Interviews Roberto Dario: The Chemist Perfumer of Esperienze Olfattive

Roberto Dario: The Chemist Perfumer of Esperienze Olfattive

09/16/14 17:31:41 (12 comments)

by: John Biebel

Perfumers and those who are very devoted to perfume will often delve into the world of scent molecules, but how many of us actually have the rare opportunity to know them intimately? Roberto Dario is the perfumer of Esperienze Olfattive, an independent perfumery based in Treviso, Italy (only about a 40-minute drive from Venice). He makes perfumes that incorporate some of the finest raw materials available, but with the added advantage of a scientist’s credentials. I’ve observed the development of Dario’s perfume brand over the past few years online, and have been exceedingly curious about the story of Esperienze Olfattive. Recently we had an opportunity to talk together, and I found out much more about what links the laboratory with the flower fields.
Roberto Dario in the lab
John Biebel: So, first: you are a chemist, correct? Can you tell me about your studies in Chemistry?
Roberto Dario: Yes, I got my degree in chemistry in 1990 with a thesis in Chemical Thermodynamics. It is funny that I got involved in studying chemistry because when I was a kid, I wanted to be an engineer. But later in high school, I started to be interested in nature; every kind of subject dealing with nature, and then it seemed to me that chemistry could fulfill these early desires. After the degree, I did some research with some university faculty of a chemical engineering program and when I completed it, I wanted to start working, and I applied to a chemical company down in the south of Italy.
JB: Do you find, for yourself, a strong connection between chemistry and biology? I think perfume really puts these sciences together.
RD: Oh yes; as I say, all nature is inter-related, and the life processes connected with chemistry brought me to develop my organic chemistry skills. So from physical chemistry, I started my new venture in organic chemistry synthesis. That’s when I started to work with molecules, changing them, analyzing them, breaking them, building new structures, and sometimes, as is usual in organic chemistry, the molecules had distinct odors … sometimes good, sometimes bad.
JB: Did you find that these smells changed often during these alterations?  When you were breaking things down, rebuilding them—did they keep changing? In other words, were you discovering new smells in the process?
RD: Oh, yes, of course. I remember working on some hydrolysis reaction to obtain benzophenone, which has a mild rose scent. The starting molecule was the dychloro- derivative with a very pungent odor. But one particular project that aroused my interest was when I was involved in a new synthetic process to obtain coumarin. We were asked to use a different approach than the usual path—(in this case we used the Perkin Reaction) and the smell of coumarin became very familiar to me. I hadn’t thought about these as perfumery materials, but I remember my boss telling me that coumarin was (and is) used by others in the tobacco industry for making scented tobaccos. From that point on, my scientific curiosity was tickling about fragrance and the fragrance world.
JB: Ah okay, I just looked at some information about the Perkin Reaction—this has to do with cinnamic acids, correct?
RD: Yes. In some ways, a very smelly reaction too … very hard, heavy odors.
JB: This work you did, with coumarin, really got you thinking about perfume?
RD: Yes, absolutely. I was lucky because I could access the library at my work place to find scientific articles on the subject. I had the Ullman’s Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, where I had my first serious view of what perfumery was from the chemical standpoint. There was an entire paragraph on the subject, then lots of info on raw materials and the extraction technology.
JB: This is particularly interesting to me because many perfumers are quite removed from the chemical processes behind raw materials. In your case, you BEGAN with the process.
Formulating a bespoke perfume
RD: Yes, I could have a close eye to the entire extraction processes of natural raw materials, from steam distillation to solvent extraction. I worked for 16 years between laboratory and chemical plants.
JB: So fascinating—this indeed gives you a unique perspective. Also, these different processes, they give us such different products, don't you agree?  I remember the first time I smelled CO2 extracted rose oil, and it was like nothing I'd ever smelled before.
RD: Yes, with the development of new chemical and separation technologies, we are facing a new time for raw materials, i.e., from the same raw materials, we can obtain different shades, facets … just by applying CO2 extraction or molecular distillation.
JB: What was the magic moment for you, when you were working in organic chemistry, when you said "I want to start combining some of these scents together …" and it moved from just an idea into practice?
RD: Well, as soon as I started to fill my personal library on all sorts of material about perfumery, I started to buy essential oils too, and you can understand, being an experimenter, I just started mixing, trying to follow my idea of “good for the nose.” Of course most of the mixing fails, but sometimes, good things come out, too. But I understand that apart from the technical side, I needed a new approach, a perfumery approach. I remember the day I was looking at some books at a bookstore and suddenly I found many of Mandy Aftel’s books translated in Italian. Well, that was an initial turning point. I read the book several times and then started to mix following Mandy’s instructions. That was in 2007 and it’s much better now.
JB: Ah yes, Mandy Aftel's book—would this be Essence and Alchemy?
RD: Yes. I was lucky because it was the last copy of the book!
JB: I have seen Mandy speak at a conference, and she is so straightforward and generous when talking about perfumes. It must have been interesting to mix her approach with your very studious/scientific one.
RD: Well, after some time absorbing that, and finishing other books, I felt that I needed something more, to be taught by a “real” person. So then I started my search for a school in 2008.
JB: That leads to my next question—your study in Grasse. Can you tell me about that time, and what you learned?
RD: Oh yes, so I started this search and I set out a budget—and the situation that would fulfill my needs and thoughts was the Summer School of GIP (Grasse Institute of Perfumery). So I applied for the August session and I spent my summer vacation studying in Grasse. It was the best 15 days in my life: living, studying, breathing perfumery.
JB: It sounds like the chance of a lifetime.
RD: The chance to meet people with my own passion, in a structure that releases perfumery everywhere you look—fabulous. I still remember the first time at the jasmine fields in Peymenade, the Sotraflor extraction company. But most of all, studying the raw materials, being guided by a professional, all day long from 9am to 6pm … that was another changing point, for sure.
With jasmine
JB: Tell me what it’s like to do that kind of study—what does it feel like when you are holding the plants, smelling them “in the field,” comparing that smell to the extracted oil smell, then comparing notes with your colleagues?
RD: Immediately you recognize a big difference from the “natural” scent of the living flowers and plants, and the extracted material… and really you prove to yourself that what YOU smell is NEVER what your colleagues smell. It’s so funny, the descriptions that attempt to have a COMMON language or communication when it comes to scent!
JB: A few important things you mention there: First, that you found a difference between the way you each perceived these smells. Also that you were looking for common language. I can imagine this must have been frustrating, but also fun. Do you think, as an Italian, that you have a particular approach to smell that is different from the French, or say the Japanese or Americans? Or do you think some ideas ARE universal?
RD: Ah, a good question. Well, from my experience, there are different ways of smelling because of our history, personal experience and cultural background. Can we meld this together? Yes I think so … or maybe not … I think that even when we agree in words, there are still some “internal” differences between each of us that make us really unique in the scent the world … I do not know if my thoughts are clear, let me use this as an example: I can see RED and communicate to you RED… red is a color that even if I get a slightly different shade of the color, to me and you, red is red.
JB: Right.
RD: With smells, it is not the same … and taste and smell are highly related to personal experiences and cultural backgrounds. I can agree with you that ice cream is sweet or lavender is clean, but my definitions of sweet and clean: Are they the same for you? The internal experiences are difficult to explain even if we have a standard way of communicating.
JB: I'm always curious about that area of the mind where thought and smell meet—it's a bit like semantics where language and thought meet, but in this case, it would be smell. It seems to me there are three distinct places—first, influences (from the inside and outside worlds); second, the work a perfumer does with those influences; and third, the way the scent is then perceived by the rest of the world. What do you think about that idea, and would you agree with that separation? Or do you think there are different stages, different ways that scent is created and perceived?
RD: Basically I agree with you. To add something about which point is important. No matter what I think about my perfumes or what comes from from my influences, what really matters is the third point: How the scent is perceived. When I started to go deep into this world (and don’t forget that we are talking about the mysteries of the invisible world of scents) with all the psychology we can put together, even if I could persuade you that my fragrances are wonderful, there is a time when you are alone and could think: THESE SCENTS ARE HORRIBLE! It is all about business in some way … There is a saying here in Italy that "at the end of the day, you have to put the pot over the fire." I used to think about the psychology involved in scents, and I’m pretty sure that someone can convince someone else about the beauty of something INVISIBLE … but what about when he is alone? This is the difference between making one sale and continuously selling a scent.
JB: Yes, yes—when someone is alone, there is no “convincing” then; then it is only about the quality of the experience.
RD: Exactly.
In the rose fields
JB: I'd love to know what perfume components most fascinate you as a chemist. Are there any that are particularly fragile, complex, short-lived, long-lasting, confusing, that stimulate your imagination?
RD: There are a lot of perfumery molecules that fascinate me and continuously tantalize my chemical curiosity: Hedione is one of them. It was discovered and synthetized while some chemists were studying the jasmine extract components in the early 1960s at Firmenich labs. Hedione is a tiny molecule but with an incredible power for its ability in shaping, giving volume, lightness and brightness to the formulas where it is used. By itself, it smells fresh and floral, but after dipping the blotter it is not readily recognized: You have to wait some minutes to appreciate its scent.
JB: Your perfumes are very striking, really excellent works. I have been sampling them for many days now, and find them to have a lot of nuance and many “faces,” but at the same time, they make bold statements. First, I would say you have brought beautiful melodies together with lavender. What do you think about lavender?
RD: Well, first of all, my lavender work originates from the first “work” I had in extraction technology development. I helped a small lavandin grower develop his distillation skills; that was in 2009. After that, I had as payment a half-gallon of lavandin EO. So I started to declinate lavender and lavandin in several settings. Dressing the lavender was a quite interesting work because I just had to see which dress fit better for the floral and the camphor parts of the “lavender mix” (lavender/lavandin mix). It seems easy. Well, it is. At the beginning, the formula was not bigger than five-six ingredients. The final ones went up to double that number. So lavender was my initiation into fragrance creation.
JB: No, it doesn't seem easy at all! It sounds very complicated, like it would take very sensitive work!
RD: Thank you. The same time that year, I went to Rimini to spend two days with Abdes Salaam Attar, the Sufi perfumer in Italy. That was another experience in more natural raw materials.
JB: what an interesting addition to your education so far!
RD: You have to TALK directly to people in order to ABSORB the best. I am always in search of connections. Several times, back in Grasse where there are some big perfumer friends, to make the story short, in 2010 a world crisis hit my work place …
JB: Oh yes?
RD: Half of us were laid off; we only had state help as laid-off workers. I took that time to develop my personal skills and my personal brand. Even with restrictions, some personal/family problems, and economical ones of course, I started the blog, and went ahead making new fragrances. In 2013, I decided to go officially into developing Roberto Dario Esperienze Olfattive as a start-up consulting firm in perfumery. And here I am now, working for a dermocosmetic company developing new scents, and in the fall, coming out with my new logo.
JB: So it sounds like you took a difficult position and turned it into an opportunity.
Tuberose fields
RD: Yes a great opportunity, and all because I cultivated a passion born at a chemical laboratory desk.
JB: Indeed! I think many creative people often find themselves in such situations—where fate provides them with tough choices, but fortunately you were almost prepared because of this passion of yours you'd been cultivating all along.
RD: Yes, definitively.
JB: Now I'd like to ask about a few of your perfumes. First, to carry on with the theme of lavender, Spicy Lavender. This name is particularly exciting in English because one usually doesn't associate lavender with spice. It's got many darker moments to it —clove, sandalwood, cedar—it's a very woody lavender but with a distinct "zing." Tell me some more about it.
RD: Well, as before, I thought that I wanted to dress lavender in a spicy mode. There is the camphoric side of lavandin that in my mind could sustain the eugenol part of the spices I chose. I wanted it fresh, not warm … plus I like the woods, in particular the dry ones (i.e., Texas-style woods.)
JB: It works extremely well. It's very helpful to see how you highlight the specific chemical sides of a substance. For some perfume lovers, they understand the final product, but are fascinated to know how it actually comes into being. They may not specifically know, for instance, these two distinct sides of lavender/lavandin …
RD: This is one of the first things I learned in Grasse. Once you have noticed it, it is like BOOM!
JB: Eureka!
RD: Lavender is more floral; the concentration of camphor and cineole is less than in lavandin. I have to deal with my chemical background even if sometimes I understand that some topics are not easily understood by fragrance lovers.
JB: Aha!  And I am one of those people who love chemistry, so I'm the perfect listener!
RD: Bingo!
JB: I would love to talk about Dolcedesiderio. Sadly, I do not speak Italian, but the name alone sounds delicious and rather sexy— this perfume is quite different, to me. I saw that you were inspired by a piece of literature for this scent?
RD: Yes. I was contacted by a friend that used to organize small theater pieces with actors. She wanted to give people a sample of perfume that was inspired by the story.
JB: I like the idea of theater and perfume—since they both work in three dimensions and in time.
RD: I read the story … it’s a novel by Dominique Vivant Denon titled No Tomorrow. It is about a secret date between a princess and her young lover in a villa outside Paris … all in one night. There is a short scene when she appears to him naked with a rose in her hand, with the garden all around. That was the inspiration for the scent.
JB: Ahh ... Very romantic… and erotic.
RD: The perfume is a Bulgarian rose (a spicy one) surrounded by a bed of sweet amber notes—a simple idea. The amber background makes it quite vintage, powdery.
JB: But it's very effective. The rose is perfect—a very full, ripe rose in an ambery setting; I really did find it to be like a vintage scent. Were you surprised that it had such a vintage feel to it as you finished creating it?
RD: To be honest I was not searching for a vintage touch; I was concentrating on the rose aspect, and the amber base I used turned the rose accord into a powdery effect, which was not bad.
JB: No, not at all—it's perfect, in fact. But I don't think the powdery part is overpowering at all. It's in perfect proportion to the full rose. I call it success.
RD: It was the first personal fragrance I had to manage working from a brief.
JB: Did you like the experience?
RD: Yes, I was very free here, no boundaries.
At the Venice museum of perfumery
JB: You live so close to Venice—people have so many associations with Venice, with Northern Italy.  You yourself have lived in a few different places, what do you think is special about where you live now?  Do you think there are certain smells around you that influence your work?
RD: Venice is a crossroads between cultures since 1110 AD and you can breathe the history and heritage walking through the small characteristic streets near the canals [called calli in Italian]. It is unique and inspiring. In some places, it’s still possible to find (if you are lucky enough to know a real Venetian resident, far from the crowd of the “noisy barbarian tourists” that visit Venice each day) the real, old Venice.
JB: You’ve told me that you’ve just updated your logo and will be updating your website and packaging as well. Tell me more about that.
RD: I’m going for something that represents ME and my name in the perfumery world. The old logo, the alchemical sign of mixing, surely represents my soul, but now I want to be more effective in the communication of my work.
JB: Do you think you can ever divorce the chemist from the perfumer, or are they always
working together?
RD: Well, I think that they always will work together because I instinctively search for the chemical information available for the smells I meet in my olfactive experience and life. You could call it a professional bias.
Roberto Dario’s perfumes can be found at the Esperienze Olfattive website.
Images: Roberto Dario

John Biebel (johngreenink) is a painter, musician, writer and software designer currently living and working in Boston, MA. He is a graduate of the Cooper Union in New York City where he studied fine art, and he currently works as a software and web interaction designer specializing in human factors. He is a student of the scent sciences and takes particular interest in the history and chemistry of perfumes.


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It's been a while now, since I've translated this interview for our German fragrantica sister, I was interested immedately by this different approach to perfumery. So soon some samples arrived after my curiousity was sparked and oh my! Those fragrances are so lovely, so different interpretations of the lavender theme, from baby soft and flowery, to spicy, and sensual.
Dolcedesiderio is a one of a kind, deep and velvety rose. A must try for rose lovers or vintage lovers I dare say.

Thank you very much for introducing this label, John!


The two of you !
This is utterly marvelous.


I know Roberto and I like how he work:now I must review some perfumes.


Bravo Roberto! Io seguo sempre il tuo blog, continua così!!! ;)


I like that his approach proves both scientific methods and time-honored, traditional perfumery methods (which are mostly not scientific) are needed to produce a lovely perfume.

Great interview and best of luck to Mr. Dario!


I enjoyed this interview very much, as I have a lovely discovery set that was a gift to me from a dear friend. They are wonderful fragrances, and I think Roberto has a great future, as he puts a lot of thought into his fragrances. His lavender fragrances are brilliant!


I have meet Roberto several times at perfume fares in Italy. He is very knowledgeable guy and always something new learn from him.

Great Interview John!

lisa o
lisa o

Nice interview- and very sympathetic. I did the same thing a few days ago: read Essence & Alchemy and wanted to immediately start mixing essences, and did. Wow, how I envy this knowledge of chemistry...and chapeau for someone who has the courage to completely start anew with a business. Great...Good Luck, Roberto.


Some nice things to read:) Thank YOU:)


I read the interview but there is no significant content in the responses. Anyone can tell banality in the same way. This seems to me an interview with a tourist of perfumery. Have you read the blog of this guy at the link? I've just done. I do not add anything else. There was no "real" perfumer to interview?


What an excellent article. One of my fav's John. Brings a great view of all the details to create a scent and the particularities of choosing just the right flower, etc. Great interview. What a perspective.


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