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quinta-feira, 12 de maio de 2016

Out of the Bottle: Perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri

by: John Biebel

I came to the Netherlands primarily to see the historic exhibition of the work of Hieronymus Bosch at the Noordbrabants Museum, in celebration of 500 years since the artist’s death. Never failing to make double and triple duty of coinciding events, I thought it would be a great time to take stock of what was happening in the world of perfume in this country, which is also the very first place I stepped foot in Europe years ago, and what has become to me a kind of grand entrance to all things of the beautiful north.  I found that “coincidence” was a theme for my Dutch adventures, and many times I encountered events, smells, perfumes, and art that foretold future events, or reflected both my thoughts and the landscape outside.  Clearly, early spring is the time to be in Holland. Not only are the tulips beginning to break ground, but the very colors of the Vermeers from the Rijksmuseum are all around you, reflecting off the water in the canals. But the paintings of Bosch were thematically far more appropriate for the complex imagination of my first perfume-related visit.
Hieronymus Bosch: St. John the Baptist (detail)
When you think of Amsterdam, one of the very first perfumers to jump forward is the now legendary Alessandro Gualtieri. He is the mastermind behind the linesNasomattoOrto Parisi, and MariaLux, He is perhaps best known for some of his ground breaking perfumes such as Duro, and Absinth, two scents that helped to define “niche” perfumery, and set into motion a cottage industry of imitators. I recall the first Nasomatto perfume I smelled, Hindu Grass, and was pulled deeply into a new world of patchouli, grass, tobacco and a hundred other nuances and tangled emotions that I couldn’t quite reconcile. The experience was powerful, perhaps the most powerful thing I’d smelled that day at a conference full of perfumes. It instilled in me a notion that I’d hope to meet the person who had created this sometime.
I met with Alessandro Gualtieri at his studio in central Amsterdam in late April. His workspace, from the outside, is what appears to be an old double-front house, and his studio occupies the two storefronts. Behind shiny glass reflecting the bright white of a cloudy day on the canal, you can just make out the shape of a large factice of Nasomatto’s China White.  Other art works are viewable dimly behind glass, but this is all substantially above street level, so one has to peer (a bit leeringly) over the balustrades on either side to see through. I feel that I’m peeking just a bit too much. I get the feeling that Alessandro’s lab is a bit paradoxical – everything is on view, but it’s hidden, too – like hiding in plain sight. I step up to the large green door and decipher a curious brass plaque. It reads: The Nose: Alessandro Gualtieri, Perfumer. The bottom of the “S” forms a graphical nose shape. It’s subtle and very funny. Already I’ve found out that this man has a sense of humor, but also takes his job with a certain modicum of seriousness.
Alessandro’s representative has fixed a time for me to arrive, and I knock at The Nose’s door. A man answers and appears just a bit cautious but very cordial. Alessandro is a tall, energetic, engaging and enigmatic man with an air of intensity about him unmatched in anyone I’ve interviewed before. He seems to be in the process of moving in many directions at once, as though you’ve stopped him in the middle of his work. He is fascinating to observe – his hair defies gravity and stands in a shock of pale grey vitality. He has intense eyes and will often not look directly at you when he speaks, as if he knows his gaze is powerful. He’s dressed in a long blue workman’s style lab coat and it seems at any moment that he is about to return to a task at hand. 
The lab is a beautiful old world space of antique delft tiles and plaster and high wainscoted walls. We descend into the dark and equally beautiful semi-basement of the lab, where I’m closer to the water in Amsterdam than I’ve ever been before. Though Alessandro is Italian by birth, he’s lived in the Netherlands for over a few decades now and in that way is a man of a multiple “homes”. He’s also lived distinct lives; first for many years as a perfumer within the industry proper, and then on his own as a niche perfume creator. Our conversation began with talk of his past in the larger perfume houses, and then drifted along to the development of his own work, and into his plans for the future. If there is a characteristic of Alessandro that stands out most when speaking to him: it’s his belief in a sense of the “present”. He rarely dwells in the past, and when his mind goes there, it quickly returns to the present. It’s this kind of punctuation and intensity that shapes all his words.
The Singel, Amsterdam Central
“I started in the perfume industry many years ago, working for large companies, so I’ve been in the business a long time. I was upset with the business and I didn’t fit in – I always felt that I didn’t fit into this sort of system. Everything had to be done in a legislated sort of way, with many rules to follow.”
From the start, he begins to describe the somewhat confining nature of the perfume and cosmetics industry, where scent is part of everything, from lipstick to laundry detergent, to actual wearable perfume. “You work with a designer, and you and that person (who often represents many people) are working from a brief.” He then gives a feigning, funny description of a faux poetic bit of verse, “A woman, walking past a tree, and suddenly she hears music…” and he makes musical gestures with his hand and rolls his eyes and we both laugh. “This,” he says, “this is the kind of poetical briefs you might get – it could be interpreted in so many ways!” and he tosses his hands in the air in exasperation. “They keep it so creatively closed, these multinational companies. You’d be working in a team-type environment with 5-6 different other people… There are industry wide issues.” He continues, but clearly he’s leading to a bigger point. “Basically, the industry is afraid of change, and this is because they have to answer to so many people. And, because of this, people are afraid to make a final decision. And in the end, the actual decision about a perfume might be more about making a perfume that’s ‘€60 per kilo’ than anything else.” He goes on to describe scenarios in which he’d created perfumes of which he was quite proud, but were then ignored or simply not used, with no real feedback or explanation from the decision makers where he’d worked. This became disheartening and he yearned for other opportunities.
“I was eager to start my own thing, I knew I would revisit something that I’d wear for myself, I wanted to make something that I’d wear for myself.” And it was with this thought in mind that Alessandro began to keep track of perfumes that he’d create when he branched out on his own. But before he started Nasomatto, he made some mental ground rules. He’d have to do it all from the very beginning – not rely on the insider networking he earned already in his career.
“When I started this business, I sold the entire thing myself, I shopped it around. I went  to stores and sold them strictly myself. It was a challenge of course because I already had these connections from working in this business for so long. I had to reset. It was not easy going backwards, but I had to try – to start ‘clean’. For example, no one will give you a hundred of a certain glass bottle.”  Here, he refers to the usual effort that small perfumers must go through to buy bottles in bulk for their scents; placing orders of 10,000 or more is far easier than a smaller order of just 100.
At this point, we begin to talk about the actual making of perfume. Allesandro refers to a chart of aromatics, something I’m not familiar with, and he goes to retrieve two vast diagrams. He spreads them out across the table. “Fragrancology of the 70’s!” he says with musically dramatic tones. “You must first learn the smell of masterpieces!” He shows me how the charts work: two axes, one representing the families of scent beginning and ending with aromatics (and everything in between). The second axis represents time. The idea is that nearly every perfume should be able to fit somewhere on this chart, both olfactively and historically. And scanning across, they are all there: Chanel No. 19, Trésor, Old Spice, Youth Dew, L’air du Temps, Givenchy Gentlemen, Shalimar, Chanel Pour Monsieur, and so on. It’s both reassuring and just a little strange to see the world of scent so organized. It’s hard to know how to react. Clearly Allesandro sees it the same way. “And yes, I underwent this process also, learning to make perfumes this way,” he says, passing his hand over the charts.
“And I found that some people just learned how to make some perfumes – but just of a certain kind, and then make endless variations on that theme! I mean, some will only make white florals! How many more prune perfumes or apple perfumes do we need?”
I mention that these charts remind me of the fascination people have with ingredients in perfume these days, and how that has informed a lot of perfume writing. “Mostly all this perfume writing and the blogs, it is good because the writing isn’t controlled by so few who are into marketing perfumes,” he says. "But it brings about a strange side product, of people trying to “guess ingredients”. This, to Alessandro, is silly. It can come off like a formal or scientific exercise: “I detect some blueberry,” he says in a dramatic way, then showing some disdain.
“But bloggers have the opportunity to go deeper in writing. This is why I don’t really want to write about the ingredients in my perfumes, I don’t want to do this sort of thing. Customers are not stupid, they smell what they smell,” he doesn’t need to try to sell them on how rare this or that ingredient is.
Alessandro then utters a phrase that he mentions a few times during our conversations: “getting out of the bottle.” At first I don’t understand it, then I learn he means, “not just about making perfumes.” I learn further that I’ve caught him at an unusual time, as he’s preparing for a trip to Iran to put on an olfactive exhibit of scent-related art, a large installation. When I visited the “factory” further up the Singel later that day, I saw lots of boxes being prepared with objects for what would prove to be, I’m certain, a fascinating work. “I want to fill the gallery with objects, and there will be things to smell - it will be a good opportunity, as Iran, as of late, hasn’t been used to much contemporary art.” He’s clearly energized and excited. And although he’s collaborated with other artists over the years, this time he wanted to see if he could do it on his own. “It’s been good working with artists because they could provide a visual element, and I could provide the scent and there is respect for both.” But an art exhibit is an example of “getting out of the bottle.”
Moving forward, he thinks of work in perfume through this lens: “I’d rather have a city give me an amount of money to put together an artistic opportunity with art and scent [in an installation format] but I also know that my process is a little old fashioned. I do everything ‘in house’ so it can take me three months just to manufacture: processing distillations, bottling, everything.” It’s here I get the first hint of just how intensely involved he is in his process, making a lot of the materials himself through various chemical extraction techniques. To describe just how artisanal he can be about his process, he told a story about a business request:
“I came back from a potential opportunity in the middle east, making a perfume for a very wealthy client. I found out that it wasn’t going to just be for maybe a hundred people, but about three thousand.” Here he laughs heartily. “You can lose your idea this way so easily!” and he explains the problem with gross production – it just doesn’t scale the way people think it will.
“It’s like cooking pasta. You can make just enough for one person. Then, you use the same water, same pasta, same amount of salt, but try to do it for 100 people, it will not taste the same. No, no, it will not taste the same. And with a perfume like this, moving it a long distance like this too, adds issues. Weather, temperature differences, cabin pressures in the plane – all these things could change a perfume.” In this case, there were just too many variables, and Alessandro is one who likes to control all that he can.
I wonder aloud if he has certain scent memories from his past that were particularly inspiring. It turns out that there are only a few, but the ones he does have are extremely potent.
“I grew up in a butcher’s shop, it was my grandfather’s. This is a memory of smell from childhood.”
He tells me the story of a man who was a “jack of all trades” at the place in Italy where he used to spend his summers as a child. He was a former farmer of Medici stock, but was living in quite a primordial way. He spent most of his time dealing with the animal wastes, moving them around from the fields to dumping grounds or pits. The young Alessandro would spend a lot of time with this guy, and around these smells. The perfumes from his latest line, Orto Parisi, come from this long past experience. From the description of Orto Parisi:
The parts of the body that carry more smell are those where more soul is collected. The strong smells have become unpleasant to us because the excess of soul is intolerable to the extent that our innate animalism is repressed and breaking from civilization. This project is my garden I have planted, fertilized, cultivated, and harvested. Orto Parisi states that our body is experienced like a garden, and its smells are a true mirror of our soul.
“I never had perfume around me… I don’t have these memories of flowers, or remember ‘Oh, this perfume that someone wore’.” Instead his primary memory comes from this summer he talked about. But the lack of sentimentality is very purposeful. Alessando doesn’t want to replicate smells or copy smells from memory. He wants to play with new things, create new things. “You do things in the moment. There is a danger of course of not knowing when to stop.”
And yet he did know when to stop and move to the next perfume. And so the perfumes of Nasomatto came into being. He didn’t know if Nasomatto was going to be a hit, but Duro was smelled, and talked about, and the success of Duro enabled him to move forward with the project. 
I asked Alessandro to talk about two of what I consider to be his most important perfumes, Black Afgano and China White.
“With Black Afgano, it was a six year project. It’s the smell of hashish, that’s a huge component. I’d think I’d have the scent, and then I’d try it out, and say ‘No, this isn’t it.’ And I’d have to try again. I have a stack of formulas. It is about this thick” and he holds his thumb and finger together to illustrate a 3-inch thick book. “There is a 300 page volume of formulas that finally lead to Black Afgano. So many distillations were involved, many things happened during the making of this perfume,” and here he tilts his head back and rolls his eyes, showing a deep sense of frustration for past calamities. He innumerates many anecdotes of small disasters involved in the creation of the scent. To put it simply, it’s something of a miracle that Black Afgano was created, and Alessandro worked quite tirelessly to bring it into being.
“China white is about the strength of fragility. I made this during a year when things were very difficult for me, a very tough year, when you feel very naked, full of fragility. The formula is extremely complex, very long. It’s a perfume of many layers. Making this perfume became a kind of therapy for me.” In our discussion, I think this is the first time I see a truly serious side to the perfumer, caught momentarily in recollection of the past.
“In some ways, creating perfume, being creative generally, you can’t be too intelligent. That can harm you.
If you are not too intelligent, you can go to your ingredients, a group of a thousand or more components, and they are always new. It wouldn’t be like that if I were too intelligent. This way, I approach them, and they are always new. It’s almost the exact opposite of what they teach you in perfumery school or at the big companies, ‘This is how to recognize petitgrain, this is how you recognize orange, etc’. I can’t memorize these things and I don’t want to. It’s as if a person needs to start at zero. It’s a blessing in a way to do this, to start at zero.”
Here I mention the wonderful paintings of the artist movement Cobra, since I’d just seen many of their works at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, just outside Amsterdam. They worked from a philosophy of applying their talents in an almost “unlearning” process, looking to children’s artwork as an inspiration. It was an international movement but with strong associations in the Netherlands, since its first major exhibition took place at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Constant Nieuwenhuys: L’Animal Sorcier (The Magician’s Animal), 1949, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 33.5 inches, artist of COBRA.
We come back to this idea of starting the business from scratch, starting at zero. There seems to be an element of magic in this.
“Yes, there is. It’s like you are walking around and you can’t sleep, and wake up to some kind of magic. These components come together and they can create a kind of magic.”
We ascend the stairs back up to the lab to smell his Orto Parisi perfumes. I have not yet smelled them, and I’m soon in a strange and wonderful pillow of thick and all-encompassing scents. They all do indeed have an aspect of the human-aromatic about them, in an unexpectedly beautiful way. They are deeply seductive perfumes, particularly Viride, a grassy, woody aromatic wonder, Boccanera, a rich chocolate, ginger and spice number, and Seminalis, his most recent creation for the line, a milky almond, musk and citrus concoction.  When I try to express real admiration for these perfumes, Alessandro tends to wave off the suggestion. He’s not dismissive, but also not wanting to be bogged down by praise.
“Perfume? You want to see perfume?” he moves over to a table to a large gold censer, placing in it a cake of Middle Eastern incense, which, in its unburned state, does not smell very appealing. “Now this,” he says, as he lights a small torch and blasts the incense so that it begins to produce a commanding trail of smoke, “This is perfume.”  He places the censer on the floor and explains how the wealthy of the past would instruct their servants to hold their clothes open over the smoke and allow the fumes to infiltrate every fiber. Allesandro opens his jacket, and instructs me to do the same with my cardigan, and we stand there, as the fumes rise. The perfume is otherworldly; exotic seems a pale description for such a rich, smoky and rose-tinged experience. It’s surprisingly refreshing, a kind of participatory scented experience – The very oldest form of perfume itself.
I’ve taken up hours of Alessandro’s time, and I know he’s preparing to leave for Iran the next day. He gives instructions for me to travel up the Singel to visit with his assistants to see how things are getting on at the larger lab. Before I leave, I ask if I may take some photographs, and I snap away. When I ask to take his picture, he makes his only demand. “Do you want a picture of just me, or of us both?” I am laughing now, as he has an exasperated look on his face. “Just you is fine,” I say, but he instructs me that we are to both be in the photo, and that we are to not look at the camera. “Let’s look at each other.” It’s nice that we’ve actually eschewed the notion of the dual-selfie and chose to portray ourselves as humans actually interacting.
Writer with Alessandro Gualtieri at his studio in Amsterdam
“Now, I’m going to send you away, because I have work to do!”
After meeting the wonderful staff that assists Alessandro, I head for home, still smelling wonderfully of Orto Parisi scents and incense. And yet, there is something that feels a bit unfinished.  All through the next day, and the next, I’m somewhat haunted by the perfume Viride, and decide that I need to have a bottle. I head to a popular niche perfumery in Amsterdam that carries Alessandro’s work, procure a bottle, and return to the hotel. As I do so, I recall something he’d said in particular about the way that perfumes are visualized: “Sometimes, with photography, images – a perfume, it’s photographed and included in a magazine, and may be grouped with other objects like ‘green things’, ‘Things for spring!’ Another marketing idea, but not very creative. You should take a picture of something the way you want to see it!! If it would look good next to the toilet, you can photograph it there! – Photograph it the way you want, creatively!”
Accordingly, I photographed my bottle of Orto Parisi Viride on a moss and tile-strewn ledge, in a setting that seemed utterly fit for this fascinating green creature. Do it yourself, or, start at zero.
Alessandro Gualtieri is currently working on new perfume-based art installations, perfumes that you can drink, and perfumes that focus on single ingredients as a starting point for inspiration. All his projects, in a sense, are his way of continuing the path out of the bottle.

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