Hungary Water: Vintage Perfume Collecting
As a country, Hungary may not be well known for its fragrance. Although the first alcohol-based perfume in Europe is known historically as 'Hungary Water' after the 'Queen of Hungary', there is considerable debate as to its specific origins and for whom exactly it was created. The fragrance industry in Central and Eastern Europe did of course suffer significantly due to the affects of socialism - and of the scents that did in fact exist, we hear little or nothing.
But one vintage collector and fragrance enthusiast Viola von Cydonia is on a mission to change that. Viola is uncovering the Hungarian perfume classics, and bringing back the cultural knowledge, appreciation and usage of fragrance to the country of her birth. Her work has also led her to curate exhibitions on scent, and she is currently working on an exciting project with UNESCO - to create the country's first permanent scent museum in the Pannonhalma Abbey.
How did you get into all things perfume?
I became interested in perfumes more seriously a few years ago, but I was always fascinated by how things smell, on an everyday scale. Of course, my understanding of perfume and cosmetics came later, when I was given my first bottle at around three years old, from my uncle who lived in France. I have been collecting perfumes since then.
You collect vintage perfume, in particular that of Central and Eastern Europe. How did this start?
I collect vintage and antique scents, and also contemporary fragrance, as I've been dealing with antiques and vintage clothing for the last eight years – it seemed only natural to combine my love for old things and my love for fragrance. So my collection has been growing for some time, but I'm happy to say ‘goodbye’ if the right buyer comes along. I have a lot of French and English bottles as well. What I enjoy the most is finding rare and valuable pieces, and as the perfume industry in Central and Eastern Europe was not all that significant, it is extremely challenging to find the remains and vestiges!
It’s fascinating how the perception of a fragrance can depend so much on the feel and look of the bottle. Perfume bottles of the past seem to have been much more detailed. Niche fragrance has also put a focus on the juice, as many smaller brands began to use uniform bottles. What are your favourite bottle designs?
I think bottle design is crucial as well as distracting. Nowadays, people purchase products and services with a feeling that they are not only buying the product, but they are buying into the lifestyle the brand represents. So, even if you collect a group of people who love oriental fragrances, you won't be able to sell them the same bottle of perfume. Some of them will prefer a minimalist bottle, some of them an ornate bottle, and so on. I like the innovative classical designs that don’t necessarily suggest what you find in the bottle.
What fragrances have been popular in Hungary? We’ve heard of a famous scent called Red Moscow. What did it smell like?
The fragrance scene largely disappeared with the Second World War, and then socialism. Hungary was a good place for perfumers and luxury products before the wars, but when priorities changed in the economy and doors were closed with political changes in trading, perfumers could no longer use high quality raw materials from France and other countries. They had to dilute the remaining amounts and purchase from communist allies. This is how perfumes became mass-produced, cheap and thinned down in Hungary. Red Moscow is a Russian perfume by Novaya Zarya, and it was composed by Ernest Beaux. It's very similar to Chanel No.5.
In drawing attention to the fragrance industry in Hungary, what do you hope to bring to the perfumery world, and to Hungarian culture?
There is an appetite for perfumes in Hungary, but people were unable to afford luxury scents for decades – and these luxury scents were not available at all until the 1990s. My friend and mentor, Zsolt Zólyomi is on a mission to bring back the lost cultural knowledge of using, understanding and appreciating perfume. He opened a niche perfumery a long time ago, and has appeared on television, as well as giving lectures and courses on perfume making.
You are currently working on a new scent museum at the Pannonhalma Abbey, organised by UNESCO. Can you tell us anything about the angle on perfumery the museum will take? The Abbey was originally founded in 996 as a monastery, and apparently the Baroque refectory has several examples of trompe-l’oeil murals – this sounds like an amazing setting for all things sensory!
The scent museum is going to exhibit and celebrate the main herbs that the Archabbey grow and distill into essential oils and products. They have been doing this for hundreds of years. Our permanent exhibition will concentrate on educating visitors on the smell of these herbs, their effects on our mind, body and soul, and their use in cosmetics and medicine. It's a very exciting and ambitious project that I'm proud to be part of.
The Scent Museum is under construction and is not attached to the main Abbey monastery, however we are working with architects and interior designers to make sure the whole project will reflect on the Abbey's history and heritage (I can't give you exact details just yet!)
You also worked on a beauty and herb centre in Tolcsva in the Tokaj wine region for the brand Helia-D (well-known for skincare in Hungary). A 16th century villa was renovated to explore plant-based ingredients and to tell the long history of the beauty industry including the Hungarian beauty business. Tell us about your involvement with this - what kind of story did you tell?
I was approached by the CEO and Owner of Helia-D, Péter Budaházy to help curate the villa's permanent cosmetics and perfume exhibition, where I introduced cosmetics and perfume uses from Ancient Egypt until now, as well as exhibiting several significant and beautiful items. Helia-D renovated the villa and turned it into a natural beauty centre with courses, exhibitions, herb gardens, and a library.
What do you think people might take away from exploring the sense of smell in a museum?
I think it's important to show the different aspects to how we can smell something, as well as how we can use our nose to recognise the artistic or emotional. All of the recent exhibitions on smell I’ve seen (for example the one at Somerset House) are fun, educational and accessible for people who previously felt that they weren't into perfumes, or underestimated smell and its effects.
Do you think scent museums are able to re-adjust the dominance of the visual – if it is an imbalance?
I definitely think that we don't use our smelling abilities consciously anymore, and it has less significance in art and our everyday lives than vision or taste. But this is changing, with creative perfume enthusiasts like Lizzie Ostrom and Zsolt who bring us the most exciting exhibitions, courses, talks – and ultimately, then, new ways of thinking.
Is a heightened interest in perfumery and the sense of smell just what is going on culturally at the moment, or do you think a new configuration of our senses, where smell is more in focus, is here to stay?
I think a love of perfume and a basic knowledge of it is fashionable right now, but not necessarily the scientific or professional approach to fragrances. I think the enthusiasm for perfume is here to stay. With the fashion world and contemporary arts expanding their horizons, it is only natural that they adapt to encompass more and more mediums, like scent.