Making Scents

Florentine master perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi lets Reggie Nadelson in on the secrets of his art—and his city.

Luxury is having something no one else has, "Lorenzo Villoresi says, sounding a bit like a Renaissance prince handing down a proclamation on the nature of things. In his case, the nature of things is in the scent. Come to his atelier in an ancient Florentine palazzo, and Villoresi—one of the last great artisanal perfumers of Europe—will design for you a couture fragrance that no one else on earth has.

Lorenzo Villoresi is a man obsessed with his craft, compelled, almost, to do what he does better than anyone else: make great perfume by hand. His production is limited. So is his time. He sees only a few clients a day, by appointment. After a consultation that typically lasts for hours, this latter-day alchemist will have sniffed you out—your psyche, your tastes, your nature—and distilled your essence into liquid gold.

Such focused attention doesn't come cheap: A private session costs about $500, which includes a small bottle of your new fragrance. Prices escalate if you choose certain rare ingredients like Bulgarian rose or pure jasmine (iris root can cost $25,000 a kilo, says Villoresi) or special packaging like an elegant crystal bottle with top and label in sterling silver. Or 18-karat gold or platinum or anything else. Given enough time and money, the sky's the limit, and Lorenzo Villoresi, born and raised in and around Florence, knows all the best craftsmen.

In any case, the scent he makes for you will be all yours, the formula kept on record. Whenever you need a refill, you can have it made up in perfume, eau de toilette, body lotion, shampoo, even air freshener—there's a British lady (by title and, presumably, by behavior) who's got three, meticulously tailored to the ambiance of her country house, her place in London, her Caribbean hideaway.

For his custom-made scents, as well as his line of ready-to-wear fragrances and his collection of potpourri and marble dishes to hold it, the famous often call at the atelier on Via dei Bardi. East of the Ponte Vecchio on the south bank of the Arno, it is an area of medieval and Renaissance buildings in which artisans and manufacturers have always lived and worked alongside the palaces of the aristocracy. Sting's wife came here to order a birthday present for Madonna. (Two crystal bottles of scent with sterling-silver tops, an "M" stamped in hot silver on Villoresi's signature blue-leather case.) Billy Joel showed up with his daughter. Anna Fendi, Gianfranco Ferré, and Linda Evangelista are customers. So was Jackie Onassis.

One hot August day a few years ago, Ludovica Passi, Villoresi's wife, was at the atelier in a pair of old jeans, painting a wall. The bell rang. A dark-haired woman said she had read about Villoresi and wanted to buy some things. Ludovica explained that the shop was closed. The customer, as it turned out, was Cherie Blair, the prime minister's wife. Three days later she returned, stocked up on Christmas presents, and invited the Villoresis to the Blairs' holiday villa. Visiting again the next year, she asked what she could take as a gift to the queen at Balmoral. (A red travertine dish with Piper Nigrum potpourri.)

I've known Lorenzo Villoresi for years. Handsome at 45, dressed always in serious suits, always dark, with a serious beard, he really is a kind of Renaissance man. He has degrees in philosophy and ancient religion and has written books on perfume. He is an intrepid traveler with a passion for the Middle East who sometimes goes off on his own and loses himself in Cairo. (On the wall of the atelier is an evocative picture, all sepia tones, of Villoresi's parents—Luigi, a historian and man of letters, and Clarissa, a great beauty who once had a shop at King Farouk's court in Egypt—riding camels near the pyramids at Giza.) He yearns "to go around the world before the world becomes too much the same, which is the thing I hate the most." He laughs. "I like the difficult, the dangerous, and the forbidden." He is a great cook, a collector of rock-and-roll from the '60s and '70s—a true eclectic.

He is also a sensualist, a voluptuary even. The first time I met him, he ate five pints of strawberries at a single sitting; the strawberries were very big. This trait especially informs the way he thinks about perfume. "Your sensuality and sexuality are related to smell and taste," Villoresi insists, so "a great fragrance improves your sex life, because you feel happier, more complete. When you put on a perfume, that plus your personal scent makes a compound that is utterly you."

Villoresi's atelier is part of the penthouse that was once his bachelor pad. (His family home, where his mother still lives, is now a hotel, Villa Villoresi, a lovely old place just outside the city with fading frescoes, the longest loggia in Italy, and lush gardens perfumed spring and summer by lemon trees in terra-cotta pots.) It has one of those almost mythic views of Florence: the green Arno, the austere palaces, the rooftops and hills. In his private space, with a glassed-in terrace where he sometimes serves the huge meals he cooks, there's an upright piano, a hookah, a bed tucked into a pillowed alcove that might have been made for Scheherazade. Stacks of books and records are everywhere. On the wall is a portrait of his Hungarian grandmother in a pink satin fin-de-siècle gown. This is the kind of throwaway style one can achieve only if he has the confidence to leave the battered sofa and chairs in their shabby covers.

In the atelier itself, the shelves are lined with Villoresi's blue crystal bottles, his signature fragrances Donna and Uomo, as well as Musk, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Vetiver, and the new Teint de Neige, a sweet, powdery fragrance I'm in love with; it reminds me of my mother and the loose powder she wore and the way her perfume clung to her skin. There are red and white marble bowls and terra-cotta jars for potpourri, alabaster candleholders, sterling-silver shaving brushes. Behind Villoresi's desk, more shelves hold small stoppered bottles, each marked with a different essence he might use in his perfumes: lemon and orange, bergamot and black pepper, vanilla, peach, honeysuckle. There are bottles labeled fresh-cut grass and sea breeze, tobacco and chili pepper. Once a customer asked him to make a scent with a dash of "sweaty racehorse."He uses only natural essences (commercial perfumes mostly contain synthetics), and they come from everywhere: sandalwood from India, bitter orange from Sicily, lavender from Australia. But for Villoresi, perfume isn't just about a smell. "A fragrance is not created only with the nose, any more than a pianist's or a painter's creation is with only the hand. I enjoy the psychological and technical part of making perfume," he says. "It's like a vision, almost like the creation of a world."

When you come to the atelier for a consultation, the phone is switched off. This is serious stuff, and private, like a haute couture fitting except no one's there but you and the maestro. "It's more intimate one-on-one," he says, "so we prefer it if the person is alone, although sometimes husbands or wives are present."

Sessions take an hour or two, possibly much longer. "If you don't know what you like, that's all right," Villoresi says. "But it's important that you really want a special fragrance; otherwise it's a silly game.

"It's a secret itinerary, different for everyone. I ask lots of questions. Which kinds of odors or fragrances they like, where they have lived, what their memories are, what memories a fragrance calls up, what smells they like in nature." He's as precise about it all as Proust with the madeleines.

Villoresi fell into his business by chance. At school he was first interested in chemistry, the natural sciences, then took up psychology at the University of Florence. Still restless after a year of "fooling around" in New York, he returned to Italy, took his philosophy and religion degrees, then began to travel widely. After bringing backspices from one of his trips to the Middle East, he was asked by a friend who worked for Fendi to make some scented candles. Other friends asked for perfume. Villoresi experimented, building up scents layer by layer.

Without any real planning, he had become a perfume maker, but then, like him, the trade in perfumes as we know them was born in Florence, whose merchants traveled the Oriental spice routes, and thrived here in the 16th century under the patronage of Catherine de Médicis. (Along withpasta and the fork, she then exported the stuff to France when she married the future King Henry II, and the rest, as they say, is history.) Gradually, Villoresi built his business, which opened officially in 1990; now his products are sold around the world.

Friends were astonished to discover that he had become a businessman—everyone had him figured for an academic, a philosopher—but Villoresi loves business. After all, Florence, he points out, was the great city of money and commerce; it was the merchant princes who patronized the arts and sciences. In fact, it drives him crazy that people think of Florence as a sort of Edwardian theme park, part E.M. Forster novel, part Merchant Ivory movie—call it A Room With a View of Gucci.

He also mourns the disappearance of the small artisan to make room for the chain store. Villoresi is fierce in his hatred of multinationalism; individuality, as he sees it, is "less and less, and you can buy the same perfume in every airport duty free. MADE IN ITALY used to mean something."

But even when he is fretting most about the future, there is always, always, the food. Like most Florentines, Villoresi is obsessed with his native cuisine. For lunch we eat delicate pork fillets fried in butter and huge steaks—Florence is a big meat town—at Coco Lezzone, a plain, small restaurant full of very elegant locals.

The next evening we're at Villoresi's favorite restaurant, Pane e Vino, a simple trattoria that's rarely listed in the guidebooks. The food is rich and good: a soup made from the skins of fresh new peas, pappardelle with black cabbage, perfectly ripe cheeses. But the emphasis is on wine. Every time he comes to Pane e Vino, Villoresi tries to get the owners to surprise him with a wine he's never heard of. It's a game they play.

Seated, he waits expectantly. The wine arrives; he shakes his head. "They've done it again." It's Vigna Antalbo, a delicious Cabernet from Sicily. Villoresi drinks it with such pleasure, you imagine that the future just may hold a Cabernet perfume. Or a scent somehow combining elements from the pea soup and that freshly baked chocolate cake just now coming out of the kitchen topped with whipped cream.

Villoresi eyes the cake longingly.

"A new fragrance," he says, "starts as a dot on your brain that slowly matures."

Some Things Rich and Strange

A private session with Villoresi starts at $500, which includes the creation of your exclusive formula and one 100 ml bottle of perfume, eau de parfum, or eau de toilette in standard packaging. (A reorder costs about $400.) A crystal bottle with sterling-silver top adds $200 to the cost; a leather case adds $235. For body lotion, shampoo, etc., prices vary by quantity.

Lorenzo Villoresi perfume in crystal bottle with sterling-silver label and top, $280; eau de toilette, $90; bath accessories in Carrara marble, $110-$120, or sterling silver, $275-$320.

Piper Nigrum potpourri, with peppers and berries, or Spezie, with spices, cypress, laurel, and olive leaves, $45-$90; potpourri dishes and jars in travertine, $120-$220; scented candle in alabaster jar, $90.

Villoresi's atelier: Via dei Bardi 14, Florence (39-055-2341187; fax 39-055-2341187; In the United States, his products are sold at Lafco, New York; Sophia Lalli, Birmingham, Michigan; Vanderbilt and Co., St. Helena (Napa), California; Cuffs, Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Shopping with Ludovica

Lorenzo Villoresi's wife, Ludovica Passi, is a pale beauty with red-gold hair and a bawdy sense of humor who speaks at least four languages fluently. When she's not looking after their two little boys (who, naturally, resemble Renaissance cherubs), she works alongside him in the perfume business.

Although Lorenzo rails at the disappearance of the small shop and the Florentine artisan, Ludovica knows her way around the back streets of the town she's made her home. One wet afternoon she takes me shopping. Along the way she tells me about LOCCHI (Via Burchiello 10; 39-055-2298371), a glass shop that will replace any piece you've ever owned and broken, or sell you a new set of glasses.

"I want to look at a suit for Lorenzo's birthday," she says, so we stop at HAPPY JACK (Via della Vigna 79r; 39-055-284329), a menswear shop that will make up pretty much anything. She asks for Marcello, who shows us swatches of linen. In a swatch book I find a piece of silk in Chanel nail-polish red with little blue dots, and I order a tie made from it. A few weeks later, it arrives in New York.

Wanny di Filippo, the founder and owner of IL BISONTE (Via del Parione 31r; 39-055-215722), is still, despite his company's international presence, a sort of Florentine hippie with a beard, a benign smile, and the attitudes of an artisan. Il Bisonte produces the kind of indestructible, chunky leather goods—bags, suitcases, totes—you'd want if you lived on a big ranch in Montana, or wished you did. The Florence flagship has a much more varied selection than the other stores, not to mention a big assortment of the signature striped summer canvas bags. (I once saw a group of elegant Italians arrive for a week in Havana with nothing but the striped carryalls.)

As we emerge, it starts to rain. We duck into a doorway, and Ludovica tells me that if we were in Milan we could pop into Maglia Ombrelli on Corso Genova, where three generations of Italian umbrella makers have produced fabulous, one-of-a-kind brollies. But we're in Florence. So we run for it.

Next stop is CASA DEI TESSUTI (Via de' Pecori 20r; 39-055-215961), a fabric shop that evokes another world. The polished wooden shelves hold bolts of silk, chiffon, satin, damask, taffeta, wool, cashmere. Their profusion reminds me of Jay Gatsby's shirts. Eventually, I buy a piece of black cut-silk chiffon velvet. A few hours later, the shop has hemmed it, and I've got an evening stole.

We head back by way of the Ponte Vecchio. Here, among all the jewelry shops selling junk, is TOZZI (Ponte Vecchio 19r; 39-055-283507), a tiny box of a place where owner Giacomo Tozzi shows us his collection of antique silver, much of it Judaica. He then produces a few baubles from a secret drawer. Ludovica admires a turquoise bracelet, but I'm hooked on one from the 1940s in three shades of gold. Five minutes later I've bought it. I've never seen anything quite like it, and as Lorenzo Villoresi says, "Luxury is having something no one else has."

RISTORANTE COCO LEZZONE $ Via del Parioncino 26r; 39-055-287178; fax 39-055-280349.
RISTORANTE PANE E VINO Via San Niccolò 70r; tel/fax 39-055-2476956.

Reggie Nadelson, a Departures contributing editor, wrote about Gstaad in the November/December issue.

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