I'm always interested in learning more about the personal background of a perfumer. Why did they choose their profession? What did it take to fulfill their ambition? Storia di un naso ("the story of a nose") gives a first-hand insight in the life and works of Laura Tonatto, who is perhaps best known as the nose behind the Carthusia line. Since most Now Smell This readers don't read Italian, I'll give you a short biographical sketch of her life as narrated in this book.
Laura's story starts in her native city of Turin, right after high school graduation. It was the summer of 1982, and Italy was a struggling nation. Social tensions, a languishing economy, the long arm of organized crime, and the fear of domestic terrorism were the recipe for a dreadful reality that even the World Cup Football tournament couldn't erase. Laura's only wish was to escape from her depressing hometown. She wanted to travel abroad, to a warm place with friendly people. The Tonatto family had relatives in Cairo, so Egypt was a sensible choice. With her parents' consent, and the promise to be back in time for her first semester in law school, young Laura took off.
On her first day in the Egyptian capital she learned two fundamental things. First, that the Egyptians' obsession with pyramids was not confined to ancient tombs. Both on the streets and in window displays, virtually everything was stacked in a pyramid shape, from fresh fruit and glass jars to shoes. Second, that Egyptians had a great fondness for strong odors. Far too intense to the average European nose, but all the more fascinating for it. Was this the smell of the South? the essence of the Orient? Laura knew she had a lifelong affinity with fragrance, but in Egypt she came to realize that it was more than that: it was her deepest passion. And she was immersed in it.
Among the things she loved most about Cairo was the topographical arrangement of crafts. Some streets were taken up exclusively by weavers, others by goldsmiths, or scale vendors. (In her home country that tradition had vanished centuries ago.) A great place to hang out was Khan-El-Khalili, a major souk in the old city center, were it was normal for clients to order unique and personalized products. Laura wanted to learn everything there was to know about fragrance, and it didn't take long before she knew every perfume corner of the city. Places that were visited by locals, tourists, and shady foreign businessmen. Ordering a handmade, knock-off copy of the latest designer scent was no problem at all.
Laura soon befriended a young perfume vendor named Hassan. Every single day she dropped by his shop, much to the dislike of her uncle Samir ("there's more to Cairo than the bazaar!"). Hassan became Laura's tutor; he told her about oriental traditions in perfume preparation, and how to mix essences and find harmonies in notes. She proved to be a useful help in his shop. July made way for August, and in no time it was September: Laura was still in Cairo. Her parents were all but pleased with her newly found interest. Perfumery was a passion at best, a welcome distraction from serious things, like law. In November, three months later than agreed, Laura came back to Turin and signed up for law school. For every three or four completed exams she was granted a short visit to Cairo. But after a year-and-a-half, it was clear that passing exams had become a means to a different end. She quit college, left Turin, and headed back to the banks of the Nile.
After a short period in Cairo, where she improved her perfumery skills, Laura briefly moved to Singapore, and then to Sydney. Once back in Italy she settled in the province of Naples, where she got acquainted with the old Ruocco family from Capri. They were keen guardians of local culture and traditions, and had a small line of fragrances based on Carthusian perfume recipes that allegedly dated back to 1381. Laura created four new perfumes for them that captured the olfactive atmosphere of the island: Mediterraneo, Fiori di Capri, Io Capri, and Ligea La Sirena.
Her next stop, and a very important one, was Grasse. It was the best place to purchase the raw materials she needed, and to get in touch with some of the best perfumers in the world. At Fragonard she met Serge Kalouguine, a modest man with a strong sense for tradition, who taught her that becoming a professional perfumer has little to do with olfactory talent or natural predisposition. It takes dedication, eagerness to learn, and courage to transform a passion into a profession. Words that Laura would later hear from Guy Robert too. It was in Grasse that her professional career really took off.
In March of '86 she started offering her services as a bespoke perfumer in an upscale perfumery in Milan's via Brera. On her third day singer Ornella Vanoni paid a visit to the shop, and ordered a personalized fragrance. Word spread quickly, and her business soon flourished. Milan was a city of opportunities, the place where Armani and Versace made their fortune, and everything seemed possible. But that thought was agonizing to Laura. In her view Milan was in a permanent state of delirium, out of touch with reality. 1986 was the year of the Chernobyl disaster, and Africa was still coping with large-scale famine. How could anyone take part in that mad circus, when the real world was afflicted by such tragedies? Her stay in Milan took less than a year.
Once back in her home town, Laura worked on freelance projects for various prestigious brands, and became more interested in studying the origins of perfumery. She started replicating old recipes, from the Classical Age to the Napoleonic era. In the '90s she curated several historical perfume exhibitions, and in 2001 she started exploring olfactive symbolism in literature, which lead to new exhibitions. Meanwhile she continued making personalized perfumes, and created several cosmetics lines for Italian celebrities. Eventually she developed her own line of fragrances, bath products and room sprays, a complete overview of which can be found on her website.
Storia di un naso isn't a biography in the strictest sense: it's the elaboration of a long series of conversations between Laura Tonatto and writer/columnist Alessandra Montrucchio, and covers many aspects of perfumery, including a whole chapter on the creation of bespoke fragrances. Tonatto's story shows striking similarities with that of Lorenzo Villoresi (their link with Cairo, their love for artisanal products, their aversion to ostentatious glamour) but I wonder what conclusions we can really draw from that. (None, probably.) The book reads like the weekend special of a daily newspaper, only stretched out to over 200 pages. Overall a very nice read, although I could do less with some of the narrator's philosophical ramblings.
Laura Tonatto (1963) and Alessandra Montrucchio (1970) are both based in Turin, Italy.
Storia di un naso: lo straordinario talento di una creatrice di profumi
Torino: Einaudi (2006)
paperback, 203 pages