Gold has always been more than a precious metal – a substance prized in almost every nation on earth, valued far beyond its innate qualities of infinite malleability, its unique resistance to corrosion and tarnishing. Frequently attributed supernatural properties, in both folkloric beliefs and religious symbolism through the ages, there’s no doubting that gold digs deep into the human psyche. We speak of someone having ‘the golden touch’, a favoured offspring being ‘the golden child’, someone we trust having ‘a golden heart’ or being ‘good as gold.’ A deal may be sealed with ‘a golden handshake’, the streets might be ‘paved with gold’; while ‘silence is golden’ and our most treasured memories filed under ‘the golden years.’ Little wonder that gold has so inspired perfumer Violaine Collas, in her lustrous latest creation for Dolce&Gabbana: The One Gold Eau de Parfum Intense…
For the Ancient Greeks, gold was a metal they dressed their deities in, a substance that’s been quested, treasure-hunted, for centuries. The myths are full of gold, from the legend of King Midas, and the Golden Fleece stolen by Jason, to the Golden Apples of Hesperides with their powers of immortality – gold representing grandeur, wisdom, infinite goodness, and perhaps most of all, a radiant incorruptibility. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, we’re presented with perhaps the first reality dating show cliff-hanger in history, when the Prince of Morocco vies for Portia’s hand in marriage by selecting a golden casket, from three possibilities proffered, as the most suitable receptacle of her portrait. Spoiler alert: with a phrase that’s echoed through the ages as a reminder that appearances can be deceptive, the box is empty but for a scroll inside which warns him, “All that glisters is not gold…” Cut to a close-up of his dawning disappointment to a backdrop of dramatic music. It’s a scene that resonates still because the purity of gold has always been paramount. An early way of telling if a gold coin was real was to sniff it. In fakes, the tell-tale scent of oxides, sulphides and impurities gives them away, as pure gold has no smell. How lucky for us, then, that perfumers work as modern-day alchemists – transforming such ethereal, unscented, abstract notions into wearable pieces of art that speak to our souls. Because when we think of gold, we can almost smell it. We associate gold with simmering warmth, a lustre of radiating sunshine – this tangible scent conjured from a shared evolutionary wonderment. I have been wearing fragrance since I was ten years old, writing about it professionally for the past decade; but this language transferring invisible messages, from the perfumer to the person who’s chosen to wear it, will never not blow my mind.
Wearing Dolce&Gabanna The One Gold Eau de Parfum Intense, there’s a sensation of draping the skin in gilded, gossamer threads, Italian mandarin sparkling atop lusciously ripe plums, juiciness juxtaposed with the subtly spiced piquancy of pink pepper. These notes are hyper realistic, thanks to Jungle Essence™, Dolce&Gabbana reveals, “a revolutionary extraction method, that is respectful to the environment and authentically recreates the olfactory profile of the original raw materials.” As it warms, a joyous floral heart unfurls, rose superessence shot through with a solar jasmine and the luminous delicacy of lily of the valley. Beneath, a burnished thrum of patchouli glimmers mysteriously, rippled through with silken seams of comforting vanilla on a lingering trail of Aurelian white musks. It’s a scent that weaves magic on the wearer, the way a gold highlight grants skin an otherworldly perfection. Now beautifully scented, I was lucky enough to catch up with Violaine Collas herself and discover exactly how she created this liquid gold.
In my years of interviewing the world’s top perfumers, I’ve spoken to many who didn’t even really consider being a ‘nose’ as a career until after they’d studied chemistry. For Violaine? “I was quite young, about 12 years old.” She was “fascinated by all the feelings, the emotions you can get from fragrances,” and describes the uncanny moment “when you can’t yet see anyone, but you catch the scent of their perfume, so you know they’re nearby. That was something very… ‘wow!’ for me.” From announcing your presence to “their ability to play with your brain that much,” she describes being determined to find out how fragrances were made, pausing as she almost whispers the wish that followed: “to make people share my feelings, to have the sensation of sharing memories.” Exploring the world through smell at such an early age, Violaine believes, “was a big gift to me.”
Growing up in a household where gastronomy was key, the smells of cooking are interwoven with her memories of “running into the garden and smelling all the flowers.” But the earliest smell she can remember “is what we call a doudou [comfort blanket] in French. It’s your own smell, really. Something very soothing.” There are olfactory echoes, too, of her mother’s scarf always being scented with the many fragrances she wore; a golden thread of scent memories, if you will, that spooled all the way to studying at ISIPCA, short for Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique Alimentaire. The French school where the crème de la crème in perfumery have classically been nurtured. And if any contemporary perfumer can be likened to having ‘the golden touch’, it is surely Dominique Ropion – the master perfumer who personally tutored Violaine in fine fragrance.
“That was an incredible part of my life,” she beams. “I was very shy, then. Dominique, is not the type to be talking all the time, so when you speak you must be very precise, take your time to listen when the advice comes.” What Violaine most appreciated in working with Dominique, she says, was the liberty he allowed her. “I was completely free to work on what I wanted, the way I wanted,” she explains. “I’m naturally a very straightforward person, so he said to me, ‘you need to work the same way. Have a short formula, because strong, precise ideas are your signature, so stay like that.’ It was wonderful to think I could stay true to myself, express myself in fragrances.” As she talks, I think back to the wish that first propelled young Violaine into perfumery. The need to communicate through fragrance. As she elucidates, though, perfumery is the meeting place of art and science. Because “when you’re working on creative things, you still need to know the rules – what works in the top, heart, and base – but in the end you must choose those raw materials yourself.” And you must choose them with your heart, an intuition only borne of experience. “For example, the way you smell apple might not be the way I smell apple. Once, we were working on creating the scent of a strawberry, and he said, ‘I’d never use those ingredients, but you’re right: that’s a strawberry!’ It was an exchange of ideas.” As a perfumer, says Violaine “you’re still learning all the time. Your skills develop through the years, as you do.’
Now, having developed her own golden touch over the years, it was time for Violaine to evoke gold itself. I was fascinated to learn how scented sorcery begins in the mind of a brilliant perfumer, and indeed, for Violaine, the exact scent of The One Gold Eau de Parfum Intense already existed in her head, before she’d begun on the actual formula. “Oh yes,” she declares, “I had it in my brain. When I create the formula, I then need to make it closer to what’s in my head. If I smell it and it’s not like what I’d imagined, I just have to do other trials until it matches that thought.” But the scent didn’t spring unbidden. There’s a huge amount of research she likes to put in, first. “Before I start work on a fragrance, I like to spend a lot of time thinking about it beforehand. For this one, my thoughts were all about the notion of gold, and then I had a very particular idea about the golden plum.” I imagine a golden lightbulb suddenly illuminating, cartoon-style, above her head as she first imagined that vital ingredient. For Violaine, it was key to evoking “the shiny aspect in The One Gold. Golden plum was perfect, because it’s very addictive, you need to smell more of it.” Our voracious appetite for gold – whether precious metal or expressed in fragrant form – Violaine likens to “the same power a lamp has to a moth – that same attraction, a form of hypnotism.”
The ingredients for The One Gold Eau de Parfum Intense were, necessarily, selected for their exquisite qualities, “because when you think of ‘gold’, it’s all about richness, luxury, expensive raw materials” Violaine discloses. But they were also chosen “for that shiny, luminous feeling. For me the fragrance expresses the character of Sicilian people themselves. It’s sunshine-y, warm, with… maybe a little bit of showing off,” she says, her eyes twinkling. The patchouli was the second golden key that unlocked the door for the finished fragrance, that further step closer to the scent that had previously only existed in her head. “Patchouli oil gives sophistication. And for me, patchouli is golden in my mind.” So, how did it feel to finally smell the fragrance, to know it was right? “It’s very satisfying when you achieve that!” Violaine enthuses, yet gently nudges me away from exclaiming at her genius, shrugging slightly. “It’s an intuitive way of thinking, you know? If I need to write a sentence, it takes me absolutely ages because I’m worrying exactly how I should express myself. But in fragrance, it’s a language I naturally understand in my head.”
Perhaps we all became a little more attuned to the language of smell – the true power that perfume can hold – during the pandemic. Violaine agrees that during various lockdowns around the world, suddenly “people became connected to their sense of smell in a differing way.” Far from plummeting the way lipstick sales did, thanks to daily mask-wearing, fragrance sales soared. And that seems natural too, for Violaine. “They needed to be comforted, to feel reassured with scent.” She speaks of people using fragrance to remind them of happier times, to bring them closer to loved ones they were forcibly parted from, even to travel with their nose and enjoy daily moments of escapism through scent. “It’s magical, isn’t it” she marvels, “how fragrances can make you feel sunny, can bring such joy?” What must it be like for a perfumer, I wondered, to walk past someone in the street and discover someone had chosen your fragrance to bring them that joy? “Well, I mean I’d never say to someone ‘I made that!’ because I’m just not like that.” Violaine hesitates, a glimmer of the past shyness she’d confessed to, perhaps?
At that moment, and I swear this is true, a shaft of sunlight illuminates her face, and she beams while admitting “if I see them trying it in a shop, or recognise it on them, I get this huge moment of pride! You work on a fragrance with a critical eye, searching for faults.” But smelling it on someone else, she says, “is then about pure pleasure for me. It’s satisfaction. You’ve shared an emotion. When I work on something it’s always based in feelings, memories from my own childhood. So, I’m sharing something incredibly personal. I think the only thing that’s similar is an author writing a book, and the way a reader then shares something with them. It always comes back to language.” In the past, wearing a perfume was for going out-out. For luring a partner. These days? “It’s less about the traditional idea of using fragrances for attraction,” says Violaine. “For most people, their perception of using perfume has changed. Perhaps,” she suggests “It’s all about falling in love with ourselves, now…”
Dolce&Gabanna: The One is now exclusively available to purchase at Sephora Middle East and online.
Words: Suzy Nightingale