The scent of Florence: Inside the laboratory of an artisan perfume workshop
Updated: Jul 16
Perfume was born in Florence, and you begin to realize that wandering the streets of the city. Perfume stores are everywhere. There is even a 600-year-old establishment that still uses ancient recipes to make perfumes - Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
During our time in Italy, we'd learned about food in Parma, glass in Murano, opera in Verona, wine in Turino, paper in Florence, and now it was time to discover another of the city's artisan specialties - fragrance.
I scheduled an afternoon perfume workshop at Aquaflor, a perfumery steeped in the Florentine tradition and located in the Corsini Antinori Serristori palace, a few steps from Piazza Santa Croce.
As soon as you enter Aquaflor you sense that it is special.
But while the store is gorgeous, it's what lies beneath that is truly amazing - an entire perfume laboratory in the historic cellars of the palazzo. I was led through glass doors and into a courtyard before reaching a door that led down stone steps to the workshop. It was both laboratory and art studio.
The Aquaflor specialist leading my workshop sat me down at the workbench and explained the process: The first hour would be spent smelling the 23 essential oils in front of me, taking time with each one to write down what it reminded me of, how I would describe it, and whether or not I liked it (although they were numbered 1-23, when asked why there was no number 13 or 17 I learned that those are unlucky numbers in Italy, apparently even perfumiers are superstitious).
The specialist taught about the olfactory pyramid: Top notes (which open a fragrance and provide your first impression but diffuse very quickly), heart notes (which give the scent character), and base notes (which help the persistence of the scent to make it last longer by slowing down the evaporation of the other notes). There is nothing you can add to a perfume to make it last longer without impacting the scent, so those base notes are important!
As each small bottle and dropper was removed and opened, the specialist told me to "think of how you'd show a picture of the scent, how you'd describe it, how it makes you feel," only to offer the reminder that we don't have a vocabulary for scent that doesn't draw upon other senses - if we say something smells sweet, what we really mean is that it reminds us of something that tastes sweet.
The same goes for something smelling bitter, smokey, strong, or clean. Hmmm, I'd never thought of that before!
My reaction to some of the scents was odd (#4 smelled like Play-Doh to me, turns out it was amber; #20 reminded me of bananas but was jasmine, and the specialist explained that bananas and jasmine share similar molecules). The specialist also went on to dispel myths about scents: Musk? Not "musky" at all, actually really fresh!
Once all of the scents had been cataloged and the specialist explained what each one actually was (ex. bitter orange, oak moss), it was time to begin creating a personal scent. The empty bottle sitting on the workbench wouldn't be empty for long! For the next two hours, we worked together to formulate a scent built upon the ones I'd identified as my favorites.
We worked through this three different times, altering the composition based upon the results of the tweaks. Initially there was no #14 (tropical flowers, plumeria, ylang ylang, gardenia), but that was added in for round three, when we also added some vanilla for the base note. And then, finally, we were done!
The specialist bottled my fragrance and placed it in a beautiful box for me to take home. My fragrance doesn't have a name yet (I was instructed to not open it for one month so the scents can mingle and mature) but it has top notes of white tea and green tea, heart notes of tropical flowers, lily of the valley, iris, freesia and seabreeze, and base notes of bamboo, sandalwood, and vanilla. Is that good? Bad?
I have no idea, but I do love the scent and can't wait to see what it really smells like when I can finally wear it. This is definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done, and the Aquaflor experience was one that I will never forget. If you are in Florence and have an afternoon to spend in a basement learning about the art and science of this Floretine tradition, this is a great way to do just that...and have a unique scent to remind you of your visit long after you've returned home.
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