RAMON MONEGAL: THE ARCHITECT OF SCENT
2021 . 05 . 20 |
Family. Tradition. Heritage. These are words that describe very few businesses today, and even fewer fragrance houses. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ramon Monegal, scion to one of Spain’s most renowned fragrance dynasties. While he recounted with great passion the history of the family, the origins of the business, and the creation of his own eponymous brand, his deep-rooted love for fragrance, ingredients, and craft was ever present, leaving their own sillage as we spoke.
The story goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. “My great grandfather, Ramon, was an industrialist and a businessman who owned a chain of drugstores. My grandfather, Esteve, was an artist, a sculptor, but he liked fragrance. This is why my great-grandfather founded Myrurgia: so his son could go into the fragrance business. “ The Monegal family founded Myrurgia in 1916, producing fine fragrances, luxurious soaps, cosmetics and toiletries. “They began by selling in Spain, but had an international vision, and quickly they sold the products in Europe and South America.” Renowned for excellence, they became purveyors to the Spanish Royal Family.
I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in a family steeped in such a rich heritage and tradition. What would family dinners have been like? “I was born and I was immediately surrounded by fragrance. We talked about it all the time! We talked about the factory, the search for ingredients and raw materials because during the time I was young it wasn’t easy to import ingredients into Spain.”
With such strong influences, I assumed it would be difficult for a young man to pursue a different career. “I wanted to be an architect when I was growing up. I used to draw houses, I photographed houses. I had an obsession for architecture. I was studying architecture but during the summer break my family took advantage of that moment to explain to me what it was to be a perfumer. And so during the summers I was trained by a master perfumer who was really the person responsible for making me choose between perfume and architecture. And since I was not the oldest son – I was the second – my brother was going to inherit the company, although he was more interested in economics and business management. So I was the only one who could continue the family business and that’s why I was easily accepted in. “
I consoled Mr. Monegal for having given up architecture by drawing a comparison between perfume and architecture. “Yes, constructing a perfume is a kind of architecture. I think like an architect: I build the base, maybe with musks, and then I construct the building, perhaps with woods and spices.”
Mr. Monegal created his first fragrance for Myrurgia in 1979. “I was very young and my father let me do it. It was a fragrance for young people which was called Alada. My father told me, “Here, you make this one” and it turned out to be a big success.” I asked about the custom of children wearing fragrance. “Spain is the one country where once you’re born, you wear fragrance, so the olfactive memory goes back to the moment of birth. It’s a way of training a child’s nose, and in this case you had something that was pure, clean and gender neutral. For children we use citrus and fruit notes, nothing that has a sexual context. Hesperides notes impart a feeling of pureness, vitality, and energy.”
After the success of this fragrance, Mr. Monegal continued to create fragrances for the company for the next three decades. The house of Myrurgia had many fragrances in the portfolio, but they also created scent for cosmetics. “The smell of cosmetics products is very important, especially powders, but we developed fragrance for soaps, and then the fragrances themselves. We made extraits, lotions, eaux de cologne, fragrances for men, and also lipstick, eyeshadows, powders.”
I mentioned Maja, one of the iconic scents. I told him I remembered buying fragrant soaps from this line when I was on a student trip to Spain (in the last century). Mr. Monegal remarked, “In addition to being a perfumer I was also a master soap maker, and the one for Maja was very well made. We had one of the best formulas in the world for the soap base made with olive oil and it was fragranced with double the amount of scent normally used in soaps. We were recognized for the quality of our soaps. We had another called Flor de Blason that was also well-known.”
I asked about the path to becoming a perfumer and the role. “My training was very strict and very long. Back then, the perfumer stayed in the laboratory – like a chef. But like a chef, the perfumer must go to the market to find the ingredients. There is a big difference between a perfumer who stays in the lab and one who goes out looking for the raw materials. And regardless of the ingredient, its scent will vary depending on the origin. Cistus from Spain is quite different from the Cistus from Morocco. So a “nose” really isn’t a perfumer, but it is the person who is able to distinguish this difference. The perfumer has the imagination to bring the notes together, but the “nose” knows the ingredients very well and knows their origin.”
Mr. Monegal went through rigorous ingredient training in Grasse and Geneva, and he also apprenticed at different periods to master perfumers Artur Jordy Pey, Marcel Carles and Pierre Bourdon, all invaluable experiences. “I could see how they worked, what they valued, how their imagination and creativity were put to use, how they made evaluations. They knew when a fragrance was ready and didn’t need more modification. And that is why I developed a philosophy about perfumery. I don’t think there are good and bad fragrances, there are fragrances that can be worn and others that are not made to be worn. We all know how to create our exterior image with clothes, makeup and so on, but fragrance is an abstract, a mystery that few know how to decipher. We don’t understand the power of communication that comes by way of scent. What is the power of smell? It’s not the esthetic, it’s not to be an accessory – it’s communication. Think about how the scent of flowers attracts bees for pollination. It means the flower is emitting a sexual scent. Think about woods, which come from trees: animals build their homes in the trees and they also have a bond with the roots which are in the ground giving balance and stability. So in a sense, woods are protection, flowers are seduction, spices are excitement and so on. With these realizations I was able to construct fragrances not as an invented story, the way so many fragrances are made, but with all of these ingredients that bring special values to the final creation so they are no longer abstract. I don’t choose ingredients for esthetic reasons but for what they can bring such as energy, vitality, seduction. ”
In 2000, the Monegal family sold Myrurgia to Puig. I asked how this came about. “It was very hard. About a year after my father died my older brother, who had the authority as the inheritor, decided to sell to Puig. I was the only family member who followed the brand over to Puig because Mariano Puig, who was a very wise man, decided to maintain the Myrurgia brand. I continued to create fragrances for Myrurgia and I upheld the values of our company because at that time the two companies were physically and intellectually separate. In 2007 they decided to integrate Myrurgia and make it disappear, so that is when I made an agreement with them to leave.”
When Mr. Monegal left Puig, he knew the time had come for him to create his own brand. I asked if this had been a life-long dream. “As a perfumer, and knowing many other perfumers in my life, we have a certain lack of liberty because we work for someone else. So it is definitely a dream at some time to be able to do what you want. One of the first things I did was to find the boutique while working on the fragrances that would be sold there – fragrances that I would develop according to my own taste. I could explore the ideas I had that didn’t work for the family or weren’t right for Myrurgia, or for Puig. At last I could do what I wanted to do. It’s the dream of every perfumer!!”
When I asked what were the biggest challenges, Mr. Monegal points to his head. “I had a headache every day. Everything was difficult at the beginning. To go from working for a big multi-national company to zero as a small business owner, well there were challenges every day. I learned a lot and my son, who has been with me, learned a lot too. It was the equivalent of a fantastic university, an incredible master’s degree. We launched with 18 fragrances and today there are about 60 or 70 fragrances which we have grouped into collections. The Essentials, for example, are based on my memories and the experiences I have had with certain smells such as the scent I created for my wife for our wedding. I also have a collection of musk scents because I’m a big fan of musk notes going back to my first creations. My family never made any musk fragrances and now I have 4, and I’m developing another one that hopefully we will present in Cannes this year.“
The Monegal flacon is absolutely gorgeous. I knew there had to be a story behind it. “In my house I found an old inkwell that my great-grandfather had given to my grandfather who then passed it to my father who gave it to me. When I was looking for a flacon for my fragrances I realized this was what I wanted. This is a container of a precious liquid that, in the hands of the writer, is a means to tell a story.” Here, the “ink” is the fragrance held within which reveals its own story when worn on the skin. Mr. Monegal used his architectural know-how to adapt the container for fragrance, topping it off with a fabulous Bakelite flip cap. The feel in hand is luxurious.
I asked Mr. Monegal to comment on a quote I found in one of his brand videos: “Perfume is a treasure held captive in the crystal of its container. It has a soul, a presence. It is art.” He told me “It’s true that a fragrance is captive in its flacon because a fragrance doesn’t exist unless it is set free. You must release it from its glass prison. It sits like a jewel in its crystal bottle until it is liberated. And this is why the flacon is so important and must be designed with care.”
CONTINUING A FAMILY TRADITION
Heritage, art and passion: these three words embody the brand values. Mr. Monegal sees himself as the “Guardian of Perfume”, taking on the responsibility of creating fragrances in line with the family traditions. “Now we are into the 5th generation of the family, as my children, Oscar, Laura and Hector work with me. And my grandchild, Ramon, may be the 6th generation because he is already learning how to smell. My role now is to pass on my knowledge, all that I have learned, and maybe that is why I created the brand: to pass it on to my children, continuing in the family tradition.”
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