ERFUMER STEPHEN CORDINA talks the making of perfume and its joys to Marie Benoît
I have met Stephen, off and on, over several years usually at one of his launches. Whenever we spoke he would share a little autobiography with me.
He was born in Gozo, his father a strict police sergeant. He had come to Malta at the age of 20 years as he had got this idea of doing Aromatherapy and he was going to follow it as it appealed to him. While working on his diploma he felt this simply wasn't enough and he followed it with diplomas in Reflexology and Clinical medicine and Anatomy & Physiology. By now he had decided to become a perfumer, Malta's first, so he trained and qualified in the UK and Switzerland where after qualifying in Aromatherapy he also studied Cosmetic science. He came back to Malta in 2008 and opened a clinic in Baħar iċ-ċagħaq while waiting for Malta Enterprise to allocate him a small production plant.
The things Stephen does and the pace at which he does them make him seem to be all over the place all the time. One moment he is on Facebook, another travelling, launching a perfume, experimenting in his atelier. Some time back I saw a photo of him dressed up as a smart sailor... it turned out he had taken part in a photoshoot. However, he does not dissipate his energies. He knows what he wants and is totally focused on getting it. He is the heart and soul and brains of his atelier.
One day in 2001, as he was walking up Archbishop street, Valletta, he was struck by an imposing doorway. It was love at first sight. He eventually found that it led to the undercroft of the Ursuline Convent and he set his heart on moving his atelier there and opening a boutique. The last time it had been used was by a French artist who had come to live in Malta. It is now Stephen's flagship store and it is bound to become a tourist attraction. It is the perfect address for making perfume. For generations the nuns have made ilma zahar, or orange flower water and biscuttini, utilizing the oranges from their orange grove.
Which of us who have visited Florence have not returned with a bottle of eau de cologne made by the monks of Santa Maria Novella? For the art of perfumery prospered in Renaissance Italy and in the 16th century the personal perfumer of Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589), Renato il Fiorentino's laboratory was connected with her apartment by a secret passageway so that no formulae could be stolen. Renato took his ideas to France and one can say that France and Italy are now the leading lights when it comes to perfume.
Some months ago I met Stephen and he invited me to look around his boutique and atelier and to see what is behind that attractive old door. I was led down a few steps and into a vast 300-square-metre atelier and a completely different world. First there is the shop, beautifully organised, the black and white logo is prominent and touches of purple are used in contrast.
Stephen Cordina, a member of the Société Française des Parfumeurs has spent over a decade working on combinations of essential oils and other materials to create his own private recipe book. Each blend of ingredients, formulated using his knowledge and experience as an Aromatherapist, creates a product which not only emits a beautiful fragrance but is beneficial to health when used. The final addition to each recipe is one or more essential oils designed to target the "spirit" and thus promote a feeling of wellbeing.
It is this knowledge and its application which differentiates the Stephen Cordina collection from the mass produced brands. Personal attention to each production phase, quality control and a passionate belief in the beneficial effects of active plant ingredients lie behind the beauty and success of Stephen Cordina's products.
The boutique is stacked with various sizes of his unique perfumes, hand-balm candles which transform into a moistening body lotion as they melt; there are shower gels, shampoos, bath salts and his sleep-inducing pillow spray; room fragrances and diffusers and his new soaps on ropes, a range of skin care items and the new eau de Colognes and perfumes. "As always, our products are completely natural and inspired by scents," he tells me with a touch of justified pride. He is, after all, the only qualified perfumer in Malta and now a Member of the French Society of Perfumers whose membership is limited to a couple of hundreds from all over the world. They are the chosen perfumers. "Take the Valletta fragrance for instance, which is reminiscent of our capital's merchant past and which contains fragrances from Valletta's history, the main scent notes are Jasmin, Oud and Grapefruit - Jasmin was introduced by the Phoenicians, Oud from the Byzantine times and Grapefruit by the French. Or the Woody & Citrus fragrance, which evokes aromas of natural timber and Tunisian oranges imported by the Knights - making it perfect for this time of year, both are made with natural products," Stephen tells me enthusiastically.
Then we stepped into the atelier and a world of stills, vials of expensive fragrant oils, tinctures, pomades, essences, funnels, mixing bowls and perfume bottles, both old and new. More importantly there is an interesting collection of rare and exotic plant extracts from the Amazon forest and the Atlas Mountains. "That bottle contains Ambergris, which is whale vomit - a very precious material used only in high end perfumes and that is Spikenard which is what Jesus Christ was perfumed with for the Last Supper," Stephen explains.
He is always on the lookout for any artefacts to put in his atelier and has accumulated quite a few interesting pieces over the years.
Before perfumery separated from medicine and the pharmacy was fragrant and redolent of healing herbs, these medieval 'miracle waters' were the first alcohol-based perfumes in Medieval Europe. Citrus peels, along with astringent herbs, were tinctured into what was called then 'Aqua Mirabillis'. This was used both internally as medicine and externally as disinfectant, for relieving sore muscles or simply as a substitute for bathing.
It took centuries before perfume became the personal statement it is today and for that we have Renaissance Italy to thank. This is the story of how the Florentine Medicis and Venetian spice traders brought liquid perfume, or Aqua Mirabilis, to the world. Italians weren't the first to want to smell nice. In fact the urge to surround ourselves with scent goes back much further, at least four thousand years further, to the ancient Egyptians who were massive fans of fragrance.
Stephen explained to me that his Mdina perfume is based on the formula used during the plague to fumigate, "so it has resins, cloves and pine and a citrus extract to kill the bacteria in the air and the bad smell left by the plague." Interesting.
He has also created a Face Mask Spray - once sprayed on the face mask it allows the wearer to breathe more freely. He has creations made to alleviate anxiety and hayfever, common conditions especially during the pandemic.
A night recovery face serum contains evening primrose squalene and Vitamin E. He also has created a face mask serum with GLA, vitamin E and frankincense for those who work on the computer to help protect from the UV. Stephen is very conscious of the environment and his perfumes, candles and so on are made with natural ingredients and offer high quality air care products that are carefully sourced and packed in a way that respects the planet. "What we breathe is what we are," he tells me with a smile.
"A scented home is always welcoming especially during this pandemic," he comments. "Whatever I make whether it is eau de cologne, perfume, candles, air freshener, soap - it will evoke a sense of nostalgia and remind you of the good times hopefully soon to return."
I remarked upon an interesting looking bottle of perfume which did not belong to his range. He told me that a client had brought it from Australia and wanted him to recreate the perfume so that he could give it to guests staying at his hotel. This process of making a perfume from scratch would take from three to six months so an order would have to be made keeping that in mind. Yes, Stephen does 'bespoke' too and corporate gifts can be ordered with a company's own logo. "We've created corporate gifts for the most discerning clients for example a unique scent for Switzerland-based interior designer Eveline Rossi, which was sold in her showrooms; shaving kits in a tailored leather toilet bag for Corinthia Hotels; the custom-created Corinthia candle and scent, with personalised branding and many more."
Stephen oozes good ideas out of every pore. One can barely keep up. He learnt long ago that perfume unlocks the secrets of sophistication, beauty and elegance and has its place in the home too. But it takes many years to become a perfumer. "After six one can be a junior perfumer but it is only after twelve years that you are truly considered to be a Perfumer. That is the industry standard," he points out.
As Stephen opens the door for me to go out I say to myself, yes, here is someone who simply loves what he is doing and does it well.