Sunday, 18 September 2011

A Bonkers Grand Tour: My Serendipitous Sniff-In With Zsolt Zólyomi, Hungary’s Only Perfumer – Part 1

The Roja Dove Of Central Europe

Towards the end of the Bonkers Grand Tour – so called because it took in eight countries in under three weeks – I found myself in Budapest on a Monday with no appointments. Thinking this might be my one and only visit to the city, I decided to spend the day sightseeing. After four hours of pounding the tree-lined boulevards and clambering up and down the hill to the famous castle district, I was making my way back to my hotel, decidedly weary and footsore by this stage. Having recently enjoyed two days of dedicated perfume sniffing in Dresden and Vienna, perfume was not on my mind that day as I strolled through the pedestrian precinct behind the riverfront.

Suddenly, however, I spied an upmarket clothes store with what appeared to be a niche perfume boutique at one end, called Le Parfum Croisette.

“Oh, okay then”, I thought to myself. “I’ll just stick my head in quickly and see if they have anything I don’t know...”

As I stepped inside, I immediately spotted the Dutch Puredistance range of perfumes facing the doorway, and flashed a grin of recognition at the proprietor, who was sitting in front of the display on a bar stool. Perhaps sensing that I was no ordinary punter, he invited me to take a seat on the other stool, and we ended up chatting for the best part of an hour and a half.

And if I was no ordinary punter, the owner of Le Parfum Croisette was most definitely no ordinary owner of a perfume store. For he turned out to be none other than Hungary’s one and only perfumer, Zsolt Zólyomi. Is there a particular term for that – “solinose”, perhaps? I was lucky to catch him in the store in fact, for he has so many other scent-related projects; indeed the boutique itself is as much a showcase designed to raise public awareness of niche fragrances as it is a sales outlet - if not more so.

In the course of our chat, Zsolt gave me a quick rundown of the history of fragrance in his country, which has its roots as far back as the 14th century. For Hungary contributed the first alcohol-based perfume ever made – L’Eau de La Reine de Hongrie – an astringent cologne containing rosemary oil, which was said to have rejuvenating properties. Whether frequent dousing in her eponymous water had anything to do with it or not, Queen Elisabeth certainly lived to a ripe old age.

Then during the Communist era in the 20th century the fragrance industry in Hungary was suppressed as an elitist indulgence, and it is only now that people in Central and Eastern Europe are starting to discover fine fragrances and embrace the concept of luxury goods generally. However, Zsolt feels he has his work cut out in promoting the cause of niche perfume lines, for Hungarian people’s tastes have not evolved very far: women typically favour accessible scents – either quite sweet perfumes or fresh florals such as D & G Light Blue. They are easily swayed by advertising and tend to follow the crowd and whatever brands are “in” at the time. So not unlike everywhere else, then...!

Fired up with missionary zeal to revive Hungary's perfume traditions, Zsolt is deploying every means possible to further the cause of high end fragrance everywhere “east of Prague”, seeing himself very much as an ambassador for perfume. He plans to launch a Perfumery School for students from the CEE countries, and open the first Hungarian Perfume Museum.

Some day he would also like to create a brand of perfume that captures the essence of Hungarian culture. This may not be it, but he also fancies creating a scent with a burnt smell. "Aha", I said: "That sounds a bit like Christopher Brosius of CB I hate perfume and his Burning Leaves". Now I am not sure quite what style of burnt matter Zsolt has in mind, but he is clear that it must not smell like a particular type of Hungarian cheese which also boasts a burnt aroma, thanks to the way it is matured I think (I am afraid I can't remember the specifics!).

But meanwhile, as Hungary’s only perfumer, Zsolt already has an awful lot on his plate...

His fragrance consultancy service is wide-ranging: he creates commercial perfumes for brand owners (Rajul and Nubia, a mixable His & Hers range commissioned by Emeshel, a US "lifestyle brand" with Hungarian roots. The perfumes complement its existing line of high end jewellery, crystal and sculptures.) Zsolt also creates custom scents for private clients (including the wife of actor Roger Moore), and for use in corporate gifts (eg candles). Additionally Zsolt produces scented events aka "olfactive animations" - “from weddings to fashion shows, from theatre acts to product launches and parties, where I choose or create the best ambiance fragrance matching the event".

Another type of service is the tongue twisting “interactive olfactive animation”, where Zsolt might give a talk, and involve the audience through scented games or quizzes, or a spot of fragrance consulting or a mini-demonstration of the art of perfumery.

In addition to his roles as pundit, educator, marketeer and all-round scent evangelist, Zsolt is the author of a book on perfume: Le Parfum 2000. It was in Hungarian, but on flicking through I was reminded of Roja Dove's later work, The Essence of Perfume, with its general overview of the subject, historical approach, and illustrations of scent bottles and adverts down the ages.

I was also keen to hear the origins of Zólyomi’s love of fragrance. It turns out that he was fascinated by smells from an early age, and a year spent in Libya aged 10 fuelled his interest further. Rajul for men is inspired by the coastline of Zsolt's adopted childhood home, and blends the tangy scents of grapefruit and sea salt in a whimsically suggestive bottle.

Zsolt trained as a plant biologist originally, and later studied at the ISIPCA in Paris, the school for postgraduate studies in perfume, cosmetics and food flavouring. He qualified in 2005 and set up Le Parfum Croisette in 2009. I clocked the following ranges, with a full listing available on the store's website: Puredistance, Frapin, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Atelier Cologne, The Different Company, Juliet Has A Gun, Etro, Penhaligon’s, Reminiscence, Odin and India brand Sahlini (of which more anon).

Part 2 will cover what we actually sniffed, but there is one final amusing tale to report...

One of Zsolt's "olfactive animation" projects involved creating an ambient fragrance for the Kogart museum in Budapest. "If you are quick and walk as fast as me, you'll be there in 15 minutes", Zsolt said brightly, so after I left him I hotfooted it up the museum, only to find two buildings bearing that name, both of which had just shut.

Outside the first building a female member of staff was standing on the doorstep, possibly waiting for a lift home. In vain did I try to explain that - as per my original intention with Le Parfum Croisette itself - I just wanted to stick my head inside the door, in this case to sniff the air and satisfy my curiosity about Zsolt's ambient "scent installation". The girl spoke no English, so in the end I nipped past her and stuck my head inside the open door anyway, ostensibly to illustrate my point! The foyer didn't smell of anything.

So I headed on to the other building called Kogart, which was more or less next door. Its restaurant at least was open, and there were a couple of security guards loitering in the empty eaterie. They spoke some English and knew all about Zsolt's museum fragrance. "It's expensive stuff!" one guard remarked, "but it isn't used here in the restaurant, and the rest of the building is shut now, sorry."

Ah well, that was too bad, but my serendipitous encounter with Zsolt was more than enough excitement for the afternoon. Another reason to go back to Budapest some day... By which time, Zsolt may have come up with his own quintessential Scent of Hungary. If so, it will be 100% his own creation, and will not have been focus grouped beyond all recognition. For somewhere in our chat I mentioned in passing what I do for a living, to which came Zsolt's laughing reply: "Ha! I don't do market research."

I like him all the more for it.

Photo of Eau de la Reine de Hongrie Water label from, photo of Rajul and Nubia perfume range from, photo of Libyan coastline from, other photos my own


  1. Another fascinating post! How wonderful that you got to meet Mr. Zolyomi! I know exactly 1 person from Hungary and have long wanted to visit. Such a history! 'L'Eau de La Reine de Hongrie' sounds familiar-maybe from a post at 1000fragrances (Octavian).

    When I travel alone and am feeling a little shy about sight-seeing, I think of you and your travel adventures. It gives me the courage to just 'get out there'.

  2. Hi Cymbaline,

    Thanks for your kind comment - it will be a while before I clear the "backblog" of posts from my travels, but at least I have made a start with the lowdown on Zsolt Zolyomi!

    Yes indeed, Octavian wrote about L'Eau de la Reine de Hongrie, and as you might imagine - coming from broadly the same neck of the woods - ZZ and Octavian are acquainted. I think they may even have been to the same postgrad school, though not at the same time.

    And you are so right about the need to "get out there". On that Monday I had a headache - possibly a hangover from the 9.5 hour train journey the day before - but I thought I should make the most of my day off regardless. The headache lifted by and by and I am so glad I didn't just catch up on some kip, as I was very tempted to do...

  3. I'd like to visit Budapest at some point in the future - and now I know where to head first!

    Has anyone dodne a traveller's perfume tour guide?

    Someone should.

  4. Hi Marie,

    I am sure you would like Budapest - it is like a warmer version of Helsinki, with more twiddly bits on the buildings.

    Re the book idea you suggest, I don't think such a thing exists, although people like Denyse and Pia have compiled walking guides to Paris and London respectively. I guess I am gradually chipping away at the other European cities - I must have featured at least 10 by now in individual posts - though I still have a long way to go before I've covered the ground!

  5. "More twiddy bits on the buildings"! That was a fascinating article , good luck to the man and if we are lucky we will all have access to his fragrances one day . I am fascinated by Hungarian feltwork coats worn by the horsemen. Rupert of the Rhine ( Charles 1sts nephew too ) and must check if he had links to Hungary . I used to love Crabtree and Evelyn's Hungry Water , alas it is no more . I love the look of that castle..great republican me !!

  6. These trips of yours are full of wonderful perfume encounters (even when you're not actually planning them). :)
    I'm glad to hear Zoltan is such a lovely person and I hope I get to go to Budapest soon and visit the store. :)

  7. Hi Angie,

    Hungarian feltwork coats, eh? How interesting. I believe Fragonard still make Hungary Water - have a look on their website. Whether to the exact same formulation I can't say. The original sounded rather bracing.

    Oh actually, that is the parliament building opposite castle hill - will try to work in a picture of the castle in my next post, if I have one. The cafe shot is taken from the hill, looking down at the parliament across the river. You may just be able to spot some twiddly bits in the distance through the arches...

    : - )

  8. Hi Ines,

    This perfume encounter was right out of the blue, indeed. I do hope you can get to Budapest some time. Not as far for you as for most people in the fumehead community!

  9. Must get myself to Budapest asap! Zsolt seems very nice and very much on a mission, which is great, and he looks quite cute too....

  10. Hi Olfactoria,

    "On a mission" is exactly right!

    Zsolt shares his birthday - the day if not the year - with Katie Puckrik, which may or may not be significant. : - )

    For Katie is definitely on a mission of her own, what with all her TV appearances, "Fume Finder" cell phone app etc.

    And Budapest is also very convenient for you - even closer in fact than for Ines.

  11. What a fabulous incident of serendipity! Many thanks for taking the time to share it here, as vicarious travels and encounters (particularly yours) have provided me with many entertainments and learnings.

    This is a very interesting person, Zsolt is. (I very nearly called him a Person of Interest, but wish to keep relations with those east of Prague and west of Labrador on an even keel.) I am intrigued by his story--as I am of just about any person who has gone deep into perfume, but of course. Besposke scents in the mix, you say? Botany in the background? Big plans?

    Speaking of big plans, his scope and excitement remind me of Christophe Laudamiel, who has some similar goals for a museum and training more toward this longitude, and who struck me as an intelligent, enthusiastic, kind person in the flesh, and whose perfume creations have been very artistic/innovative. Glad there are people like this emerging across the globe.

    I saw that birthday observation. It really is always there, isn't it? ;) And thanks for reminding me to try to hook up with Katie's Fume Finder app.

    Welcome home.

  12. Hi ScentScelf,

    Thanks for the good wishes - it is lovely to sit at my own desk, make cups of tea whenever I fancy one, and generally not be in motion.

    But travel has a lot to commend it, and my Budapest visit was a major highlight.

    That is a good parallel you evoke with Christophe Laudamiel, whose video about telling the difference between a good and bad perfume I recall seeing on KP's blog, along with his intriguing mohican quiff thingummy.

    He is definitely in the "educator camp", and glasspetalsmoke put it: "never misses a chance to evangelize the fundamentals" of the perfumer's art. And I happened to use the word "evangelist" of Zsolt Zolyomi... How great that you had the chance to meet him - he also sounds most inspiring!

    Yes, the birthday thing is always there. In an idle moment some time, I may conduct some analysis into the astrological distribution of perfumers. It works a treat for boxers, so I am quite hopeful.

  13. Thank you once again for taking us on your travels with you. It is so wonderful to read about a perfume shop I've never heard of, a perfumer I've never heard of, etc. etc. etc. I crave the new and unexplored. Apparently, I must go to Budapest.

  14. Hi anotherperfumeblog,

    Yes, I see the makings of a Hungarian Sniffapalooza taking shape...

    Oh and I owe you a big thank you by the way, for pushing me into the arms of your wedding scent, La Tulipe! Belated congrats to you both - have been away... : - )

  15. Hi Veeee! I didn't realize you back yet and just checked in to see if anything was new. I'm so glad I did! You can't imagine how excited and touched I felt by reading this. I am so proud of you for exposing all these perfumers and parfumeries, that would otherwise go unnoticed by most of the world.

    I can't wait for your next Budapest installment.

    I have to agree with olfactoriastravels. Zsolt is cute! Mr. Bonkers will have to be very charming this week, I think ;-)

  16. Hi lovethescents,

    Yes, I am back, though it will be a while before I have caught up with myself! There is the small matter of 23 interviews I still have to copy up, which I am just getting stuck into...

    I was glad to feature the Hungarian perfume scene, and glad it came and bit me on the nose, as it were, for I surely wasn't looking for it at the time!

  17. I forgot to mention how pleased I was to read that Sahlini was displayed there as well. I hope you had a chance to sniff them....I'm sure if you did we'll read about it soon :-) Sahlini intrigues me. It isn't Indian, in fact, but a French range created by an Indian woman who was adopted by a French couple when she was a child. Like a soap opera, right? Okay, I'll stop now and wait for more later :-)

    Good luck with your work!!!


    In my reply to Angie above I said that Hungary Water is still made by Fragonard, though I remember thinking when I looked at the note list on their website that there was no rosemary mentioned, which struck me as odd at the time.

    Anyway, Zsolt has now caught up with this post and has kindly given me the correct gen on this scent:

    "Fragonard's Eau de la Reine de l'Hongrie has nothing to do with the original formule, what you may only smell at Osmothéque in Versailles - being a sharply fresh citrus-cologne with rosemary with not much lasting power -. as it was rather a hygenic spash water cologne-ancestor of the time."

    So we need to get ourselves over to Paris to smell the real deal!

  19. And here is some more background on Zsolt's association with Octavian, whom - given more of an overlap in their studies - he would have liked to have got to know better:

    "As far as I remember Octavian went to an EFCM class the year after my Fragrance Academy class - so we met 1-2 times in the classroom in Versailles."

  20. How very interesting they (Zólyomy and Laudamiel) are of a generation, so to speak, of the Academy. It is true, an "educator" -- especially the evangelization GlassPetalSmoke refers to. It's the kind of conversion you willingly submit to, mind you.

    He was inspiring, and that as a sidebar in the session to (the also enchanting) Patricia de Nicolai. I am glad these folks are around...and super glad that circumstance conspired to put you across the counter from in happy conversation with one such. (A proposition that requires some awkward prepositions, it would seem.)

  21. Hi lovethescents,

    Interesting that you had come across Sahlini already - it was a new one on me but I also liked the story behind the brand! Zsolt gave me a sample of my favourite one to take away, and I did sniff the other two on card, so yes, these will be featured in Part 2... : - )

  22. Hi ScentScelf,

    That's right, and we did talk about the generational thing - also in relation to Francis Kurkdjian, who is from Zsolt's neck of the woods (well, more to the east actually, but it is all relative!), and also of an age. Born the same year as Laudamiel, and one year older than ZZ!

  23. Hi Everybody!

    I'm a hungarian perfume blogger and I'm very glad to read about Zsolt and our amazing Budapest:)

    In Hungary a lot of people like good and unique scents, and we're proud of Zsolt..:)

  24. Hi parfümblog,

    Thanks for commenting and I am very glad to meet you here! Budapest was beautiful, and I had a hard time picking out my favourite photos to illustrate this post - will use some more in the next one.

    As I said above, if most of the people in your country prefer the more accessible, mainstream fragrances, while a minority have discovered niche scents, that is pretty much like anywhere else in the world... : - ) Though given enough time, Zsolt is the man to turn that ratio right around wherever he goes!

  25. Thank you for the congrats, and I'm so glad you're enjoying La Tulipe.

  26. Hi anotherperfumeblog,

    You bet! I will be looking out for this one in future, though I don't think I need 100ml...

    : - )

  27. oh very cool!!! As with Marie, I know where I'm heading first time in Hungary!

  28. Hi Bloody Frida!

    ZZ has said that he would welcome visits from other foreign bloggers to his store. He just requires a bit of notice to make sure he is in town and not otherwise engaged on one of his many other fragrant missions!

  29. THanks V - but I would head to the museum first to get a sniff of that! ;) (I'd be too shy to attempt to meet ZZ unless you were there too!)

  30. Hi BF,

    Shy? Toi? Not the Bloody Frida I know... : - )

    Though the museum would be a good place to start anyway! Get our noses in the Zsolt Zolyomi Zone, as it were.

  31. Or the "Zsolt Zolyomi Ozone", even, given his love of the seaside...

  32. Hi Vanessa,
    Enjoyed reading your travel report (I'm on a vacation so I don't get to my reading in time). Budapest isn't on my short list of places I want to visit soon so it was interesting to read your story.

    On an unrelated topic: I believe La Tulipe comes in 50 ml bottle as well.

  33. Hi Undina,

    Hey - I wouldn't really expect you to do any blog reading on vacation! : - )

    I must admit I was quite curious about Budapest, following a friend's visit in February. I have been lucky with the travel opportunities my work brings me, so have already visited places like Prague and Krakow which are in the same general vicinity. Zagreb is most definitely on my short list now, having narrowly missed seeing Ines on this trip!

    And thanks for the tip off about the smaller Byredo bottles...