By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Smell is the most evocative of the senses, as Giovanna Zucconi Fonseca & Michele Serra – Italy’s most prominent intellectuals and creators of the eco-brand Serra&Fonseca – know well.
Michele, an established writer and columnist for La Repubblica, with his wife Giovanna, a prominent radio and TV personality, gave birth to a journey of a new kind of language: one that travels through the olfactory sense.
SERRA&FONSECA was founded in 2012, in Emilia-Romagna on a large estate in Val Tidone, a land of castles and oak groves, skirted by an ancient Salt Route, where twenty-four thousand specimens of the finest biological lavender plants are weeded and harvested by hand. The precious yield of just a few litres of lavandula augustifolia essential oil is the core for the creation of this exclusive line of scents.
This exceptional line of solid perfumes and handmade scented candles is available in fine bookstores, boutiques, museum shops (Palazzo Ducale in Venice, Cenacolo di Leonardo in Milan and many others) and gourmet eateries, both in Italy and abroad.
Since words are the daily bread of the eco-journalists and recent perfume-entrepreneurs, one should not be surprised that the Serra&Fonseca signature product was the “Fragrance Book”, featuring an elegant small tin of solid perfume with original short stories about perfume written by famous writers such as Andrea Camilleri and Gianrico Carofiglio.
Giovanna, who is the spirit behind Serra&Fonseca, recently curated the prestigious project VERBA OLENT, a journey into the literature of scents, where the new luxury collection EAU DE MOI was presented in September 2014, in Florence at Pitti Fragranze 12, the international fair featuring the best in artistic perfumery.
Here, Giovanna Zucconi Fonseca reveals all about her fragrance line:
What inspired you to create Serra&Fonseca?
It all started from the earth, since my husband and I live in the countryside, on the hills of Apennine Mountains near Piacenza. The house has a vast nature surrounding it and we wanted to take good care of this little spot of planet, which we were granted the chance to look after. Perfumes have always been a great passion we shared, therefore it came quite naturally for us to connect the dots in this direction, with full respect for nature and raw materials. This business came to life with the intention of having a natural vocation.
In these regards what are the eco-measures in your production process?
We produce lavender, the original one, not the so called “lavandino,” from which we extract an essential oil. It’s all produced on a biological farm, therefore everything is fully certified. In the course of the years as the lavender grew I started working with some “noses” and other perfume masters and through a series of research, experiments, trails and errors we came up with a series of perfumes with other natural fragrances, since the lavender one didn’t fully convince me. My primary goal was to smell the true essence of these natural elements such as vetiver, rose, patchouli and so on.
How do the two of you work together on Serra&Fonseca?
I follow every step of the way. Michele, playfully says he’s like George Clooney for Nespresso–he obviously jokes but takes it very seriously. We work in collaboration with Aboca, which is a company that makes biological health products.
As journalists, what’s it like to dedicate your time to a more tactile and sensory activity?
It’s fantastic. We’re both also very practical and connected to nature. Dealing with perfumes doesn’t differ much in the amount of care and research as the intellectual journey, even in the mere making of a concept of a product. Michele and I have always been engaged with nature, as a means to ensure a higher quality of life. That is why when we got married the first person we asked to celebrate our wedding with us was Carlo Petrini, the founder of the International Slow Food Movement. It’s not a radical-chic attitude, it’s part of our nature to care about nature (forgive the word play).
How is the olfactory sense literary to you?
My very first approach to perfume was linguistic, because smell is a means of communication, it’s built as a form of expression just like music and arouses a series of emotions and calls back memories.
Did this idea inspire ‘Verba Olent’ at Pitti Fragranze in Florence ?
I was asked to curate this exhibition, which aimed to explore how in literature poets and writers discussed perfume and smells. For Verba Olent we selected only literary classics. Poetically speaking I think the most exemplary is ‘The Song of Solomon’, which is a mystical and carnal love connected to smells, fragrances, balsams, unguents; Baudelaire too is enchanting and at the same very complex, for the way smell is connected to other senses. I was particularly struck by a chapter from ‘Moby Dick’, that explains the extraction of ambergris, which traditionally is a very rare and precious ingredient. Melville in his novel explains the history of ambergris, which today still exists. This ingredient is obtained through the substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and initially has a faecal odour. As it ages it acquires a sweet and earthy scent. In fragrances there’s always this contrast betwixt celestial and fiendish. Süskind had portrayed this in his novel, ‘Perfume’ so brilliantly.
How eco-friendly are the materials used in ‘Eau de Moi’?
Our new line has an eco-luxury international target, without neglecting the attention to the environment. For instance the carton tubes that contain the fragrance – designed by a famous artist of the 20th century, that I can’t name yet, since we are closing the deal with the museum – are recycled. The company that produces them is from Veneto (therefore everything is entirely Made in Italy), and uses solar panels. My candle supplier works with extremely high quality standards, which are certified ecologically speaking with great attention to gender equality in employment and fair trade conditions, and attention to water recycling.
How eco-reliable are the so called “natural” products?
Our products are completely certified, but they do contain some synthetic elements that are of extremely good quality. I distrust those products that are said to be made entirely out of essential oils and can be harmful by giving allergies or are manufactured by exploiting workers. Essential Oil can come from cultivations that either aren’t biological, or ethically fair.
Can you give me an example in reference to one of your products?
Candles are a very good example: there’s a marketing vision that promotes soy wax, but if this is a GMO soy (as in most cases), it’s much worse than using a paraffin that is treated according to sustainable measures and is purified, like the one I use. I think that the concept of “natural” has to be always explored in full depth and cautiously both as concerns the creation of the fragrance and the one of raw materials.
Is this why your fragrances are “solid perfumes”?
Absolutely, because they don’t contain alcohol and can be used very easily by swiping your finger from the container to your body. It’s more delicate, if you sunbathe it doesn’t give sunspots, and it’s also a very sexy gesture: the touch. As a matter of fact in history, for centuries, the first perfumes were solid. By reprising this tradition I also wanted to create a “pocket fragrance,” something you could slip into a bag and take with you while travelling, that could be evocative.