It’s a scent that started with a sin­gle child­hood mem­ory. Specif­i­cally, a mem­ory of rac­ing across an ex­panse of sea-green maiolica tiles on the ter­race of a hill­side villa in Posi­tano, warmed by the Mediter­ranean sun, the air waft­ing with the pun­gency of the Tyrrhe­nian sea sparkling far be­low. It’s a beau­ti­ful im­age, full of ro­mance and nos­tal­gia – but a fairly es­o­teric thing from which to cre­ate a sin­gle scent, much less a small per­fume em­pire. Such, how­ever, was the ge­n­e­sis of Eau d’Italie, the sig­na­ture fra­grance that’s in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked in the minds of those who love it – and they are le­gion – to Le Sirenuse, the ho­tel in Posi­tano for which it was cre­ated. The site of the scene de­scribed above, it’s el­e­gant, im­mac­u­late, and syn­ony­mous with the glam­our of the Amalfi Coast.

In 2001 the ho­tel was cel­e­brat­ing its 50th, re­calls the Ro­man-born for­mer film­maker Ma­rina Ser­sale, who with her hus­band, Se­bas­tian Al­varez Murena, cre­ated Eau d’Italie, which would go on to pro­lif­er­ate into a multi-fra­grance col­lec­tion. “My [late] un­cle Franco [Ser­sale], Le Sirenuse’s owner, wanted to throw a big party that Oc­to­ber, and they in­vited ev­ery­one. Long­time guests from all over the world, as well as ba­si­cally the whole vil­lage – you can imag­ine the won­der­ful­ness it would have been.” But then the 9/11 at­tacks hap­pened.

“Ob­vi­ously ev­ery­thing just halted. No one was fly­ing, the ho­tel was com­pletely empty,” she says. So in Oc­to­ber, An­to­nio Ser­sale, Franco’s dap­per son – who now owns and runs the ho­tel with his wife Carla Par­avicini Ser­sale – de­cided to in­vite a few peo­ple down for his birth­day in­stead. Among the guests was Ar­gen­tineborn Al­varez Murena, who would be­come Ma­rina’s part­ner in both busi­ness and life. “We all got to­gether again soon after, in early 2002, to dis­cuss other ways to cel­e­brate the ho­tel’s 50th; re­ally we were just play­ing with con­cepts. Some­one came up with the idea of cre­at­ing a fra­grance, which ev­ery­body loved.” Al­varez Murena had re­cently left his job as a dealer of leaf tobacco; the doc­u­men­tary Ser­sale had been about to shoot in New York had been scup­pered by the at­tacks. “So it turned out that Se­bas­tian and I were the ones with the most time avail­able to make it hap­pen,” she says.

Al­varez Murena’s back­ground had pro­vided him with some train­ing in aro­mas; but nei­ther had ex­pe­ri­ence in per­fume pro­duc­tion, “though both of us had al­ways grav­i­tated to­wards what are now called ‘ar­ti­sanal’ scents,” Ser­sale notes, and wanted to cre­ate some­thing in that spirit. They met with Ber­trand Duchau­four, one of France’s most ac­claimed “noses”, who has cre­ated fra­grances for Commes des Garçons, L’Ar­ti­san Par­fumeur and Pen­haligon’s, among many oth­ers. The three got on well, and Duchau­four was in­vited to Le Sirenuse. “We had de­fined what we wanted to do, which was to dis­til an essence of Posi­tano,” says Ser­sale. “Ber­trand wanted to know about my mem­o­ries of summers here; and one of the strong­est was of rac­ing An­to­nio and my sis­ter Gi­u­lia across the ter­race where Le Sirenuse’s pool now is, which used to be cov­ered in these beau­ti­ful green tiles. We’d start at the restau­rant end, and who­ever made it to where the pool bar is now first was the win­ner. I re­mem­bered the hot, dry smell of the tiles, and the sea, and vines grow­ing on the ter­race. It was re­ally the most won­der­ful part of my child­hood.”

Forg­ing a scent from a child­hood rec­ol­lec­tion was an in­ter­est­ing ab­stract in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise; “but it also needed to smell good, clearly,” says Al­varez Murena. At the time, Duchau­four was ex­per­i­ment­ing with new mol­e­cules – syn­thet­ics that carry their own sig­na­ture note. “There was one in par­tic­u­lar, called argile,” re­calls Ser­sale – a min­eral molecule com­bi­na­tion (argile is French for clay); it be­came the base, around which were “em­broi­dered” a hand­ful of care­fully se­lected notes. Among these were frank­in­cense, berg­amot, sweet yel­low clover (“there’s a lo­cal species of it that grows up and around the moun­tains above Posi­tano,” says Al­varez Murena), and black­cur­rant buds (“ex­tremely, trans­port­ingly fresh, fresher even than citrus,” Ser­sale en­thuses).

The process took two years; ini­tially fam­ily mem­bers dis­cussed it reg­u­larly, but once the nec­es­sary du­ra­tion be­came clear, she and Al­varez Murena took own­er­ship. “Peo­ple weighed in, of course – though Franco was ac­tu­ally anos­mic, so couldn’t smell any­thing; he’d just say, ‘I don’t know, is it good? What do you guys think?’” re­calls Ser­sale. “But it was, in all the ma­jor points, a col­lab­o­ra­tion. Gae Au­lenti, for in­stance” – the pro­lific ar­chi­tect-de­signer who had just cre­ated Le Sirenuse’s thrillingly con­tem­po­rary jewel box of a spa – “was at the ho­tel once when we were there, and she came in and smelled it, and adored it. So even she was sort of tan­gen­tially in­volved.”

At the time, the idea of a ho­tel hav­ing a sig­na­ture scent was unique. But what re­ally put Eau d’Italie on the map – and what to this day brings par­tic­u­lar joy to its many devo­tees, and lends it as much ca­chet as does the scent it­self – is its stun­ningly beau­ti­ful pack­ag­ing. Bold, colour­ful and con­tem­po­rary, it is as at home on a shelf in the bath­room of a down­town Man­hat­tan loft as it is in the pris­tine white-tiled bath­rooms at Le Sirenuse.

“The ob­vi­ous thing would have been to go for a baroque, heav­ier style, given the ar­chi­tec­ture and pe­riod

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