Perfumes and scents have always been a quintessential aspect of high fashion, and an important marker of personal identity. Fragrance is an indispensable sensory ornament, and nobody understands this better than professional perfumer Alberto Morillas.
The man behind a bevy of iconic perfumes, including Calvin Klein’s CK One, and Bulgari’s Omnia, was born in Seville in 1950. He is widely known within sartorial circles as one of living luminaries of a somewhat mysterious creative elite. The ancient Egyptians wore pungent perfumes as a symbol of elevated status; the Romans used to douse their feet in oily colognes. Today, the expert perfumer — le nez, the nose — straddles the divide between art and science, relying in equal measure on chemistry and intuition to concoct the perfumes and the colognes we know and love.
Morillas studied at the School of Beaux Arts in Geneva, but claims to be predominantly self-taught in the field of scent-making. He was fascinated by the fact that, behind every perfume, is the masterful hand of a single creator. He began his career making scented candles by hand, before going on to become one of the greatest professional noses of his generation. Morillas’ talent has been solicited by the likes of Cartier, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Givenchy. He is a special favourite of Bulgari, which in 2017, released his highly anticipated creation — Goldea, The Roman Night — an olfactory love letter to the romance and splendour of the Italian capital.
Kristi Pärn-Valdoja, the editor of Estonian Säde magazine, has enjoyed a long acquaintance with Morillas, having met him at several international perfume launches over the years. She has always been fascinated by the curious role of the perfume nose, but holds Morillas in especially high esteem, as do his professional counterparts. “Francis Kurkdjian, one of the most talented noses of our time, said to me that the only perfumer he admires is Alberto Morillas, because his creations are always very inventive, and because he is such a nice guy,” Pärn-Valdoja says.
Indeed, beyond his prowess within the world of perfumery, Morillas’ reputation is a testament to his modesty and his kindness. Pärn-Valdoja herself characterises Morillas as, “an extremely warm person who likes to laugh and travel. He always looks like a gentleman, is very polite, and very talkative. Some noses are great at creating a perfume, but not so great at talking about them, but Alberto is always eager to explain his sources of inspiration.”
Morillas’ worst smell in the world is cooking onion; his signature, black musk. He grew up enamoured with the smells of traditional Christmas cakes and the Mediterranean Sea; he has always favoured citrus, jasmine, and neroli. Morillas still writes down all of his “recipes” — or formulae — by hand because, he believes, “Writing a formula on a computer is a precise, but an unemotional experience. Handwriting my formulas ensures that the true expression of my idea is kept in a single page,” he says. “My handwriting is my emotion. When I write the formula, I can smell the perfume.”
My handwriting is my emotion. When I write the formula, I can smell the perfume
Part of what makes Morillas exceptional is his unique — and no doubt indispensable — ability to translate intangible emotions, memories, and sensations into the aromatic personality of his perfumes. “You have this version, this story, of a new emotion. The first step is to start with the name,” he says.
Goldea, The Roman Night, is no exception. “You might buy Goldea in Los Angeles, but you need to feel the emotion of Rome in the perfume, because when you see the advertising, you see the beauty of the Roma,” he says. “I have tried to have the same emotion in the perfume.” Morillas describes his latest creation as “a new style for Bulgari — it’s fresh, it’s mysterious, it’s very young, it’s luminous, but the luminosity of the night, it’s maybe a little bit dangerous. You know, when you wear this perfume, maybe you’ll have some surprises!”
Don’t be deceived by Morillas’ poetics, though. The professional nose’s craft is strenuous, and requires a thorough grasp of chemistry and some biology. Moreover, the nose has constantly to protect the instrument of their craft, and one’s sense of smell is more delicate than one might suppose. It is easy to imagine that a highly developed sense of smell might also be an inconvenient attribute in myriad modern environments. Imagine sniffing out wet dogs, smouldering ash, or stagnant water with unbearable acuity.
Still, Morillas seems to love what he does, and has consistently been lauded as a master of his craft. He has won a clutch of awards in recognition of his creations, including the prestigious François-Coty prize for the best perfumer in 2003. “He has always said that his main inspiration comes from travelling,” Pärn-Voldoja recalls, musing on the source of his considerable success. “He has journeyed through much of the world — his favourite destination is India.”
Pärn-Valdoja regards Morillas as something of an exception as far as perfume noses go, insofar as his profession is not a family legacy. “For many of them, it is like a family tradition, especially for those who have been born in the South of France, in the so-called perfume capital of the world, Grasse,” Pärn-Valdoja says. “For example, Oliver Polge is the son of the legendary perfume maker Jacques Polge, who has done a lot of great Chanel perfumes; the younger Polge studied history, and wanted to become a pianist, before he decided to step into his father’s shoes, and now he is the perfumer at Chanel.”
The world of perfumery has also, historically, been dominated by men, so nose-enthusiasts such as Pärn-Valdoja are heartened to note that women are gradually infiltrating this industry, and with great success. “I am a huge fan of Christine Nigel, who is an exceptional woman and makes perfumes — one of her most famous creations is Dior J’Adore. There are also Amandine Clerc-Marie, who has worked for Chloé; Daniela Andrier, who works for Prada; Sophia Grojsman; and my personal favourite, Marie Salamagne, who made Sensai The Silk and Azzedine Alaïa’s perfume,” Pärn-Valdoja says. “And let’s not forget Germaine Cellier. She was one of the first female perfumers in the world, and her legendary fragrances Bandit and Fracas were once the favourite scents of Marlene Dietrich.”
South Africans will be pleased to know that talented perfumers are beginning to emerge locally. Agata Karolina, the Cape Town-based talent behind the recently established House of Gozdawa, is just one of many young South African entrepreneurs with a passion for perfume production, and it’s lovely to imagine that, soon, we might boast an Alberto (or Alberta!) Morillas of our own.
This article was originally appeared in the Edit.