A newcomer on Florence’s via di San Niccolò, Sileno Cheloni’s new perfume atelier feels like something from another century. Part boudoir, part laboratory, the walls lined with bottles and the display of strange objects like antique scales and a pufferfish give it a wunderkammer effect. I was here to try the Profumoir Experience, a unique opportunity to develop my sense of smell, connect it with memories, likes and dislikes in the creation of a custom perfume. With hundreds of scents gathered from around the world to choose from, wouldn’t an untrained guest like me risk making something quite offensive? Apparently not: the Profumoir is Cheloni’s invention, and it’s more than meets the eye… or the nose, in this case.
Sileno Cheloni is not a new name in town. Long-time partner in Acqua Flor, he’s been in the bespoke perfume business for decades. He’s developed the signature scents for brands like Harrods and Gucci, and for people no less famous than Pope Francis. Photos and videos of him show him dressed all in black, looking like something of a conjurer, with an intense and introspective gaze. Between his experience and the look he’s developed, he seems rather formidable, I thought as I prepared to interview him.
From the Saharan heat of the streets of Florence entered Cheloni himself dressed in all white (apparently he wears all one or the other non-colour, depending on the season), and conversation flowed easily about his passion for perfume, the design of the store that opened earlier this year and the trends he perceives in this field. The complete opposite of unapproachable, in fact.
“My motto is ‘Sharing Knowledge’,” explained Cheloni, which is why he designed a space that feels welcoming and unique. There are few finished products on display; rather, a whole wall is dedicated to single scents, and plenty of space is given to seating areas featuring cool, velvety hues. The master perfumer’s background in interior design is what allowed him to create this space “without the filter of an architect, to represent my vision and my taste. But it’s also made the only way I know how. We’re going to have to orient the space more towards sale when we open up the laboratory down the street this Fall – at that point I’ll have to call an architect.”
The boudoir-slash-laboratory feel serves to give customers space and time to learn about the rather mysterious world of scent. “Perfume has been industrialized for many years, and hides many secrets. I want to change that. Niche perfume brands began 20 years ago in response to commercial ones; now big brands have bought those up. I want to get back to that first exciting moment of artisan production, and to share that passion with others. Sharing experience and passion, in this case the knowledge and process of how a perfume is born, creates a priceless connection.”
My Profumoir Experience
Cheloni designed the Profumoir as an entry-level experience into the world of bespoke perfume. An antique desk topped with a display that can be likened to an organ of ninety-nine scents dominates the storefront. I sat here, ready to play it, attracting the curiosity of passersby. I’ve been assured that it’s hard to create something horrible because Cheloni has created base blends, tried and true combinations, and a sure-fire method to let total neophytes like me make their own perfume. I’m reminded of the invention of cake mixes: they ingeniously required the addition of key ingredients like eggs and milk in order for the 1950s housewife to feel like she made the cake.
Cheloni’s assistant Matilde Bini is my expert guide; she gets started by asking me what brand of perfume I usually like or wear. I actually don’t, so this is a challenging start for us. I cite the free samples of Hermès eau de toilette that my mother brings me as the only one I like, perhaps because it’s not very feminine. I don’t tell her that just last week I threw out the Coco Chanel that I got for my 21st birthday. I’m well into my 40s now. Not a big consumer of perfume.
I do, however, have strong ideas about what smells I like or don’t like. Bini continues with her gentle questioning. Is there a smell I particularly like? Orange flowers, which I associate with a recent trip, become the starting point for our perfume. She has me smell two citrus blends and I like them both. They go into my “keep” pile. Do I like musk? Incense? Rose? Lavender? Some I’m sure about, others are surprises. I thought incense was those horrible sticks that a certain colleague insists on burning in the office, but here, it’s a pleasant, natural and lingering smell that becomes a base element of my custom perfume. Bini makes sure my creation is balanced, but with such skill that I’m convinced I’m on my way to mastering perfumery in under one hour. I’ve gone from associating scents and memories to wondering what combination of ingredients is going to make my perfect perfume. She’s correctly guessed my tastes and proposes a few more scents until we discover an apparent love of bamboo and amber. Who knew these things had odour at all?
We proceed to creating my blend. I then test it on myself, and find it a bit unbalanced, so we build up our ratios until I’m satisfied. It’s then mixed with alcohol, decanted into an elegant bottle, topped with a marble lid of my choice, and named. I come up with the very creative solution of calling it after myself.
I like my creation very much. I apply a thin veil on my neck and wrists in the morning, and find myself frequently sniffing at myself. It’s the accessory I didn’t know I needed. I asked Cheloni if the perfume one makes on this occasion is likely to be the “right” one for one’s whole lifetime, or if we change – thinking of my pre-teen attraction to green-tea scents and every grandmother’s flowery fragrance. “There are two types of people: those who remain connected to one perfume in a lifetime, and those who like to change. It’s a matter of personality, almost of psychology, that defines one’s character. There are people who can be loyal to a perfume for lifetime, a bit like love – there are people who are monogamous and those who need extra-marital adventures. It’s personal. When you do the Profumoir, as there are so many essences and options, you learn what you can in an hour – the ideal amount of time because you can’t use your sense of smell for much longer. If you can, it’s a good idea to come back and try it again rather than simply ordering a fresh batch: you might hone the recipe, or change it completely.” Given my history, I’m sure I’ll be using this one way beyond its best-before date.