The first in a fascinating series of in-depth interviews with the world’s greatest perfumers
We’re about to get geeky, here. Because we’ve a hunch that you’re as fascinated as we are with how perfumers actually work. When they’re at their most productive. What they surround themselves with. What the creative process entails…
So – with our privileged access to the world’s greatest perfumers – we’re introducing a new series on The Perfume Society, which looks at how these ‘noses’ go about the job of creating.
For our first subject, meet Alberto Morillas – without question one of the greatest perfumers of our times, with literally hundreds of fragrances to his name. For 20 years, this Spanish-born perfumer has been the exclusive ‘nose’ for Bulgari (and indeed we caught up with him on his recent London visit to launch Bulgari Goldea The Roman Night). He’s also the man behind Giorgio Armani Acqua di Giò (in its many incarnations), Penhaligon’s Iris Prima and Blasted Bloom/Blasted Heath, Calvin Klein ckone, Marc Jacobs Daisy, Flower by Kenzo – and so the list goes on and on and on. And on. (Morillas also has his own beautiful fragrance collection, Mizensir.)
But how exactly does he do it…? Here’s what Alberto Morillas told us.
I do my creating in Geneva. I have offices in Geneva, New York and another in Paris – and every week, I’m on a plane somewhere. But the lab in Geneva [at Firmenich fragrance house] is where I actually work.
Before I create a fragrance, I have to do a lot of thinking. Geneva is a good place to achieve a synthesis of all the impressions I get while travelling. I am inspired by the view of the mountains – I can see Mont Blanc – and by being outside in my garden, which is very private and enclosed. I grow a lot of roses there, and it is very important for me to see the beauty of nature. I have to do a great deal of contemplation before I actually start to create any of my fragrances, to get my ideas in place. Sometimes I will sit for three hours, just contemplating.
Travel fuels my creative process. It’s important for my spirit. I recently spent four days in Formentera, where there is sunlight, the smell of the different aromatic plants, a lot of stone. Travel’s hugely important to me. When I set about creating Bulgari Goldea The Roman Night, for instance, I thought about what is important to me when I visit Rome. The first thing is the gardens, the trees – and the smells; you have this amazing night-blooming jasmine. And stone. Again, a lot of stone. (See the beautiful visual of Bella Hadid as the ‘face’ of the fragrance, below.)
For me, starting to think about a creation is a bit like watching a movie. I literally travel there in my head, drawing on those experiences of travelling. For The Roman Night, I started with blackberry to have the effect of the sunshine in Rome. Black peony and night-blooming jasmine, which are very feminine – like the women of Rome. And patchouli, for the mineral effect of the stone. And of course there had to be musk, because that is my signature for Bulgari: it gives the same sensation as when you wear nice jewellery; it’s heavy and sensual. Yesterday, I spent the day in London – with its very diverse, bustling crowds, but also the wide open spaces of beautiful parks and gardens; a place where the energy of the city meets the energy of gardens. On the streets I smelled a lot of oudh and also a lot of rose. So I will carry those thoughts and at some point in the future, they may help to shape a perfume that I am asked to create.
I like visual clues when I’m given a brief. And I like a tight brief – if you have complete freedom, it can be difficult. Photographs and art works are very important – sometimes it’s just looking back at my personal photographs, to get a feel of what I’m trying to convey. This process is useful for crystallising the emotion of the fragrance. I take a lot of photographs of flowers, and I try to capture those in fragrances; my phone is very important for capturing moments and flowers and places – but I don’t enjoy the narcissism of social media so much.
I get up very early, at 6.30 a.m. The mornings are very important for me, creatively. I like that quiet time. I have a coffee, I smell things, I check my formulas – and I write many, many notes.
I work for very short bursts on each perfume. Creating a fragrance requires huge concentration and I can only spend about four minutes at a time on a particular fragrance before I stop. During that time I write all my emotions and feelings – it’s a little like holding onto a dream when you wake up; you have to write it down before it goes. I need to go from one perfume to another, refreshing my mind. I will come back to it many, many times, but I can’t work for hours at a time on a single fragrance. And there is much more to be done, alongside creating: I am selecting new ingredients and testing how long they last on the skin. Many hours are spent on that each day, and it’s very important for future creations.
I don’t take to lose time having lunch. I find it hard to get back to where I was afterwards in the creative process – so I work right through the day.
I finish my day at 5 p.m. But I take everything I’m working on home with me. I might smell it again after dinner – and definitely in the morning, for the dry-down.
Nowadays I am very selective about the fragrances I work on. That’s the luxury of being at this point in my career. I like to work very closely with people; this is what gives me the energy to create, and don’t like ideas being diluted by a hierarchy within a team. I have a wonderful relationship with Bulgari, going back almost 20 years; it leads to a kind of shorthand in a working relationship, where I am easily able to understand exactly what they want. And for the recent Gucci Bloom, I worked very closely with Creative Director Alessandro Michele, who was very involved in the fragrance design from start to finish. With Bulgari it’s about the stones; with Gucci it’s about the fashion. But the bottom line is: I don’t want to work on 10 fragrances at the same time now, as I did in the past. If you’re tired, you aren’t happy – and if you aren’t happy, you can’t create.
I may work for a year and a half on a fragrance – and yet we’ll go back to the fifth submission for the final perfume. You need to experiment a lot. For Giorgio Armani Acqua di Giò, there were thousands of tries – but that’s fine. It’s like a dancer; they have to repeat and repeat and repeat to get something perfect. And yet quite often, when you get to that 1,000th try, it’s not so very far from the first one.
If you ask me what is the greatest fragrance ever created, I’d say Guerlain Shalimar. It’s old-fashioned but also very modern. There are all sorts of contrasts inside it – but it works so well.
I have 3,000 materials at my fingertips when I create. But I have a palette of around 200 that I enjoy working with the most.
As a perfumer, I have a certain signature. Naturals are incredibly important to me: I want to smell a real rose, real jasmine… But beyond that, musk is what people tend to recognise in my perfumes; it’s how I add light to a perfume. I also love woods: patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood – they’re part of my signature.
There’s no ingredient I won’t work with. If the brief demands a certain ingredient, and I don’t particularly like that material, that’s a challenge I actively enjoy – to transform it and make it more beautiful.
Even though I write down so many thoughts and ideas – and it is such an important part of my work I don’t consider myself a good writer. I find it very difficult. But I am a good perfumer – and I suppose that’s what matters!
Bulgari Goldea The Roman Night from £45 for 30ml
Buy it at Escentual
Written by Jo Fairley