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Atelier Cologne, Milan. Formulas that are still secrets today

The story of an Italian perfume for a city in Germany – rekindling the culture that fires desire, if an Eau de Cologne can touch the memory of people and places

Aqua mirabilis

Around the end of the 17th century, a traveling salesman called Gian Paolo Feminis invented aqua mirabilis: an alcohol-based blend that he said could cure any evil. Gian Maria Farina, an Italian immigrant in Cologne, Germany, started to manufacture it in 1709 and called it Eau de Cologne. The Original Eau de Cologne is now a product with a protected geographical indication and is a blend of at least twenty-five to a maximum of thirty different ingredients.

The main base is bergamot with the addition of lemon, mandarin, lime, citron and grapefruit. It can also contain oils of lavender, neroli, thyme, petitgrain, jasmine, and hyssop. The result is a fresh and light perfume for men or women. It is different than eau de parfum and eau de toilette because of the concentration of aromatic compounds: between three and five percent compared to at least twelve percent of eau de parfum.

Il maestro distillatore

The recipes to make Eau de Cologne are secret, none of the brands that make it put their formulas on the label. The few recipes in writing are from the 19th century. Paolo Carrara included three recipes in his manual called Il maestro distillatore, confettiere e pasticcere (1890).

Take 12,716 chil. of wine spirit elevated to 36 degrees, 2667 chil. of lemon balm used for Carmelite water, 108 grams of essential oil of bergamot, two drams of essential oil of orange blossom, three drams of essential oil of citron, four drams of essential oil of rosemary and twenty-seven grams of tincture of java incense. Put all of these in a big bottle and your Eau de Cologne is done’. 

In Nuovo ed unico manuale completo del distillatore-liquorista (1857) – a bible of cosmetics that discusses absolutely everything from a salve to soften the face made from whale fat to a black tincture for hair used in Ancient Egypt – Pietro Valsecchi warns the reader against the many recipes for Eau de Cologne that give poor results: “endless manufacturers have put their name on it and each one claims the benefit of being the original”.

He criticizes the charlatans who said this product, that cannot be considered any more than a toiletry, had medicinal properties. Several recipes follow, including one by Farina and one by Feminis, as well as instructions for discerning if a product was good quality: true Eau de Cologne should be clear and it should not be possible to distinguish the various ingredients one from the other.

Sylvie Ganter was working for Hermès in New York when she met Christophe Cervasel, in charge of fragrances at Kenzo. Ganter had come up with an idea: to revolutionize the world of colognes, keeping them fresh and light but adding persistence. Cervasel offered to help her, provided she married him in exchange – a declaration of intent rather than a proposal.

The outcome was Atelier Cologne in Paris. “Atelier” refers to the artists and craftsmen who create the products for the brand; “Cologne” pays tribute to the muse of the brand, Eau de Cologne. This all happened in 2009, four centuries after Feminis invented his aqua mirabilis. The perfumes market is saturated. People are after something new.

The base of Atelier Cologne’s creations is a new family of fragrances, Cologne Absolue: a formula that has the same fresh and clear air of Eau de Cologne combined with the persistence of pure perfume thanks to the high concentration of essences. The percentage of perfume in Cologne Absolue starts at twenty percent upwards – making it a genuine eau de parfum.

Cologne Absolue has kept the bergamot base and the citrus notes of Eau de Cologne, and can be more or less heady depending on the versions. Ingredients are added to the base such as Egyptian jasmine, Moroccan iris, and tea from Sri Lanka. The main ingredient gives the perfume its name. The first one created by the brand ten years ago, and still a top selling product, is Orange Sanguine with blood oranges from Calabria as the predominant element.

As is often the case in the art of perfumery, each Atelier Cologne perfume is a story about a journey, a memory, or an emotion. Orange Sanguineis the story of a summer breakfast on the seafront, enjoyed with friends. Clementine California came next and has salty notes that take us to the ocean: a Hollywood film director dreaming of finding the woman of his dreams, the perfect actress to star in his film.

Atelier Cologne Santal Carmin Cologne Absolue

Inside, Atelier Cologne Milan and all other boutiques offer a ‘bespoke’ service revolving around the concept of a perfume wardrobe. Not so long ago, you only had one perfume: you chose the perfume for you and that was that. You wore the same scent, day or night; to go to work or to go out for dinner. Changing your perfume felt a bit like a betrayal: it could be done, but at the price of feeling slightly guilty.

The Atelier Cologne brand was built on the creative and affective bond between Ganter and Cervasel. In the morning, Sylvie Ganter wears Bois Blonds – a fragrance she created for herself and only launched for sale at a later date – in the evening she wears Santal Carmin, and Rose Anonyme when traveling.

Christophe Cervasel wears Vétiver Fatal or Blanche Immortel during the day and Vanille Insensée in the evening. Scents that are woven into stories: a diamond thief who marks every successful heist by leaving a rose behind, in the hope she will be found out by the detective she has fallen in love with, a man she finds as intriguing as its perfume.

The brand’s perfumes are made in collaboration with Robertet and Mane, manufacturers of essential oils who come from Grasse, the home of perfumes in the south of France. There are twenty-four Atelier Cologne boutiques today. A multicolor universe dominated by Venetian blue – the company color – that seduced Ganter and Cervasel on a balcony, overlooking Saint Mark’s Square.

Each perfume at Atelier Cologne Milan is sold with a colorful leather case, where the name of the new owner is embossed. The customer discovers his own perfume during a private consultation, by exploring the secret story behind every fragrance, mixed with their own personal story. Atelier Cologne has also opened in Milan, at the bottom of via Brera, apparently the new street for niche perfumery.

A few doors down, at number six, Profumo prepares Brera 6 fragrances while the customer waits. Diana Vreeland used to say “the eye has to travel”, referring to her job as a stylist and fashion editor. Likewise, the nose also has to travel, especially if it has to create a perfume wardrobe. The notion of traveling, the start and finish of almost all the creations by the brand, is also conveyed in the samples, packaged together with postcards with international stamps.

Atelier Cologne’s five lines

Joie de vivre is the line with the headiest citrus notes, the one that most resembles the original Eau de Cologne. This line includes the company’s top perfumes, Orange Sanguine and Clementine California, as well as Cedrat Enivrant – with a base of citron, mint grown in China and cypress from Provence– and Mandarine Glaciale which, as its name suggests, gives you the same sensation as a gust of icy air, giving way to the warm and fruity notes of Italian mandarin, ginger and vétiver from Haiti;

Avant garde is the most experimental line. As well as Vétiver Fatal, it has Figuier Ardent, where fig meets American cedar and Italian bergamot – a fresh and fruity balance that, by magic or by the power of chemistry, conjures up a sea breeze;

Chic absolu. A collection of timeless scents with the warmth of Bois BlondsGrand Neroli and Trèfle Pur. Oolang Infini has the warmth you crave on a winter’s night, Incens Jinhae is seductive with floral notes, incense from Samarkand and Korean cherry blossom;

L’amour fou is a collection of sensual scents. Ingredients exuding confidence – amber, vanilla, musk and cinnamon. Floral notes, like Rose Anonyme, Sud Magnolia, Mimosa Indigo, Jasmin Angélique (that has nothing angelic about it) and Café Tuberosa;

To finish at Atelier Cologne Milan, Haute couture, the line that is about emotions and where the rarest ingredients are used. This is where you will find oud, leather, papyrus and tobacco. The immortal plants of Blanche Immortelle and the Australian sandalwood of Santal Carmin.


Via Brera, 2

Milan, Italy

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