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LabSolue, Milan. The perfume laboratory

France claims supremacy in the perfume arts – but once again, Italy shows it has the creative resources and the production ability to compete. Perfume culture: the Martone family

The most prized extraction

You don’t see the coffee beans often found in niche perfume shops. This is a laboratory, not a shop. The convention that recommends that you smell something strong – coffee in this case – to clear your nasal passages? That is false. It is better to smell something neutral, a mouillette (strip of paper used as a fragrance blotter), or even your shirt sleeve. In perfumery, raw materials are classified based on the olfactory, not on botany, because extraction methods yield different results.

Vetiver grows in Haiti, and its pale roots are used. It is a shrub, not a tree, but thanks to its scent it is classified as wood. Oud is also classified as a wood scent, although it is in fact a resin produced as an immune defense by the agarwood tree.

The name LabSolue comes from the French word, absolue – the Absolute, the most prized extraction from perfumery ingredients. It also draws on the English word, lab, from laboratory, intended as a place where ideas are born. Three chairs upholstered in bronze, pink, and yellow velvet summon the three olfactory islands of the laboratory: woody, floral, and fresh (or fruity). Wooden chests of drawers form the work benches, which recall Sixties vintage pieces – modern antiques, jars of raw materials, and amber glass bottles with frosted stoppers, like those used at one time for medicines, in order to protect them from light and heat degradation.

Pharmaceutical tradition

Everything can be traced back to the pharmaceutical tradition. To smell the perfumes, glass funnels are used. The essences are kept in steel refrigerators, in the dark, at five degrees Centigrade. The perfumes are formulated, personalized, and labeled on the spot. In fashion terms, one speaks of the difference between silk and viscose – in perfumery, you start fromt he difference between perfume (which is composed of 15-30% essential oils) or eau de Cologne (which contains between 3-5% essential oils). Or else the difference between wood and root.

The Martone sisters keep some raw materials sealed in glass jars to show clients. Ambergris is a secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale, which today is sourced only by contraband means. It has an animal odor, pungent, initially almost disgusting. But if you smell it again, the scent seduces.

Not soliflores

Entire plants, from leaves to roots, are at the base of the work. “We didn’t want to produce soliflores – that is, perfumes that try to recreate the scent of the raw material in an aseptic environment,” Ambra Martone begins. “Ours are compositions that are born of the plant and the territory the plant comes from. The dominant materials you recognize, but there are other elements that clarify it.” Sweet orange blossom, which is less citrusy than bitter orange blossom, is not just floral but also woodsy, recalling jasmine.

There is a cypriol perfume (208 Cipriolo) and a black locust perfume (30 Robinia), two raw materials previously almost unknown in Italian perfumery. There is a perfume inspired by the guayaco tree (19 Guayaco Wood), a short tree with nearly black bark, used by shamans in Central America.

Fragments of history and chemistry

Giorgia and Ambra have ready access to ingredients and production methods thanks to contacts stemming from their Martone family tradition, and owing to the production power in the industry that their family’s company, ICR (Industrie Cosmetiche Riunite) has today. In perfumery, as in design or textiles or any industrialized manufacturing, experimentation is not part of the large-scale production process.

LabSolue is in a very different position than other artisanal perfumery shops, be they emerging or successful. Here, the Martone sisters have an industry giant behind them, permitting them to perform in-depth, utopian studies on behalf of others in the sector. It is an advantage, but also a liability, because the possibilities raise the stakes: under these circumstances, artisanal experimentation has at its disposal resources and skills that ignite the expectations of critics, conoisseurs, and journalists.

Research in high esteem

Ambra is not fond of the definition of artisanal perfumery, or niche perfumery. “As far as perfume ingredients go, the classifications are necessary to orient yourself, but they can also be reductive. There are so many products out there, but very few works of art. Ours are, above all, creative perfumes, which hold research in high esteem. Even today’s perfumes that are considered ‘non-artisanal,’ the ones everyone knows about, were innovative at one time.”

In Milan at the beginning of the 1950s, Vincenzo Martone founded Marvin, a company that specialized in pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, which would soon diversify into skin care product development. In 1975, Roberto Martone took over for his father and began creating perfumes for Italian brands, and ICR was born. Gianni Versace, Nazareno Gabrielli, Nicola Trussardi, Romeo Gigli – all chose to work with ICR starting in the 1980s.

With ICR producing their perfumes, they were able to work together at every phase, from the idea to fragrance development, all the way through to production, packaging, and distribution. Most brands choose to license perfumes that are already produced – the houses that work with ICR are the ones in search of greater consistency. 

Today, ICR is the number one cosmetics company in Italy, and number two in Europe. It is still led today by the Martone family. Roberto Martone’s daughters, Ambra and Giorgia, represent the third generation of the family business. Giorgia looks like a pre-Raphaelite painting, and Ambra resembles the actress Eva Green. It looks like beauty runs in the Martone family.

The aesthete

Vincenzo Martone was an aesthete. The aesthetics of Marvin, the maniacal care taken with the product and the attention to detail is today found in LabSolue – a brand of artisanal perfumery created by Giorgia and Ambra Martone in 2013. LabSolue’s products are wrapped in boxes made of paper that recalls fragrance blotters, the absorbent strips used to sample perfumes. A handwritten label lists the contents of the bottle and the name of the essence. The seal depicts an alembic with the letter m inside, the original logo of the Marvin brand. On the back of the bottle, even today, one finds: Marvin – Made in Italy

Perfume is olfactory memory. “You connect it to a person. The perfume has to find the chemistry and the physics of the skin, from human pH to body temperature. The scent of a man is the first thing that turns sense into intellect,” Giorgia explains. Heavy paper, vitamin-enriched baby powder for newborns, aesthetic eye drops, flyers from Cosmoprof 1989, and the Caterina de’ Medici prize – keepsakes and objects recalling the history of the Marvin brand as well as the history of cosmetics.

Marvin is in the photos of the old laboratory, in a family photo belonging to Ambra and Giorgia. All of these items are on display in the library of the Magna Pars hotel, together with vintage advertisements and the “Oscar” that Vincenzo Martone won in 1969 (an Oscar given to cosmetics research – in this case, for a hypoallergenic moisturizing cream – Ed.).

A library for perfume culture

In 1987, ICR left its original headquarters at 15 Via Tortona and moved to Lodi. In the former perfume factory space, the Magna Pars arose. ICR continued expanding internationally: in the 1990s, it signed exclusive contracts with Asprey, Bvlgari, and Ferragamo. In 2013, ICR opened the hotel Magna Pars Suites, the very first Hotel à Parfums in the world. The hotel is intended to bring back the spirit of the old pharmaceutical company which is today a perfumer. There are forty guest suites, each one linked to a fragrance.

“This project intends to disseminate perfume culture. In France there are books about perfume ingredients and formulas, but in Italy we lack this culture,” explains Giorgia Martone. An olfactory library: the smell of the ocean in winter is linked to neroli and cedar and sandalwood. From the bitter orange tree, depending on which part is distilled and the method of extraction, it is possible to derive an entire olfactory family: Petitgrain (classified as “green”) from its twigs and leaves, Neroli (classified as “floral”) from its closed flower buds, Orange Blossom Absolute from the open blossom (floral) and Bitter Orange essential oil is extracted by pressing the peel (citrusy).

Depending on where they grow, natural products take on different olfactory nuances – like tomatoes, which taste differently in Israel than they do in Holland. Or like wine: even those coming from the same geographic region can have better or worse vintages.

inside the Magna Pars Hotel

Via Vincenzo Forcella, 6

Milan, Italy