Premier perfumer Alberto Morillas offers insight on winning scents

Master perfumer Alberto Morillas, the world's best "nose", talks about creating legendary fragrances.

Carolina Herrera, daughter of the famous fashion designer, sits with Alberto Morillas.
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"There's oud - and then there's oud," master perfumer Alberto Morillas said upon a recent visit to Dubai, referring to how the traditional Arabic scent can range from around Dh100 to in excess of Dh40,000 per pot.

The world famous "nose" behind iconic fragrances such as CK One has just seen the release of his latest perfume for fashion house Valentino, called Valentina. He insists there's one thing he will never compromise on, and that is quality.

"For me, natural ingredients are so important that I can never create a perfume without them. Valentina uses jasmine, which is rare, and orange blossom too, which of course makes them expensive," he said.

"The weather might also be freezing one year, which affects the availability of natural flowers for my scents, so I must have one or two years' supply stockpiled. That's very costly when you consider just one kilo of orange flower can be as much as US$10,000 [Dh36,730]."

Born in Seville in 1950, Morillas spent his childhood in Spain before studying for two years at the school of Beaux Arts in Geneva. In 1970 he joined the ranks of the largest privately owned perfumer and chemical manufacturer Firmenich and never looked back.

With hundreds of scents behind him and a prestigious Prix Francois Coty to his name, the "self-trained" perfumer continues to find inspiration in everyday life, from his garden to frequent trips abroad. With Rome, the historic headquarters for couture house Valentino, the creation of its new signature perfume had to symbolise the "very essence of Italy", says Morillas, explaining the top notes of bergamot from Calabria and white truffle from Alba.

But that's just one part - there are also middle notes of jasmine and orange blossom from the Amalfi coast, along with the strawberries and tuberous to add that touch of femininity.

Completing the list of ingredients are cedar and amber, which give the scent an alluring, sensual quality, said Morillas. Perfectly balancing a scent is the toughest part of the job and knowing when to refrain from adding more elements is something the perfumer jokes has evaded him almost his entire 40- year career.

"You never really know when to stop," he says. "It's different every time, in my experience, and when I created Flower by Kenzo, for example, I made a hundred million modifications and in the end chose number three.

"Nothing is ever completely perfect and perfect is boring. Sometimes the big success is when a scent is imperfect. Some might say Angel [by Thierry Mugler] is too girlie. Others could say Chanel No 5 is outdated - but actually there's something about their disproportion that makes them memorable. It's all about the aesthetic and occasionally when the balance is off, it's good."

From start to finish, the delicate process of crafting Valentina took almost two years and only three people in the world know the intricacies of its composition. Only Morillas, master perfumer Oliver Cresp and one other person see the formula.

"And only select ingredients make the label on the bottle," Morillas said. "It's a long and complicated process and of course there's a mix of natural and synthetic components."

For stalwart Valentino fans, the new scent might signal something of a departure from the label's traditional elegance and unabashedly glamorous style of yore. The transformation has happened under the new creative direction of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who have brought the brand's more daring and contemporary side to the fore, following the retirement of founder Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani in 2008.

Down to its couture-style crystal bottle and black pearl cap, there's no mistaking Valentina is targeting a younger segment of the market. Updated, too, is the fashion house's trademark red rose, represented instead on the packaging with modern floral motifs in ivory, blush and nude.

Morillas is unapologetic about leaving rose out of this equation.

"Honestly, it's not easy to make roses 'young'," he shrugs. "It's a scent often associated with older ladies and jasmine is far younger. And although you do have roses in Italy, it's not really the essence of the country."

With the renaissance of the iconic brand, a youthful muse was called for. Freja Beha Erichsen - who previously modelled the label's ready-to-wear campaign - fronted the global advertising campaign for Valentina. Bringing the label to life, she also starred in a romantic black-and-white nocturnal video shot in the deserted streets of Rome, directed by Johan Renck and David Sims.

"A muse helps," said Morillas. "But I also always try to capture the history of the maison - be it Valentino, Bvlgari or Cartier, etc.

"It's actually hard for me to mix a celebrity with a perfume and it's not my job to create just for one person. I remember one time working to create something with Madonna and though it didn't come off, she understood the perfume process and how it worked from the very start. She wanted tuberous because her mother wore Fracas by Robert Piguet. She also told me that when people exercise and the smell gets a little strong, it's very good idea to wear tuberous!"

With its confident, heady scent, Valentina is sure to appeal to the Middle East market, yet every region of the world is different, said Morillas. Asian women tend to prefer lighter, fresher fragrances and European women opt for more intense scents.

"In general, over the past 20 to 30 years, perfumes have evolved to become much lighter, longer-lasting - not so heavy. But tastes haven't changed that much, to be honest."

Having been the mastermind behind so many distinctive scents, Morillas is not sure whether Valentina could go on to join the ranks of the classic Carolina Herrera 212 VIP and Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey Florale.

"I think it's a bit pretentious to think about it," Morillas said, smiling. "When I made CK One for the first time, I wasn't creating it to be 'a classic'. I think some perfumes just have that potential either due to their strong heart or an addictive quality. For me, the most important element is uniqueness. I think in Valentina I've created something that's timeless."

Although the label sits uncomfortably with him, one of Morillas's scents that is most definitely considered a modern-day classic is Acqua Di Gio by Giorgio Armani, which he created in 1996.

"I'm actually wearing the new Acqua Di Gio essence now," he said. "Just like I'm so proud CK One became the number one perfume in the world in just three months when it was launched and it's still a best-seller, so too am I proud of Acqua Di Gio. You know it was the first time I'd ever used the aquatic molecule and when you smell the scent you immediately think of vacations by the sea."

When asked how he reacts when people pass him on the street wearing a fragrance he's created, he admitted his nose for the business has its disadvantages.

"Sometimes I'm very surprised I can still recognise individual scents up to one year later, as everyone's skin makes them smell different," he said.

"But what makes it really hard for me is that all I can smell really are the imperfections - as I see them. I really need to forget this and just enjoy the beauty of the perfume, but I know far too much about it."