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Atelier Fragranze, Milan. In conversation with Luca Maffei

Taif Rose oil costs up to 50,000 euros per kilo. Nobody can buy it because the entire production – 16 kg per year – belongs to the Saudi Arabian royal family

The Taif rose

A rose grows near the city of Taif, in western Saudi Arabia. It’s called the Taif Rose – in Latin, Rosa Damascena Trigintifolia. It’s thirty petals, together with a light pink color, make it similar to a peony. It is cultivated in about two thousand often family-run farms, and flowering occurs between March and April. In this period the flowers’ perfume spread over the whole region, and a blush of pink color can be observed from the surrounding hilltops.

The collection must take place quickly, beginning after the dawn prayer – or Fajr – and ending at seven in the morning, any later and the heat could vaporize the oil. The flower is distilled for the Attar essence: practically the basis of the Taif regional economy.

The essential oil derived from a Taif rose costs up to fifty thousand euros per kilo. But no one can buy it – instead the entire production of about sixteen kilograms a year belongs to the royal family. They give it to their most deserving dignitaries: in Saudi Arabia, a person who smells like a rose is said to enjoy the esteem of the king. Yet the use of the Attar for cosmetic products and perfumes is completely prohibited.

For the rest of us the Taif rose is on the market in name only: a perfume created by Luca Maffei for the Perris Monte Carlo maison called Rose de Taif. «The Taif rose has a spicy fragrance: so I used nutmeg, pink pepper, geraniol and added citrus», Luca Maffei recalls. «I asked an essential oils producer to use a Bulgarian rose to recreate it, keeping it as pure as possible».

Since actual use of the Attar is forbidden in perfumery, the only way for those who are not royal dignitaries to wear it is to recreate it: «The challenge for a perfumer is not to recreate the odors already defined by nature – which are already extractable. The scent of rose and jasmine can’t be imitated. The real magic lies in creating the smell of the unextractable – like rain, air, cement».

Combining two odors does not make a third

Luca Maffei was born to a family of perfumers in Milan. Having grown up among herbs, aromas, raw materials and chemistry, he studied economics. Yet he was inspired by established perfumers, characters who gravitated toward the family’s universe, and began to study under Françoise Marin, cultivated perfumier and former director of the Grasse school. After working for perfume houses abroad, he returned to Italy in 2011 to work for other brands.

His company – Atelier Fragranze Milano – conceives, creates and develops the olfactory blends which then become fragrances that fill the shelves of niche perfumeries. «If in the early twentieth century the noses that made the history of perfume – Rudinskà, Guerlain – could contain nature in a bottle the way painters do with their still lives, today noses behave like designers, signing perfumes for fashion brands or artistic perfumery. They draw not on paper but in the air. They see a picture, a drawing, or listen to a story, and try to imagine what it smells like».

Combining two odors does not make a third, it formulates an accord. In music seven main notes form about twenty chords. In perfumery there are thousands of raw materials, you can form anything. In the book The Aubrey Family by Rebecca West, the protagonist Rose observes how her sister Cordelia, poorly gifted in music, pretends to read a musical score in bed. Reading a score for pleasure and hearing the sound of notes is the prerogative of music professionals. Reading a formula and imagining the odor is the basic work of the perfumier or nose.

Artistic perfumery

The perfumer’s work begins with a brief from the client, inspired perhaps by a novel, a work of art, a historical figure. They imagine the smell and which of the three hundred odors available can create an olfactory note (during the first year of perfumery schools, students learn to recognize over a thousand different smells and select a palette of three hundred, ed). Perfumiers work for associations, like psychoanalysts they associate odors with sensations, emotions, colors, places. When a nose sees the written formula of a perfume, they can imagine its smell: «When I write a formula, all I do is transcribe the idea I had from raw materials. I then verify the correct quantities, and that the mix works, but the creative process always starts from an idea».

Just as an architect wants to build in New York, Berlin or Sydney, a nose dreams of working for Tom Ford, Armani or Prada. Luca Maffei chose artistic perfumery: «Working in artistic perfumery means not having to please everyone, the brief will never be ‘for women from twenty to sixty years’. I can make something of my own, completely over the top». Yet the big brands only collaborate with established noses. This limits emerging youngsters, who instead express themselves through artistic perfumery. There is no equivalent to artistic perfumery in fashion today.

The price of a bottle of artistic perfume depends on the cost of raw materials, whereas for Chanel or Gucci it depends on the name of the brand. Rose essence costs between twelve and thirteen thousand euro per kilo. The tuberose costs up to sixteen thousand. The oud mold which grows on a plant in Laos costs thirty thousand. The Florentine iris seventy thousand. And Fragrances du bois charge up to seven hundred thousand euros per bottle.

Natural essential oils come from plants, flowers, resins (incense, myrrh), woods and spices. Yet modern perfumery is a mixture of natural and synthetic. There are natural odors that can’t be extracted, like the delicate lily of the valley. Perfumiers skilled in chemistry have reproduced their molecules in the laboratory: what today in perfumery is called lily-of-the-valley is actually hydroxycitronellal. While once animal mosses were used, today for conservation reasons they are substituted by artificially produced mosses. Nature creates a product, synthesis recreates it.

The plants used for essential oils must be harvested locally, ylang ylang in Madagascar, vetiver in Haiti, patchouli in Indonesia, and roses in Turkey and in Bulgaria. This is because the same plant grown in different soils does not have the same smell. Dior bought some land in in Reggio Calabria between the Ionian Sea and Aspromonte in Italy, to ensure the production of bergamot. There are also noses that, like cool hunters or fashion talent scouts, travel the world in search of new smells.

Power to each smell

Luca Maffei attributes a power to each smell: «Citrus fruits – lemon, bergamot, cedar – and the solar notes – coconut, frangipani, thiarè – contribute to well-being. Narcissus, tuberose and rose are seductive, hyper-feminine fragrances. Cleopatra would anoint the sails of the ships with jasmine oil to narcotize her enemies. Woods give security, character». Among the smells of his childhood, Luca remembers jasmine, pittosporum and the iodized fragrance of the sea. Today he prefers vetiver, sandalwood, iris and rose. Artistic perfumery began as a luxury, those who want to stand out bought a niche brand, a guarantee of complexity and sophistication. Today it is a passion – like someone who drinks a vintage bottle not to flaunt but for the love of a wine of superior quality.

«We have become used to experiencing perfume as an object: I wear Gucci and the Gucci perfume. What I like is the brand. We have never really paid attention to the nose, to the smells, yet the sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that you can never stop: you don’t have to touch, or see, hear or eat, but you have to breathe, you have to smell. We must learn to understand those smells, to buy a perfume because we identify them, because they remind me of a moment in my life, a journey, or a person».

Perfume in spare time

It is forbidden to wear perfume from Monday to Friday in Atelier Fragranze Milan. Everyone must be able to smell and breathe in odors without contamination. Luca only wears perfume in his spare time. Engaged in artistic perfumery, he is a professional who knows how to think about commercial products, and despite having loved Dreamer by Versace, Blu by Chanel and Iris Nazarena by Aedes de Venustas, calls One Million by Paco Rabanne and La vie est belle by Lancôme the perfume of our times.

«They were the two biggest commercial successes of recent times. We live in a world fascinated by wealth – the golden tile of One Million. Social media presents us with a world made up of beautiful, happy and smiling people, life is beautiful – La vie est belle».

The first fragrance Luca Maffei produced with a high-cost raw material is Oud Imperial, for the maison Perris Monte Carlo: a perfume where the notes of oud meet other precious woods – cedar wood, sandalwood, vetiver. In 2015, Black Pepper & Sandalwood by Acca Kappa won the Art & Olfaction Awards, once again using sandal and a pepper which the public could recognize. Among his most recent creations we find the Brera 6, a collection created exclusively for the Milan boutique ‘Perfume’ – six fragrances inspired by the identity of Milan city. 

Foyer’s atmosphere is expansive, while No-Name is closer to a form of understatement which is particularly Milanese. Hesperia takes its inspiration from one of the city’s hidden treasures, the Brera botanical garden, and Liberty pays tribute to the floral architecture of the center. The silence, half-light and incense of the Duomo come to life in Gothic, while 60mph Club captures the speed of a city that never stops. Finally, 1848 is nostalgic of tobacco, gunpowder and the pungent smell of wood, the story of five days of Milan.

Atelier Fragranze

Via Savona, 123

Milan, Italy