An interview with Ramón Monegal

November 13, 2013


Spanish perfumer Ramón Monegal has been creating scents since 1979—his entire professional life. But when he launched his eponymous line, he discovered what many others discover when they move from behind-the-curtains wizardry and into the spotlight: Signing your work with your name and face is like turning up the volume on everything in your life. Freedom makes the challenges more challenging and the rewards more rewarding. 

When Monegal debuted his line in the U.S. market, he didn't so much emerge onto the scene as explode onto it. He introduced 14 scents at once—an almost unheard of amount, even in today's world of fast-paced perfume releases. Yet critic after critic lined up to state their surprise and delight: These were thoughtfully constructed perfumes that showed us familiar ingredients—iris, patchouli, honey, agarwood—in a refreshing new light. The line, as a whole, showed tremendous range and offered some treasure for every taste. The scents lived up to the elegance and innovation of the beautiful bottles that hold them.

We spoke with Monegal about what it's like to work with the entire family—wife and children included—in the world of perfume, the intellectual process of creation, the liberation of creating one's own line, and the inspiration behind Cuirelle, the rich, warm, honeyed interpretation of suede featured in our Leather collection.     

Olfactif: What did your childhood smell like?

Ramón Monegal: My olfactive childhood memories are the smell of my vacation by the sea, the cedar of the pencils, the scent of the tangerine peel impregnating my fingers at school, my grandfather’s library, and also some perfumes like the citrus cologne 1916, made by Myrurgia, my family company, the one I used day to day. Also, the aldehydic floral jewel from the Joya cologne of my mother, and the sweeter Shalimar of a loyal and close friend of my parents. Nevertheless, there are many more because I had a childhood filled with odors. 

O: You're a fourth-generation perfumer. Can you tell us about how this art form ties you to previous generations of your family? What did you absorb about perfumery as a child?

RM: The most important thing is that I grew up with the nose “connected.” There were always talks about the notes of the essences, accords, perfume compositions, the difficulty of obtaining, manufacturing, or marketing a scent—conversations quite similar to those that I have with my children today, although I am more open minded than my peers. To become a perfumer, you have to learn the craftsmanship because this is a profession. You learn better and faster when you are a kid, since there is curiosity, no fear, all is a fun game. The smells are recognized and easily fixed in your memory, mixtures are surprises, and elders are involuntary teachers who also are surprised and gradually introduce you to the language, aesthetics, and perception of perfumery. I was not aware of the knowledge from my elders until the day I decided to concentrate on learning the craftsmanship professionally.

O: Your business is still very much a family business. Yet we live in a world where family businesses are rare, family members are often scattered around the globe, and separate pursuits are encouraged. What is it like to spend your entire life working with a team of loved ones who are equally committed to the same pursuit?

RM: First of all, it must be said that when you work for yourself or for your family, the responsibility and pressure you feel is huge and it becomes almost unbearable. Within all of that there is your heart full of passion, excitement, and work that is completely devoted to the challenge, but that is not always recognized by your loved ones because for them, everything is taken for granted. But at the end, the satisfaction remains of a common project that you share with your family, and the common goal is to succeed.

O: Most people might imagine a perfumer going straight to the lab and mixing to see what happens. But for you, the intellectual process is the most important part of creating a scent. Can you tell us what you mean by that—and why?

RM: When I was younger, I mixed everything and looked to see what happened. I still had not learned to read the formula that I had written. I was not able to imagine the final smell, nor was I able to imagine if the mixture would be a "perfume." When you mature, you realize what is really important is the intellectual process, the conceptualization of the work, communicating the message, the intrinsic values, the soul, the language of the ingredients, the script, the plot, the climax, the tone, the rhythm. Because at the end, a perfume is nothing more—or less—than the olfactory image that conveys the values of those who wear it. A perfume is not just a final accessory like most of fashion designers believe. 

O: Tell us about Cuirelle. What was your inspiration? What was your intention?

RM: A fragrance based on the leather accord is always a challenge for the perfumer due to its power and charisma. It is wild and you have to love it. It is one of my favorite scents, along with iris and woods. After composing "Mon Cuir,” a powerful and provocative black leather, I felt the need to balance my desire with the velvety sweetness of the "other leather,”—suede, which was my inspiration. The intention was to interpret a leather perfume with sophistication, elegance, and sweetness from the suede, incorporating alluring flowers of jasmine, tuberose, and rose, and making it breathe with fruit notes of cassis, plum, and lychee.

O: Can you tell us the role of the major notes in Cuirelle? 

RM: The leather/suede accord is an incense, patchouli, birch, cedar, cinnamon and vanilla accord. Cinnamon and vanilla provide values of sincerity, sweetness, and happiness, beeswax emulsifies the accord and provides confidence. Solemnity comes from frankincense, firmness from cedarwood and daring patchouli leaves, the roots of vetiver and iris provide stability and glamour, the tonkinol (tonkin musk) provides sensuality. Because leather is presence, charisma, and power.

O: You've said that you're also a writer. What role does story play in your process when you create perfumes? Are they more often autobiographical or fiction or a bit of both?

RM: The intellectual process will define how my perfume will be. The story and message push me to choose the ingredients by way of words, accords, and phrases, and the composition and text of the work. The language of the ingredients is also the language of the perfumer, and my personal language mixes imagination, art, craft, intuition, culture, liturgy, naturalism, aesthetics, experiences, emotions, autobiography, and fiction, all at the same time. But at the end there is always a story to tell, and this is what defines the final olfactory image.

O: Is your love of literature one of the reasons you chose the inkwell style bottle?

RM: Absolutely. Furthermore, it happened that I designed my flacon while I was writing my novel "The Perfumer." When you have an inspiration and a clear idea, the composition process is simple. The goal is to be a neutral icon, genderless, in order to liberate the content and provide it with the magic from the ink and the author's hand.  

O: Your bottle has tremendous presence. It's substantial but elegant, and it makes a compelling impression long before one smells what's inside. What role do you think presentation plays in the perception of a scent?

RM: It is important for discovering the work, to give value, to get attention, to identify the author, to convey trust and confidence in the perfume—which is already an abstract and hard-to-decipher art for the customer. But the bottle only performs this function the first time; after that, the perfume is the only protagonist. 

O: Many perfumers are happy to do creative work for other people because there's so much pressure when you create under your own name. Why do you find this liberating?

RM: Unfortunately, most perfumers work exclusively for brands that they do not own or for perfume composition companies which work for other brands. But I can assure you that in spite of being well paid, they are not happy, because they have to go through too many filters. They don’t have the longed-for freedom of any creative. Quite often they work in the dark and cannot put their names on their creations, so they don’t have the opportunity for public recognition because they are cloistered in their laboratories. There is no doubt in my new endeavor, I have regained absolute freedom, and oh my God, how important that is! I still have not 100 percent adjusted, but I am free of marketing demands, of the demand for low-cost ingredients, of trends and styles marked by fashion, because a perfume is really timeless. I am also free of the celebrity advertising trend, from the tyranny of the big chains that will never understand the true values of perfume, and much more! All of that is much more than liberating, and that is why it’s worth taking all the risks that I am taking nowadays. I am doing it with the hope and happiness of a child!

O: How has your relationship to your customers evolved since you became the face of your own brand?

RM: I am much more involved. I am an accomplice—a teacher, a trainer. I am accessible, trying to explain the importance of the olfactory image, the marriage, the language of smell, of its ingredients. Their reaction is fantastic. They are tired and fed up of advertising and want to know more. They’re looking for less trendiness, less uniformity, more exclusivity, and more customization.

O: Over decades, you've seen the perfume world change dramatically, particularly with the rise of the Internet as a way to discover perfumes. What do you think of this new world when you compare it to the more traditional world of perfumery in which you were raised?

RM: I am surprised and delighted—it’s fantastic! What was a dream just over a decade ago is now a reality. I am thankful for this great change that allows me to communicate with my clients all over the world. Customers now have the opportunity to discover modern craftsmanship and authentic perfumery through a personal search, and can decide for themselves because they do not have to follow the trends dictated by commercials and advertisings generated by large corporations. The client is in the spotlight, free to search, find, try, and buy. The perfumer can leave the lab, as the chefs leave the kitchen, publicizing their work and personally signing their message. But from my perspective, I must say that I could never have thought of a situation as positive for true perfumery, and I think this has only just begun. I welcome whatever is coming!

Learn more about Cuirelle or the entire Leather collection. 

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