Swiss entrepreneur takes fragrant adventure
On a sunny March morning, a stroll through one of Costa Rica’s blooming coffee fields is an unforgettable experience: Insects are humming, birds are chirping, and the fresh air is filled with the jasmine-like scent of coffee plants. Covered with myriad white flowers, the evergreen bushes look like they have been coated with a light snowfall overnight.
This beautiful scenario inspired Charlotte Robert to launch the first perfume ever made from the essence of coffee flowers.
The Swiss economist and entrepreneur first came to Costa Rica in March 1999 to learn Spanish.
“I was captivated by the fragrance of the coffee flowers, which I saw and smelled in many places in and around San José. There was even one in the language school’s courtyard,” Robert recalls. “I wanted to buy the perfume immediately, but to my great surprise it was nowhere to be found.”
Robert, who was in transition to retirement, decided to launch the perfume herself. The multilingual entrepreneur brings the experience of 25 years as a supervisor for economic projects in Switzerland, Africa and elsewhere to the unique startup.
“I cannot know everything, but I know how to mastermind,” she says.
After her first visit to Costa Rica, Robert returned to Switzerland and thoroughly researched the international perfume market, investigating whether coffee flowers were already being used in perfumery. They were not. Additionally, she consulted her friend, Sabine de Tscharner, a leading Swiss perfumer who has worked for many internationally renowned brands. De Tscharner not only informed her that the fragrance industry would be interested in this new tropical product, but also agreed to become part of the team for developing the formula.
In the years that followed, Robert traveled intensively throughout Central America to find accessible coffee plantations, adequate laboratories and production and packaging sites. She also found a flourishing travel industry.
“Balancing the pros and cons, I ended up in Costa Rica,” Robert says. “This small country in the heart of the Americas turned out to be the best place for my project and an appropriate springboard to conquer the international market.
“Education levels are high, infrastructure is quite good, and most of the large coffee plantations are located in the Central Valley. Last but not least … some 2 million tourists [visit the country] per year.”
In 2003, Robert began her five-year adventure of transforming highly scented coffee flowers into a world-class perfume. Upon the recommendation of a Swiss acquaintance, she met with leading coffee producer Otto Klöti, also from Switzerland. To help Robert realize her dream, the grand old man of the Costa Rican coffee industry agreed to provide her with the delicate flowers, of which 100 kilograms are necessary to generate 50 grams of essence. At Klöti’s exemplary La Arcelia plantation in Tuetal de Alajuela, northwest of San José, the flower crop is produced in such a way as not to affect coffee bean production. The first step for chemical extraction of the essence also takes place on Klöti’s premises.
While de Tscharner experimented with the raw material, assisted by a chemical engineer in a San José laboratory, Robert met with government representatives, business executives and lawyers. To market the new perfume, which she called “Mountain Blossom,” Robert founded her own company, Fleur de Café Ltda.
After spending most of her savings on development, Robert had to look for investors. In 2007, Link Inversiones, a Costa Rican investor group specializing in startups, agreed to finance her project, enabling Fleur de Café to launch one new product per year. Robert and her general manager, Marielena Cruz, organized quality control of the formula, purchased elegant bottles from Italy, and recruited acclaimed Costa Rican illustrator and designer Vicky Ramos to create the presentation.
In July 2008, Mountain Blossom eau de toilette rolled off the line, followed by a body lotion in 2009 and a body mist the ensuing year. A perfume, which contains the highest concentration of essence, is currently in production. Having ventured into the international market, Mountain Blossom is now available not only in Costa Rica but also in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Canada.
“It was a lot of work, but at the same time an enjoyable adventure [to reach] the final product,” Robert says.
In August 2008, Costa Rica’s Economy Ministry awarded Fleur de Café a formal recognition for creativity and innovation, and for being a Costa Rican company led by entrepreneurial women. The Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce followed suit, granting the company its innovation prize in October of the same year.
Robert, an indefatigable businesswoman and passionate traveler, comes to Costa Rica several times a year, staying for three months during coffee flower harvest and to supervise production. She employs a simple yet challenging philosophy in her work: “I like to solve problems using the best of my abilities,” she says.
What began with a moment of olfactory revelation in a flowering coffee field has become an elegantly presented product line with excellent growth potential.
Perfumer de Tscharner describes Mountain Blossom as a “luxurious combination of fresh tropical fruits and berries blended with the intoxicating smell of night-blooming coffee flowers, wrapped in a sensual background of exotic woods and a touch of vanilla beans.”
Mountain Blossom is sold in Costa Rica at duty-free shops in the country’s two international airports (Juan Santamaría outside San José and Daniel Oduber in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste), as well as at Librería Internacional bookstores and at gift shops in the country’s main hotels. Prices are $52 for 50 milliliters of eau de toilette; $33 for 200 mL of body lotion; and $13 for 180 mL of body mist. For more information, call Marielena Cruz at 8829-8931 or visit www.fleurdecafe.com.
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