Essential spoke to Lorenzo Villoresi, one of the great perfumers of our time who, from his base in Florence, creates fragrances with his eyes fixed on the future but with the door open to the past
In a blind testing, the fragrances of Lorenzo Villoresi would hardly be linked with the past; quite the contrary. Modernity and originality are adjectives that usually are used to describe his work and which, along with other qualities, earned him the Prix François Coty in 2006, the most respected and coveted industry award bestowed only once in a creator’s lifetime. However, history and tradition play a much more important role than we would at first judge in the work of this Tuscan perfumer, given that almost always these kinds of description do not go much beyond opportunistic appropriation for purely marketing purposes.
Coming from a family of Tuscan and Franco-Hungarian origin, whose members include musicians, painters, explorers, archaeologists, jewellers and collectors, which apparently destined him for an academic career in the field of philosophy, Villoresi left university to devote himself entirely to perfumery, his true passion. Classical studies, however, have been decisive in his approach, where the inspiration comes largely from the myths and legends of ancient civilisations, and in the evolutionary perspective from which he views his art, which makes him, in a way, one of the heirs of a tradition with roots that are lost in time.
After a period of learning and experimentation, in May 1990 Villoresi started his business following an invitation from Fendi to create a line of fragrances for the home. Now installed in the 14th-century family palazzo on Via de’ Bardi, overlooking the River Arno, Villoresi created his first personal fragrance – Uomo -, followed by Donna. Since then he has built up a considerable portfolio, in which as well as revisiting of classical raw materials such as vetiver, sandalwood or patchouli, one can find aromas inspired by myths and legends such as Dilmun, Alamut, Iperborea and Theseus. Besides his work as a perfumer, Villoresi participates in conferences and congresses, and, at the same time, works as an author, having already published works such as Il Profumo (1995) and L’Arte del Bagno (1996).
However, his attentions are now focused on the project which will open soon and goes by the provisional name of “the academy of the art of perfume” and which will be installed in the family’s palazzo. With the aim of stimulating and involving a wide group of people in activities related to perfumery while at the same time creating a privileged location where children and young people can learn more about their own sense of smell, this centre, which will consist of 1000sqm divided into three floors, will include an interior garden of 200sqm and will be divided into various themed areas such as the Centre of Olfactory Experiences, a library, a research centre, conference rooms and a specialised olfactory centre.
Lorenzo Villoresi spoke to Essential about his creative process and the concept behind the creations of this remarkable Florentine perfumer.
Reading your biography, it appears that your relationship with perfumery began with a journey. Was it a kind of epiphany or did your fondness for scents emerge even earlier? What olfactory experiences made their mark on you in childhood?
Let’s just say that I became more aware of my passion for fragrances after a long trip that I made to the Middle East in 1981. At the time I was 25 years old, the trip lasted about five months and Egypt, particularly Cairo, made a great impression on me. I grew up in the countryside near Florence, and was exposed to the scents of nature from childhood. I particularly liked the smell of bay leaves, poppies and the leaves of tomato plants, notes that I continue to use here and there in my perfumes. But I also had the opportunity to enjoy the spices and herbs traditionally used in food, such as rosemary and thyme, sage and especially a kind of wild mint, calaminth, which grows in Tuscany among the olive trees and is used in cooking porcini.
How has your education and your research into, and knowledge of, perfumery in antiquity influenced your creations?
I am not, properly speaking, a specialist in ancient perfumery (nor can one speak of ancient perfumery as a single thing). I studied Ancient Philosophy and Biblical Philology and read many ancient perfumery books in various parts of the world. I was influenced by the study of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamian civilisation and Akkadian and Sumerian legends and myths such as the story of Dilmun, a mythical Mesopotamian paradise which I found in the saga of Gilgamesh and in other texts. I’ve always been fascinated by myths and legends from all times and cultures.
Philosophers and perfumers have in common their search for the “essence” of things: have no fear of getting to the bottom of feelings, concepts and ideas in order to grasp their identity. My knowledge of ancient texts on perfumery sometimes leads me to enjoy fragrant resins which I love to combine with modern ingredients in order to obtain unique blends.
Is there such a thing as ancient and modern perfumes? What sets them apart?
Perfumes represent a very ancient form of art. They have accompanied mankind since the beginning and have evolved over time with changing tastes and habits, with the discovery of new lands and the introduction of new ingredients. But in ancient civilisations, the choice of ingredients was limited to 100 or 150 aromatic substances because these were and continue to be the main ingredients of natural origin (wood, flowers, roots, leaves, etc.). Later, from the 19th century onwards, chemistry discovered new ingredients which began to be produced, offering extraordinary opportunities for perfumery, making possible an endless number of combinations for perfumers. Modern perfumery has its beginning in the 19th century with the increasing knowledge of the structure of the nature and of the enormous variety of aromatic substances. The golden age of the art of perfumery lies between the late 19th century and early 20th century and corresponds to the flourishing of perfumery in Grasse, owing to increasingly refined systems of analysis and extraction of aromatic substances. It is also the time of the great creators and manufacturers of crystal vials, such as Lalique and Baccarat, and of extraordinary perfumers such as François Coty, Ernest Beaux, Jacques Guerlain, and it is also when fragrances began to be produced and distributed on a much larger scale. Today’s perfumery, unfortunately, has become, very often, banal and commercial. Despite the availability of excellent ingredients, both natural and synthetic, few perfumers dare or are allowed to create original formulas; so many fragrances are just imitations of other successful ones. Today, every year there are a huge number of releases of new brands and fragrances, but truly innovative ones are extremely rare.
Where do you find inspiration for the creation of new fragrances?
I imagine environments, feelings, visions, dreams, which are often inspired by myths and legends and try to translate them into compound perfumes. Perfumery is similar to painting or music. Emotion is transformed into something that you can wear, see or hear.
Being what is generally regarded as an independent perfumer, can you explain what this means and how this independence makes you different to the big houses (companies)?
The main advantage is having freedom. Freedom to experiment and to create new fragrances, without having to follow the safe “academic” route, without having to report to anybody and without being run by a marketing department. As an independent perfumer I also have the chance to use the best ingredients independently, sometimes, of their cost. When I started our collection I decided always to invest in the quality of the fragrance. In the industry, the budget constrains us and marketing plans require the investment of a large sum of money in promotion and advertising which sometimes requires that less is allocated to the fragrance.
How does your personalised perfumery service work?
The made-to-order fragrances are created during a face-to-face meeting in our studio in Florence. There is no set procedure, because what I fundamentally do is listen to the wishes the customer expresses and translate them into a fragrance. Frequently we end up speaking about childhood memories, or of desires and feelings never before expressed. Creating a customised fragrance can be delicate and difficult, but it is always a challenge and I have had the chance to meet a wide variety of very interesting people. And, at the end of the session, it is a true pleasure to succeed in making someone happy with a fragrance which originates here.
Is there any perfume or perfumer that you particularly admire?
I particularly like the original Eau de Rochas which I once happened to smell as a teenager. It evokes freshness, absolute purity. Its sparkling notes are long-lasting. I have had the chance to meet a large number of perfumers and, among those, I particularly admire Jean Laporte, Annick Goutal, Guy Robert and Maurice Maurin, who became my friend. I am very sorry that they are no longer with us to share our new project – the museum and the academy that will open this year in Florence – especially Guy Robert and Maurice Maurin, who also gave us valuable advice and ideas. Among the young perfumers I consider Vincent Schaller of Firmenich to be very talented and also have special esteem for Alberto Morillas, although we have not yet met in person.