The Famously French Brand That Was Built by Brits

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1906

The British have had a long love affair with the South of France. What began with the traveller’s tales of writers like Tobias Smollett in the 1760s was followed by a veritable Brit invasion, especially after 1860 when passports were no longer needed to visit France. Wintering on the shores of the Mediterranean became an increasingly important part of the 19th-century upper-class pursuit of health and well-being, and milords and dowagers overran all the nooks and crannies of the Midi and Provence. British money, the profits from industry and the Empire, flowed into the local French economy. Many Brits who enjoyed the sun also got a taste for investing in local concerns. And one of the most iconic of all French brands was actually built with British money and branding nounce.

Perrier, the world-famous water from the Gard départment is the product of some interesting Cretacean geology: limestone rocks folded and faulted and topped off with a layer of clay. Gaps in the clay allow water to burst from the depths of the Vistrenque plain into the daylight, along with carbon dioxide produced by volcanic or thermal action on the limestone. It creates water that effervesces. This site became known as Les Bouillens, The Bubbling Waters. The Romans knew it, and Hannibal may have watered his elephants there on his way over the Alps. But it was in the 1860s that Les Bouillens first became a commercial operation when Napoleon III granted rights, and a health spa and hotel was opened near the spring, successful until a fire gutted it in 1869.

The Bubbling Waters continued to attract interest, and in 1898, Dr Louis Perrier, a Nîmes doctor with established interests in thermal therapies, launched Société des Eaux Minérales, Boissons et Produits Hygiéniques de Vergèze. Perrier had a vision but needed significant investment to make it real. Enter St John Harmsworth.

Harmsworth was a younger son of a powerful media family. Three of his brothers were already in the House of Lords. Lord Northcliffe owned the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere owned the Daily Telegraph. St John became an enthusiastic supporter of Dr Perrier’s work and sold his shares in the family business to invest in Les Bouillens. 

In 1906, he formed the Compagnie de la Source Perrier and hired a completely English senior management team. But this year was momentous in more ways than one for St John. Seriously injured when his chauffeur had a driving accident on the Great North Road near Hatfield, Harmsworth was paralysed from the waist down. Recuperating in his villa near the source, he used Indian juggling clubs for exercise, which apparently gave him the idea for the distinctive shape of his new bottled water brand. He also named the product after the good doctor.

With an impressive network of chums, St John was soon exporting Perrier (The Champagne of Table Waters) throughout the British Empire, making it famous in London, Singapore and Delhi before it was even established in Paris. When Harmsworth died in 1933, the source was selling 18 million bottles a year, and by then, more than half was remaining in France.

Perrier finally returned to French hands after the Second World War.

An interesting narrative twist to the story of Perrier comes in the 1980s, when the Brand Historian was working for HP Bulmer, Perrier’s UK distributor. This was when Yuppies stalked the earth with their Filofaxes and Perrier with ice and a slice was their essential drinking accessory. Sales were torrential. But the great success of Perrier in the 80s was due mainly to another Brit, Julian Bowes, who carefully cultivated the brand’s status in top restaurants, hotels and bars. There are many stories of the clever marketing tactics he used. I seem to remember a prize was offered for the most expensive bottle of Perrier served in a UK restaurant. Julian died in a diving accident in 1984, a few years before a benzene contamination scare threatened the brand he had worked so hard to create.

Nestle acquired Perrier in 1992.

1906 Bien Etre Playlist:

La Mer Claude Debussy 

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