I’m going to present to you one very special corner of downtown Belgrade. It’s a place of history and a spirit of Belgrade long gone. There are no bright neon lights in the window, no big signs. Like in an alchemist shop from Harry Potter books, there are glass bottles of various shapes and colors, occasional vintage camera or typing machine. Behind them, in the shop, smiley face of the host, always ready to talk, greets the customers. He is the last perfumer of Belgrade – sir Nenad Jovanov. Craft and passion towards perfume he got from his father and this little family shop exists more than 70 years. Over the years, the number of articles grew smaller but sir Jovan’s passion for perfumes and customers, some of whom come here for 50 years, kept the shop going. It was an honor and privilege to talk with someone whose whole life and world is dedicated to perfumes and whose perfumes touched the lives of so many – famous and ordinary people. Interview that follows is just a part of a long talk we had on perfumes and perfume industry.
IGOR: What do scents, perfumes mean to you?
NENAD: I grew up in a family where scent was a means to make ends meet. The conditions I lived in left a mark on my perception of perfumes. I never felt any kind of pressure to dedicate my life to perfumes, even though it was a family business. My father was a kind, gentle man who encouraged not pressured. Scents to me are a bit more than they are to ordinary people who use their sense of smell to determine what is pleasant and what is not. I determine places, people, and situations using my smell. Belgrade is a city with city smells. Parks, markets, bakeries, shops are permanently imprinted in my smell memory. The best memories from my childhood are Soko Stark’s shop in Knez Mihailova Street and the scent of chocolate breaking. Magical smell of coco and vanilla. Waiting in line in that shop was magical because of the smells. As far as perception of how a person smells, every one of us can, if they concentrate hard enough, register the scent of another person even though we usually don’t do that in everyday life. I’ll be honest, certain persons who are dear to our heart may not smell pleasant and I’ve met many not so pleasant persons whose natural scent was very pleasant.
IGOR: How do people choose perfumes in your shop?
NENAD: They often pick and choose one perfume; the one they grew used to and got a lot of compliments from friends, partners, and associates. Sometimes their attachment to a single perfume last for decades. The problem is the nose gets used to the perfume and stops enjoying it. That is why changing the perfume occasionally is good, at least for a while. I always recommend my customers to use at least two perfumes so they could enjoy them.
Photo: Jelena Vucetic
IGOR: What makes a perfume good?
NENAD: We are inevitably personal, despite trying to maintain objectivity, when we are talking about perfumes. A nice scent from a bottle, bolter or tester is one thing and a nice scent from a person another. We all have scent imprint. How to reach your scent? Take a long shower with warm water and do not use any soap or, if you must, use an odourless product. Do not dry yourself during the summer and on winter gently dry your body using a towel that wasn’t treated with conditioners. Be moderately active and half an hour – 45 minutes later your body will start producing its own personal, individual scent. Crook of an elbow and the back of the knee are the spots you can sense it best. Knee point is for acrobats or that special someone but we can certainly smell our elbow.
Same perfume varies – a little or a lot – depending on the scent of person’s skin.
One time mother and daughter came into my shop. I applied both the perfume they asked for. While serving another customer I saw the looks on their faces. The girl was smiling and she liked the scent but her mother had a sour look on her face. She was very displeased. I was surprised by her reaction because it was one of those perfumes that please a lot of people. I asked her to let me smell the part of the skin I applied the perfume on and was so surprised because what I felt didn’t match the perfume in the bottle nor the scent from her daughter’s hand. The key is in the ph value of one’s skin. The more base type the skin is the better the perfume. Women have more musky type of skin, but there are gentlemen, although not so many, who can wear anything. When a customer has more base skin type, it will be difficult to find a perfume.
IGOR: What are your favourite scent notes?
NENAD: I like notes that are heavy – musk, spices. I personally like more aromatic scents. I respect lighter notes and lately I need more of the light, casual scents. There are many young people who come here looking for something more discreet because of the dress and scent code at work. So I suggest to them either more discreet perfumes or I make them eau de cologne or eau the toilette instead of perfume.
IGOR: What is your opinion on modern systematisation of scents?
NENAD: Pyramid cups are not untrue and are easy enough of a topic to talk about. But by mixing the scents you get something completely new. And in the conglomerate of aromas you cannot spot individual notes. It is better to describe the scent or get a sample. Right up to the Night of the museums, when we made a series of perfumes called Belgrade night; I could make a perfume out of the ingredients I had in the shop that matched almost every sample people would bring to me. Right before World War Two, fantasy combinations were popular, especially in Paris. They created custom made perfumes that required around 70 ingredients. After the war, when Europe’s market began to open again, brands became popular…everybody wanted to smell like movie stars.
IGOR: How much are perfumes male or female?
NENAD: We need to go back in the past. Since the 1990s a huge amount of male perfumes can be called universal. That is not the case other way around. Once it was believed that all flower, vanilla and sweet scents were feminine, while masculine had tobacco note. And in my experience as perfumist, I rarely had a male customer come in looking to smell like a dominant flower. Perfumes on their own are not male or female, they just lean into one or the other side.
IGOR: What is a good perfume?
NENAD: Chanel 5 is a good perfume. It was launched in 1921. and while there is civilisation Chanel 5 will exist. When civilisation disappears so will that perfume. There were many great perfumes, made by famous authors, which sooner or later disappeared. Individuals remember them and want to have them but time and everyday life habits change and people turn to other perfumes. I also yearn for a few perfumes that are gone. But perfumes like Chanel 5 or Guerlain Shalimar stand the test of time. They are timeless.
IGOR: Your favourite perfumes?
NENAD: For ladies – Guerlain Samsara. It is not a perfume for everyone, but that femininity, that quality suited well a good percentage of ladies. Today, the original version is almost impossible to find. Then, there is Byzance from Rochas. Molyneux Fete fitted certain women like a glove. As for the gentleman – basic version of Jean Paul Gaultier, Minotaur Paloma Piccaso, Nautica.
IGOR: What is the future of perfume industry?
NENAD: Sadly, since the 1980s when Cartier put a gilded cap on his bottle, 55 or more percent of perfume price goes to packaging. I remember Mister Schneider from Givaudan who was so surprised the amount of money placed in the packaging and not the ingredients. But that is the way the world is, package before substance. Synthetic ingredients are not such a big problem because there are some that is almost impossible to differ from natural ingredients. That way the price of perfumes would be significantly lower and they would be available to a larger number of people which would be a positive result of aroma chemicals. The reasons why there are less and less natural ingredients are also economic, political, and historical. I am not worried for the future of perfume industry. I am sure there are new perfumes waiting for us, perfumes we couldn’t even imagine before the growth of science.