Photos: Jorge Laserna
Passers-by on Mercaderes street in Havana are always surprised by an unusual establishment located at No. 156: it brings to mind the colonial-era workshops with dirt floors and large marble tables, where one could buy violet and rosewater. It is the Habana 1791 perfume shop, which offers a delightful array of handmade colognes.
Restored under the aegis of the Havana City Historian’s Office, the store is located in a building that had many owners, including the marquises of Aguas Claras, in 1854, and the countess of Villanueva, who sold the residence to Don José Bruzón in 1880. Subsequently, it was home to Don José Cánovas del Castillo, governor of the Bank of Spain in Cuba, and other families lived here as well, and it eventually was used as a warehouse, cantina, café, pharmacy and hardware store.
The aroma of tradition hangs over this building, preserved through its shop windows and the small, medium and large handmade bottles that hold natural colognes and fragrances made by the experienced perfumist Yanelda Mendoza, who uses essential oils and crushed petals, stems and leaves. Her concoctions include rose, jasmine, violet, orange blossom, lilac and other flowers popular since long ago, as well as tobacco, sandalwood, vetiver and patchouli, all of which are more appropriate for men. Other attractions in this store, which opened in 2000, include the opportunity to ask for a fragrance that matches your personality. And if you do not end up buying any of the colognes, you can still perfume your handkerchief with the scent of your choice, because Habana 1791 insists on adhering to the customs of yesteryear.
Along with the fragrances, this elegant shop also sells exquisite objects, such as charms, earrings, crucifixes, rings, pillboxes and other accessories, all made by outstanding silversmiths and artisans. The shop’s distinctive bottles are created by prestigious Cuban ceramicists, and are sealed in the old way: with a cork, and accompanied by a verse dedicated to the flower from which the scent came.
Habana 1791 takes its name from the date of the inauguration of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Captain-Generals), now the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum). Here, one can find dried flower arrangements, perfumed oils, aromatic candles and sachets of potpourri, along with other articles. In addition to the workshop area where the fragrances are made, the store has a space for selling well-known perfume brands.
Bathed by the light that filters through the stained-glass windows created by Cuban artist Rosa María de la Terga, the Habana 1791 perfume shop is a place where you can buy art and beauty: a store that evokes an ancient tradition, and a place where culture and history live side by side.