It is a morning just like any other. As I prepare for work, I reach for a small bottle of perfume. The bottle itself is hardly worthy of a second look; a modest, unassuming rectangular glass vessel with a small black ribbon tied at its’ neck, remarkable only for being so unremarkable. It certainly wouldn’t stand out on a department store perfume counter. But this is no mass-marketed department store perfume. The black-printed label states it was made at the San Simone Antica Spezieria Erboristeria in Firenze. It is an organic, one-of-a-kind concoction but what makes it really special is that it was dreamed up and blended by . . . me!
Even before I apply it, memories of hot summer days, walking along cobbled medieval
laneways, incredible architecture and awe-inspiring artworks come flooding back to me from our short stay in Florence, Italy earlier this year.
This perfume of mine, a truly unique one-off, remains unnamed, for what name could possibly be adequate to sum up the experience of creating it and the memories surrounding that day? Whilst wearing it, these incredible memories waft over me as I catch the scent of my extraordinary perfume throughout my ordinary day.
I set out early (by European standards) from our Airbnb apartment, following directions I’d transcribed from Googlemaps the night before, savouring the quiet and relative cool preceding the inevitable hustle, bustle and heat of a Florentine Summer’s day. Most shops were not yet open and only a few locals could be seen walking to work; the streets were almost deserted.
Having found the storefront of the Antica Spezieria Erboristeria nestled in a quiet side street directly opposite the Bargello National Museum, mere steps away from the tourist throng, I marvelled at how easy it would be to miss and walk right past without even noticing it. I had, in fact, done exactly that the previous day.
Pushing open the large glass door, it was as if I was transported back in time to a scented wonderland. The store itself is not large, but the high ceilings and square dimensions give the impression of space. An antique dispensary counter in the shape of an L stands before walls of dispensary drawers and shelves, whilst a third wall lined with open shelving houses dozens of bottles of essential oils and organic skincare preparations. Glasses, jars and bottles containing essential oils are clustered in groups on more than one surface, filling the air with delicious scents.
Warmly greeted by an English-speaking assistant, I was introduced to the herbalist and master perfumer and directed to help myself to refreshments. The workspace, filled with carefully laid out essential oil bottles, was prepared for three workshop participants on this morning. Arriving early gave me the luxury of a few minutes to fully take in my surroundings before my fellow perfume creators’ arrival. I was like a small child in a candy shop, my senses switched to overdrive – there was so much to look at and smell in this delicious little store.
Once all were present, we were given a brief history of perfume through the ages, from the ancient Egyptians to current times. We learnt about the three levels or ‘notes’ contained within a perfume. The head notes, although strongest when first applied, are fleeting. Lasting a couple of hours is the heart of a fragrance, whilst the lingering base
notes can remain for up to ten hours after application. Each set of essential oils was laid out in a pyramid and starting at the base, we worked our way up, eliminating options until just our favourite one or two remained for each of the three notes. This took some time, as individual oils were sampled alone and with others, often several times, prior to be finally selected or rejected. Fernanda, our perfumer, explained the close connection between music and scent and told us we would be “creating the music to wear on your skin, the essence of yourself.” No pressure there at all, of course. Indeed, both music and scent have powerful memory-making and triggering abilities.
After some time working my way through my collection of organic essential oils to sample, I eventually selected fruity, summery head notes and soft, floral heart notes underpinned by more sensual, green woody base notes. Fernanda questioned my preferences before completing a series of calculations to balance out and blend them harmoniously. Fans of scent-laden paper strips were fluttered before me to sample the possible finished product, individual scents moved closer or further away to vary their intensity. Finally, we were both happy with the result and the final formula was written. Next, I painstakingly counted the exact number of drops of each oil into my bottle, before having it topped up with pure alcohol.
I left triumphant, proudly clutching a paper carry bag containing my precious perfume, ready to lose myself once again in the crowds of fellow tourists who, by now, were filling the neighbouring streets to overflowing.
A long wait ensued, as my perfume matured and blended itself over a period of several weeks. At each new stop on our trip, it was carefully placed into the fridge, then collected, protected and packed again as we left. Once home, it spent an additional couple of weeks in the fridge, just to make sure it was ready.
At long last, the day came when I could finally use my bespoke, hand crafted, one-of-a-kind perfume. Although not exactly what I had in mind, I’m more than pleased with the final product and the memories which accompany it. I created my own perfect holiday souvenir.
I highly recommend this Airbnb Experience to anyone keen to escape the tourist hoardes, slow down and quite literally smell the roses. What better souvenir than a truly unique perfume created by and for yourself? Not travelling to Florence? Why not look for similar experiences in your holiday destination?
I know I’ll be looking for more creative experiences on future trips.
PS: In a serendipitous moment, I stumbled across a novel in the English section of a bookstore at the Roma Termini train station, entitled The Secret Ways of Perfume. Written by Cristina Caboni and set in Paris and Florence, it tells the story of Elena, last in a long line of Florentine perfume makers. I couldn’t put it down, finding myself caught up in both the storyline and settings; it was the perfect holiday read for me after visiting both cities and completing my perfume making class in Florence.