The history of perfume making goes back several centuries in Hungary. A highlight was the fragrance created for Empress Elisabeth, Queen Sisi, in the 19th century. The recipe is still known today – although Hungarian perfume craftsmanship now appears to be in a deep sleep. Zsolt Zólyomi, on the other hand, is working busily, using one of the most important noses in Hungary today.
Zólyomi is sitting in his brightly lit shop in Budapest’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. His eyes are closed. “My first real perfume – it was in Versailles, at the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique Alimentaire [ISIPCA]”. The exercise for the 12 students was for each of them to create the fragrance of their respective home country.
He continues, still with his eyes closed: “The fragrance of Hungary – my Hungary. The fragrance of a hot summer day in the hills over the Balaton; the air is sizzling. You can only hear the bees flying lazily from one flower to the other. There is a field of lavenders, it’s dry and smells of sweet, dried hay. This was my basic idea. I wanted to capture the atmosphere on a hot Hungarian summer day.”
Even though this perfume was never commercialised it was still sought-after, since not only his professors valued the fragrance. Still, Zólyomi remained modest.
Already as a child, he knew that he was different than the others, since his hobbies were neither football nor music nor mathematics: He felt the smells. He sniffed at the statues in the museums and breathed in the different smells on the streets of Budapest.
“I used to visit a church quite often. It really fascinated me. When I entered the garden through the gate, the cemetery and then the church – the smell changed and it felt like I travelled centuries back in time.”
How he became the nose of Hungary
Zólyomi has known for a long time that he has a talent for smelling. However, when he decided to become a fragrance designer, there was no such school in Hungary yet – and there is still none.
“The perfume market was blunted, just like many other things,” he says. “Communism made a lot of creativity lost in Hungary. There was one specific way to wash yourself, one way to dress and one way to smell good.”
He searched for a long time for the right school, until he found it in Versailles, France. “They have realised that there needs to be an institution for this large branch of cosmetic industry. Although the ISIPCA is just like a British clubhouse. They hardly let anyone enter, and even if they do, he needs to correspond to certain expectations,” he says with a smile.
“Moreover, there are only 12 places in a class. The world of perfumes is somewhat closed, they don’t like to let unknown faces enter – and in Versailles they don’t really welcome those who are not from France.”
Before going to the academy, the perfumer finished university studies in plant biology, economy and as a biology teacher. He also trained to become a pálinka expert. However, even so he was not able to present relevant experience in Versailles.
“At the time of the application you need to present a list of your experiences among other things – mine was a little but thin. Besides mentioning my work with mainly essential oils in different companies, I said ‘The industry in Hungary is sleeping – and I would really like to get into this school’. I could not offer anything more.”
He had to apply five times before he finally got one of the much sought-after places. “This was 11 years ago, I was 35 back then. Many of my student companions came from traditional perfumer families and they knew the world of luxury cosmetics ever since they have been small children. In the beginning many of them did not understand what a Hungarian man is doing in this class.”
However, the young man from Budapest brought a new perspective – and of course the matter of coming from the land of the Empress Elisabeth recipe.
“As a perfumer, my working environment is very likeable. It’s such a special field of work that my clients usually don’t give instructions about my artwork. However, sometimes, especially when I am working for commercial labels, it does happen.”
Sentences such as, “Yes, this smells good but my favourite flower is magnolia and I don’t smell that in the perfume”, are not that rare, the perfumer with international clientele explains; since although his home is in Budapest, it seems as if he is living all around the world.
This is why Zólyomi does not have a permanent perfume laboratory. However, this is no problem for him, since in many cities there are rooms that are available for travelling perfumers to book.
In creating a new fragrance, first of all you have to pay attention to the smallest details. “There are several hundreds of raw materials that are used in a certain degree of concentration. When the ready-made perfume is sprayed on the skin, first it’s the alcohol, the binding material, which evaporates, then the other ingredients right down to the basis.”
However, the skin needs to smell good in every life phase of the perfume – creating a perfume of such quality takes at least a year. The decisive thing is: the fragrances smell a little bit different on every person.
“Every single little piece of ingredient changes the character of the perfume, even when it is not standing in the foreground of the fragrance. Other scents together can link up to something new and create an association or note, which is actually not present at all,” Zólyomi says.
For him, his work is about constant development – and about feelings. “My art creates fragrances, which call up emotions. I can make an effect without even being present. No one forgets the small of his young age, of his first partner, his grandmother or a hated aunt. Smells are nothing else than emotional paintings about things we remember.”
Zólyomi knows very well that during his work he is moving in exclusive circles. “As a fragrance designer I am working in a very sought-after profession – not many people are able to fulfil the special wishes of their clients just like I do. It makes me happy that I can say I have the luxury that I am even able to delegate a task to colleagues, when I think that they can do better than I would.”
According to him, there are only a few perfumers who still follow the old traditions. Then why doesn’t he concentrate only on important tasks? “It is not worth to fight a senseless competition. We should not allow the million-dollar business to blind us; we should do our profession for the sake of art.”
There are no commercial brands represented in the shop of the Hungarian perfumer. The artist only sells “creative brands”, either his very own or those of close colleagues. However, he also has experience in commercial projects as well, of course.
“During an advertising campaign for an alcoholic drink in Budapest I developed a fragrance which was used to surround guests at the airports with a special cloud of fragrance immediately after arrival. After that, they could discover the same smell in the event rooms they visited too. The aim was to connect the smell with the places and the offered drink,” Zólyomi says.
He also offers personal counselling and analysis for new fragrances in his shop. If the client wishes, Zólyomi will create a very own personal perfume for him or her – which is an especially popular service for newlyweds, as a promotional gift or for businesses and events. He is going to move his shop to larger premises.