To lose someone of tremendous talent is a painful thing. To lose someone tremendously talented and young is almost unfathomable. This is how the perfume world felt after the untimely death of perfumer Mona di Orio in 2011. She was vivacious and passionate, intensely creative and productive, and everyone who met her walked away impressed by her energy and genuine warmth. Mona's tutelage under master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska had already led to a successful career and fascinating art, and it was easy to get the sense that—although clearly in her prime—Mona was just getting started.
But the close partnership that she forged with Jeroen Oude Sogtoen, co-founder of Maison Mona di Orio, gave Mona's vision a way to continue thriving, to break new ground, and to move forward in the very same spirit of its beginnings. In this wide-ranging Q&A with Jeroen, he discusses the journey behind Eau Absolue, a June 2013 Olfactif featured fragrance. But first, he shares the fateful call that caused his path to cross Mona's, the story of determination behind her apprenticeship under Roudnitska, the next—and very personal—release to come from the line, and how Mona's vision guides him even today.
Olfactif: When people talk about Mona's style, they talk about "chiaroscuro"—a term we often associate with the visual arts. What does this word mean in terms of scent?
Jeroen Oude Sogtoen: Mona was trained by Edmond Roudnitska to look at perfumes from an art point of view, as you can see very clearly in the Signature Collection. In this collection, Mona tried to capture sounds, colors, images, stories, and emotions, but she also loved to play with light. Chiaroscuro in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts that affect a whole composition. Top notes influence a fragrance and serve a clear purpose, and Mona liked to play with them She liked the big contrasts between top notes and base notes, and she liked to find a perfect harmony between them.
O: How did the visual arts influence Mona's style?
JOS: I don’t think that visual art alone was a major influence; she was more influenced by the full spectrum of art in general. In the Signature Collection, you can see the influence of several facets of art. Like a musician, a poet, a painter, she sketched the fragrances. She always started by creating a mental shape of the fragrances she was working on, and she would find the final creation, the final melody, along the way through our long talks and sharing of feelings, emotions, and ideas. In Lux, Mona’s personal fragrance, you can see the beautiful chiaroscuro in the transition from bright to darker tones. In Amyitis, she captured the hanging gardens of Babylon, in which queen Amyitis just had her morning walk. In Carnation, she painted her fantasy of how the apartment of the writer Colette might smell. Mona loved to read and write herself, and for her, all facets of art were connected to each other.
O: What was Mona's signature? A trick, a style, an approach, a philosophy—what do you feel is unique about her perfumery?
JOS: First of all, Mona had a unique personality. Of all the people I’ve met, I have never met someone else like Mona. With this unique personality came a unique talent—she was someone who worked from a passion and was able to capture her fantasies and emotions in fragrance. This created a very clear signature.
She always tried to understand the true meaning of the subject she wanted to express. Her education was not scientific but more a study of nature itself. Not to copy it—this would be impossible—but to try to understand it. In Rose etoile de Hollande, I think she captured the soul of this specific rose that climbed the walls of Maison Sainte Blanche. When you close your eyes, you can smell the essence of the flower itself with all of its gorgeous nuances. She worked for many years on this fragrance, trying to get it perfect. Mona always tried to find the perfect melody with lots of perfect bridges and connections between the materials, which she always selected on quality and not on price.
O: Can you tell us the story of how you met each other and decided to work together?
JOS: After graduating from University of Applied Sciences with a degree in fashion design, I worked for many years as a fashion designer. It was a job I loved, but little by little I was getting tired of the continuous search for something new. I wanted to create something more lasting. Of course, I could have tried to find this in fashion but my path changed when my partner, who was the chairman of the Dutch Hotel Association, and I had the idea to create an educational boutique hotel in Amsterdam. So I changed from fashion to interior design and created, alongside field specialists, the concept for The College Hotel in Amsterdam. The job took us almost five years to finalize.
One of the finishing touches was the skin and hair care products in the hotel. In my years as fashion designer, I traveled to numerous hotels and I realized that I never used the amenities in these hotels because I didn’t think they were of high enough quality. So when we needed the amenities in the hotel, I contacted one of the best companies in the world specializing in this field. And with their expertise, and with my passion and ideas, we created my own brand of cosmetics that has a strong focus on hotels: Zenology®. In my search for a nose for this amenity line, I called the museum in Grasse and asked whom I should work with. They advised me to call Accords et Parfums in Grasse. This brought me in contact with Mona di Orio and her magical world of perfumes.
We started sharing ideas and thoughts for Zenology, and we realized that we had an instant connection because we understood the same creative language. When I met her in Nice some weeks later, she brought me to the world of Accords et Parfums: to Edmond Roudnitska, his son Michel Roudnitska, Edmond’s wife Therese, the olfactive park, the stories of Eau Sauvage, Diorella, Dior Dior, the art in Maison Blanche. I was enchanted by this world that I had thought didn’t exist anymore. But the most impressive part was Mona, with her passion and belief in quality creations, her love for food, her taste and knowledge of wine. During one of our excellent dinners over a glass of Champagne Jacquesson, I informed her that the amenity project was off. She went white. Then I told her it was because we needed to create our own maison de parfum—with one condition: The parfums must be created from Mona’s passion, and she would be the face of the house. I wanted people to know who created the perfume, and I would stay in the background. So Mona became the nose and I became the eyes responsible for all visual aspects and the business side of the house.
O: Did you have to try very hard to convince her?
JOS: No, it took five minutes. After 16 years in a laboratory, she was ready to fly. She always called me her prince who took her away on his horse.
O:How does your background in fashion influence the line today?
I use my instinct that I developed in fashion. I can think in terms of collections. I know how things need to look visually. I can think in colors, in materials. I know how to use my creativity and how to tell a story. I love to build bridges between fashion and other creative outlets. Fragrance is a perfect way to connect the senses—and, of course, my love for fashion and the network I have in fashion keep inspiring and influencing me.
O: Tell us about the Les Nombres d'Or line. What defines this line? What was the goal when you created it?
JOS: When we created the Signature Collection, we had, from day one, a very dedicated group of followers—and haters. The followers were people who understood that perfume is more than something that is supposed to be instantly likeable. It’s a journey, a story, an emotion captured in scent form. But little by little, we realized that the majority didn’t understand what we were doing because it was so completely different from mass-market products.
If people could smell the origin of some of the perfume classics, they would be in olfactive shock. In the past, animal ingredients were the glory in a perfume. They often created the sparkle in a composition. Mona loved this and tried to capture it while respecting more recent regulations around ingredient types and quantities.
But sometimes one has to listen to music several times before falling in love with it, or look at a painting several times before understanding it. Sometimes you need a passionate expert to take you on a journey and explain why something is remarkable. You have to discover it by being curious. But unfortunately, it wasn’t the right time for a company with that passion and belief alone. I always called this collection a collection “for those who want to know.” Some people did not want to know.
We realized that we needed a bridge—something that would show people beauty but in a way they were willing to understand. The “golden ratio”—a mathematical theory of ideal proportion—was a way for us to review perfume classics like musk, amber, cuir, and rose. So when Mona worked on this collection, the end goal was set. But the road to get there required as much as creativity and passion as the Signature Collection and the same quality ingredients, but used in a different way. We created a message that was easier to understand because the subject was stated upfront in the perfume name. For example, it’s easier to talk to the end consumer about “Vanille” than to share a poetic dream.
O: We know that Eau Absolue was inspired by a love of the Mediterranean. Is there a specific place that this scent represents? What does this scent make you feel when you experience it?
JOS: I was invited on a beautiful yacht. We sailed across the Balearic islands but mostly Mallorca. After I came back from this amazing trip, I asked Mona to capture the feeling of being on the water in the sun, in a bay with a summer breeze. The feeling of freshness, warmth on skin with the scent of dry spices and fresh, sparkling citrus fruits. Mona, being from the Mediterranean, also loved to sail and swim in the sea and she understood instantly what I meant. She had a big love for eaux fraiches, as she called them, and she captured, in my opinion, the exact feeling we had on this yacht. It’s the smell of the Mediterranean from her point of view.
O: Eau Absolue departs from most other scents in Les Nombres d'Or because it is more of a symphony than a meditation on a single note. Can you tell us why you felt the need to create it?
JOS: I called it Eau Absolue, an abstract term, but “eau” is one of the classic subjects in perfume. For me, it’s about water—but water in a more complex way. “Absolue” symbolizes that complexity. It’s the feeling of being on the water, with a warm breeze. The warm, ambery cistus labdanum in harmony with the citrus fruits captures for me the feeling I had on that trip.
O: Can you tell us the story of how Mona wrote to Edmond Roudnitska when she was young and of the events that followed? What does this story tell us about Mona's personality?
JOS: When she was a young girl, she was already intrigued by smell and she made her own scented creations. She realized she wanted to become a nose, but being a woman with no relatives in the business and no chemistry background, she realized that it would be a difficult path to follow. But with a clear goal in mind, she started reading about fragrances, trying to find as many books she could find on the subject. Then she had a shock, a revelation when she read L’Esthétique en question written by Edmond Roudnitska. She connected with what he wrote. She tried to read more books written by him but couldn’t find them, so she wrote Mr. Roudniska himself to ask were she could find them. To her big surprise some weeks later, a box arrived with his books. This led to a meeting with him, and some years after finishing her studies, he saw that she was really determined and committed to the art of perfumery. So he asked her to become his student. For six years, she was at his side learning from him.
The extreme discipline and commitment she showed as a young girl was not always easy, but she was determined to learn as much as she could. She was very driven and determined to reach the high goals she had set for herself. Full of passion, commitment, and determination. Parfum was her life!
O: Tell us about the design of the bottles. What is the relationship between the flacon design and a champagne bottle? Why did you create this beautiful parallel?
JOS: We wanted to create a bottle that was unisex, like the fragrances. We don’t believe in male or female fragrances. We also want to express the idea that perfume is more than a smell—it’s something special, something festive. Most people experience some kind of joy when they open a bottle of champagne because they’re usually celebrating a special moment. We want people to realize that a fragrance should be something joyous, too. An expression of an emotion, a special feeling, something selected with care. Also, the sparkling, bubbling part is something Mona wanted to express with her fragrances. She loved sparkling top notes.
O: I can only imagine that it must be hard to carry on the line without Mona. How does she still influence you even now?
JOS: Mona and I worked so intensely together that the company we created together that it almost feels like our child. I know it sounds too big, but it’s almost like she was the mother and I am the dad.
I want to draw this analogy because it hopefully makes people realize that the father understands the child. And even though Mona is not with us anymore, she is always— as she said to me when I was facing my fears—in my pocket. I know the essence of Maison Mona di Orio Parfums because I built it together with Mona. She is, even today, an amazing partner in our ongoing business. My job is to keep it alive and not a “memory” brand touched with sadness.
Mona was young and we were full of future dreams. We talked so much about the future together that I trust myself to carry on with the belief that I will keep following the path we created together. The big difference is that I have to come out of the shadows to become the visible ambassador of our house. I want the story to be told and the house to keep on shining.
O: Who creates for the line today?
JOS: Up until now I haven’t worked with other noses because Mona left behind formulas that had not been released, like Eau Absolue. But in the future, I will work on the collection with other noses. Not to copy Mona—that would be impossible—but a nose who follows our principles and beliefs.
One of these principles is cooperation between our house and Accords et Parfums. Olivier Maure, the director of Accords et Parfums, works with me to uphold the principles of our house. He worked with Mona for 16 years and he understands the house from another angle. He guides the quality and selection of raw materials because without those, a great formula would not be possible.
O: What will we see from Maison Mona di Orio next?
JOS: In September, we will launch something very special to me: the personal creation that Mona made for me. It is a creation that holds echoes of my dreams, emotions, colors, sounds, favorite fabrics, favorite movies, and music. We worked for two years on this creation, and it’s a fragrance that I have worn only for special moments in my life.
Because it is the melody that Mona and I created together, it symbolizes for me the wonderful partnership we had together. After Mona’s passing, I decided to share it so that the story, our story, will be told. It is Violette Fumee, and here the official text:
With the creation of Violette Fumee, Mona composed the melody of my favorite passions, memories and materials.
With flirty florals like violet and rose fumed with pipe tobacco, the exquisite smoothness of cashmere and suede, and deep resinous undertones, this warmly smoldering scent evokes my sensorial love for luxury, and makes me feel, dream, travel and remember.
Revved at the start, crisp, fresh notes of herbal lavender and sparkling bergamot pair with inky oakmoss and get a twist as the scent unfolds into the elegance of vetiver and clary sage.
The shy violet and iconic rose develop into a powdery and gourmand fume and then ramp up as spicy and savory notes of aphrodisiac saffron and smoky bois de gaiac communicate with the florals and begin to ignite.
The smoldering continues as resinous opoponax, myrrh, and musky cashmeran dive slowly into an intense velvety embrace.
I can almost feel Mona’s caress when I am wearing it on the special moments in my life. Now it is time for me to share it.
Top notes: Mediterranean Lavender, Bergamot from Calabria, Oakmoss from the Balkans
Heart notes: Violet flowers and leaves, Damascena Rose, Vetiver from Bourbon, Clary Sage
Base notes: Opoponax from Somalia, Myrrh from Oman, Cashmeran