It all began at a tea shop. French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena bottled his inspiration only to steer Bulgari on a fragrant journey. And now Sophie Labbé takes it one step forward.
When most of us hear the name Bulgari, we tend to think of exquisite jewellery, watches or even the luxury hotels that the company runs in collaboration with Marriott. But somehow, perfume is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Within the perfume world, Bulgari has a legendary reputation as the house that influenced a whole genre of perfumes.
And here is how it came to pass: Jean-Claude Ellena, the legendary French perfumer, was fond of frequenting the tea shop Mariage Frères in Paris. Jean liked tea but he was more intrigued by the smells of the shop. He loved the aroma of the steam as it rose from the tea cups. He liked the atmosphere, perfumed with the smell of hundreds of kilos of tea, collected from all around the world.
And so, he set out to create a perfume that captured the smells and aromas of that famous tea shop. Like all great perfumers Jean eschewed the obvious route of simply using extracts of tea. His intention was not to create a fragrance that smelled of tea but to make a perfume that captured the experience of brewing and drinking tea.
Bulgari was looking for a fragrance that was as delicate and subtle as its jewellery and believed that Jean’s vision matched their own. At first, they used the perfume merely to add a fragrance to their stores but it was such magical scent that soon they started bottling it as a special edition, available only at Bulgari stores.
Nobody goes into an expensive jewellery shop to buy perfume so the idea was to offer this as a special product to customers. Once the watches or the jewellery had been bought, they could pick up a bottle of perfume on their way out.
But then one day something unexpected happened.
Bulgari store managers began reporting that the perfume was simply disappearing off of the shelves. And contrary to what they had originally believed, customers were walking into the stores only to buy the fragrance.
Naturally, Bulgari did the only thing they could. Production of the perfume was increased so that it could be sold commercially.
You have probably guessed which fragrance we are talking about and you are right, it’s called Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert.
The real significance of the perfume’s success, however, is in the impact it had. At the time of its release the fragrances of perfumes were heavy. This, on the contrary, was light. Perfumes announced themselves. This was subtle. Perfumes smelt of recognisable things like flowers. This did not even smell of tea. It smelled of the idea of tea, a most revolutionary concept.
There were instant imitators. Some went for the obvious parallel. Elizabeth Arden launched Green Tea in 1999 using a formula created by the perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. Others used Green Tea as a starting point for more neutral scents, among them Calvin Klein, whose CK One is quite obviously a direct descent of the Bulgari fragrance. And as we all know a whole new genre of fragrances was launched.
This also established Bulgari as a perfume house of note. Discerning customers began looking to the house to create fragrances that were different and subtle, a promise it has consistently delivered on.
Nearly a decade ago, for example, it introduced Jasmin Noir, in a distinctive black bottle at a slightly higher price than the rest of the range. That fragrance broke the rules, up until then all jasmine fragrances had been flowery, eastern confections that thrust the smell of the jasmine in your face, this one was so subtle that it took you a sniff or two before you could identify jasmine as the primary component of the fragrance.
In the two decades since the first tea fragrances, a lot has changed in the perfume world. Fragrance lovers are moving away from the standard mass market perfumes, many of which seem to smell exactly the same. Educated customers are drifting towards niche perfume houses which create better quality fragrances.
Soon pretty much all high-end fashion houses followed suit and introduced their own niche lines. Jean joined Hermès to launch Hermessence, sold only at Hermès boutiques. And at Chanel, Jacque Polge, a well-respected gentleman with an even more well-respected nose, joined hands with Christopher Sheldrake, (formerly the perfumer for Serge Lutens) to create a new range of fragrances that were better than Chanel’s classics.
Bulgari has, without a doubt, marched elegantly, front and centre, to the beat of this new drum. A few months ago, it launched the Splendida collection, consisting of three fragrances. The first of which is Rose Rose, a riff on the Damask Rose (also called Rose Damascus or Damascene Rose), which is a favourite of perfumers because it has an aroma that is unusually complex. (The Indian rose smells different). Bulgari flanked the rose with citrus and blackberry and gave it a bed of sandalwood, musk and vetiver to lie on. In so doing they created a fragrance that was straight from the heart of the rose and yet, lingered on the skin.
The second Splendida is more ambitious because it sought to pin down the fragrance of the iris, a flower that French perfumers love (Bulgari is now French-owned), but which resolutely refuses to be accommodated inside a bottle. The perfumer Sophie Labbe provided a base note of tonka bean and sandalwood and then used notes of violet and mimosa to capture the beauty of the iris aroma.
And ending the collection with a journey back to Jasmin Noir. But this time, a large quantity of the original Jasmine Sambac Absolute, derived from the heart of the flower, gives the perfume a hypnotic quality. To counteract the floral notes, Sophie used scents of extremely dry wood to create a fragrance that is even better than the original.
Perfumers will tell you that the most difficult fragrances to create are those based on flowers because there is virtually nothing new to be said. So many perfumes have already used iris, rose and jasmine that make it almost impossible to create something new. The majesty of Splendida is in the fact that it is representative of the original promise, it stands for Bulgari perfume tradition. Just as Thé Vert was not about the aroma of tea but the idea of it, these perfumes express an experience and not just a floral essence. They are essays on the complex fragrances of some of the world’s most favourite flowers.