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June 1, 2010

"Two Italian Perfumers" By Luca Turin

"Two Italian Perfumers" By Luca Turin

I was recently in Milan and set off on an aimless walk west of the Duomo, past Peck, the landmark delicatessen with a prodigious wine basement — 4-litre jeroboams of Sauternes for the price of a car — through quiet streets named after the clangorous trades of swordsmiths, armourers and spurriers, and eventually past a small perfumery belonging to the Farmacia next door at Via Spadari 13. I still cannot resist the sight of unknown perfume bottles, so I doubled back and stepped in.

The place is run by an elegant, courtly woman in her fifties who gives her name only as Jelly, no surname. What caught my eye was an array of ten cubical bottles, which turned out to be a line of fragrances designed by one of her long-time customers, Scipione Zanella, a Venetian businessman and fragrance aficionado. Two years ago, having decided that the state of perfumery was unsatisfactory, he walked in to see Ms Jelly one day, declared his intent to create perfumes and asked her what she thought his first creation should smell of. She suggested a linden blossom on the grounds that the only known fragrance of that type, d’Orsay’s Tilleul, could do with some company. To her surprise he appeared a few weeks later with a linden, poetically named F-051 . Over the next year or so his firm, Onediffusion, came up with nine more, all numbered like industrial prototypes. I started smelling them on strips and was very impressed, all the more so because Mr Zanella is said to be the perfumer: these are confident, big-boned, mature, durable fragrances in the classical mold, made with a judicious mixture of naturals and synthetics, sold at perfume concentration and handsomely packaged. My favorite is F-055, a cross between Lauder’s Beautiful and Piguet’s Fracas, a buttery tuberose against a fluorescent woody-rosy background.

By coincidence, on my return to the US I found a package containing the works of another independent Italian perfumer, Maria Candida Gentile. These mercifully have names rather than numbers and are rich, warm, versicolored, joyful compositions that make you smile with pleasure. Ms Gentile seems to proceed by successive approximations from one fragrance to another and her creations have a strong family resemblance. Unlike many firms, she does not try to do the canonical set to please every type of customer. Those who appreciate the Histoires de Parfums range should try her fragrances.

The fact that these two firms are Italian is a break with tradition. Italian perfumery so far has largely stuck to four genres: derivative, comfortable spicy-floral fragrances from Krizia’s Teatro alla Scala onwards, overpackaged, expensive cod-apothecary products like Villoresi and SMN, insane hippy foghorn confections like Nasomatto and a host of bloodless eco-friendly claptrap with handwritten labels. Onediffusion and MCG are neither provincial nor touristy, do not frighten horses or save the planet: they are proper fragrances, the way the French used to do them when they still cared.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

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