistant to develop a synthetic hair dye. Auger wasn't really well-versed in dying hair color, but Eugene felt he couldn't pass up the opportunity, so he agreed to become the barber's technical advisor.
It wasn't long before he chafed at working for someone else, however, and Eugene soon struck out on his own. His first attempts with hair dye weren't terribly successful. However, in 1909 — just five years after he graduated from college — he launched The Society of Inoffensive Hair Dyes. The long title was a mouthful to say, so he changed the name to L'Oréal. The new corporate name was based on a play on the word aureole, meaning halo. Aureole was a popular French hairstyle and the name of L'Oréal's first product.
Eugene Schueller was a very ambitious man with very diverse business interests. He became a partner in a plastics manufacturing company that made combs. After a falling out with his partners, he became a shareholder in Valstar, an American company that manufactured paint and varnish. Another one of Schueller's ventures was the founding of Plavie Film, the manufacturer of film for movie cameras and still cameras.
In 1928, Eugene Schueller took over the struggling Monsavon soap manufacturing company. Single-handedly, he launched a massive ad campaign which boosted sales and turned Monsavon into one of the largest soap manufacturers in the world.
My junior year in college, I studied in Bordeaux, the southwestern part of France well-known for its wines. I purchased several bars of Monsavon soap as souvenirs while I was there. I remember the soap smelling very much like our Irish Spring; clean and fresh. The soap came wrapped in paper that reminded me of expensive gift wrap, smooth and shiny. It didn't tear easily and wasn't flimsy.
The paper color was off-white, printed with green graphics of some kind and black type. I had those bars of soap until about four years ago, when I gave them as Christmas gifts to the gals in my book group. Wish I had known, and wish I had kept one of those bars.
Although L'Oréal got its start in the hair-color business, the company quickly branched out. Today, L'Oréal markets more than 500 brands and thousands of individual products in all sectors of the beauty business: hair color and styling, permanents, body and skin care, cleansers, makeup and fragrance.
Nancy Dunis is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.