Health & Grooming

Led by the nose

Aficionados are more swayed by the ‘nose’ behind a fragrance than the brand on the bottle. Vicci Bentley enters the rarefied world of the master perfumer.

October 02 2010
Vicci Bentley

Morale-boosting and character-enhancing, perfume – and our passion for it – is also acknowledged as a socioeconomic barometer: that “something in the wind” that heralds flux or bust. Concerns over last year’s faltering sales will be allayed by optimistic reports from international fragrance firms that trade is picking up again. In the first half of this year, sales at Inter Parfums (which makes scents for Lanvin, Paul Smith and Van Cleef & Arpels) were up 27 per cent to $227.1m, compared with $179m in 2009. And following its successful integration with Quest International, Swiss market leader Givaudan has reported that, during the first half of this year, fragrance sales increased by just over 13 per cent to reach €736m, while sales at International Flavours & Fragrances (IFF) are up over 20 per cent. Indeed, all firms report that prestige scents are thriving.

Yet recession has redefined the market. In strictly sensual terms, loud, showy smells are out and wistfully soothing, simpler scents are in. A recent Euromonitor bulletin reported that although celebrity scents (widely relied on to drive sales) are still holding their own – Jennifer Aniston and Tilda Swinton are the latest names to enter the ring – fewer new faces are appearing on bottles. But since we’ve become partial to putting a name to our fragrances… who next?

Enter the Master Perfumer, the rising star not merely in his or her own lab, but an increasingly significant presence behind the perfume label. For another trend is emerging. Instead of buying scents merely at brand value, the most discerning perfumistas stalk the “nose” who creates the fragrance. Just as fashion addicts have tracked the careers of designers – for instance, Tom Ford’s journey from Perry Ellis to Gucci and YSL – those who have learnt how to unpick a scent’s design now follow their favourite perfumers for their individual style. The nose-following trend began on the internet about five years ago, then gained momentum alongside the surge of blogs and social websites. Scent critics – mostly self-styled – were sharing opinions that were both refreshingly frank and impressively well-informed.

“You suddenly had all these fragrance aficionados coming out of the woodwork,” recalls Dominic de Vetta, global general manager of UK-based company Jo Malone. “They had always been there as passionate, if silent, amateurs, but the web gave them their voice and connected them with like minds.” Blogs such as Basenotes soon established themselves as reference points not only for industry insiders but also for scent lovers seeking signposts through the maze of mass-manufacturing dogging a frenetic perfume market. With key names flagged up again and again, it was clear to see that, given the chance, the noses themselves were giving scent its identity back.

There was a time, of course, when you could pinpoint a scent style blindfolded. In its heyday, the Guerlain family – from the poignantly smoky iris L’Heure Bleue of 1912 to the mouthwatering blackcurrant and jasmine Chamade of 1969 – were instantly identifiable as siblings by the “Guerlinade”, a signature accord of bergamot, rose, orange blossom iris, tonka bean and vanilla. This olfactory gene code was passed down through three generations of grand masters until 1994, when Guerlain was taken over by LVMH. By then, perfumery had become a lot less precious. A new generation of perfumers had entered the mainstream, going flat out for international manufacturers such as Givaudan, Symrise, Firmenich and IFF, working and reworking projects to fit intensely competitive briefs from a rapidly growing number of fashion brands.

Many of these perfumers were graduates of ISIPCA, a progressive academy founded in 1970 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain, which had an unprecedentedly democratic manifesto. To become a perfumer, you no longer had to be Grasse-born and -bred, related to a perfumer or, most radically of all, male. Yet enjoying the credit was still a while away. Well into the 1990s, journalists were led to believe that designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein had weighed out absolutes and wiped their fingers on lab coats to bring us fragrances with their names on. Like embarrassing family secrets, noses were kept firmly out of view.

Nevertheless, “super-noses” were emerging. With the new millennium, fragrance-consultant turned king-maker Frédéric Malle launched his Editions range to showcase the world’s finest perfume makers. “It was an entirely selfish impulse,” admits Malle. “I was working for a large corporation [Roure Bertrand Dupont, which later became Givaudan Roure] and couldn’t get my ideas across. I realised that the current distribution constraints didn’t allow for the creation of big fragrances without making them easy and boring. The blockbusters were trendsetters, and perfumers were forced to create copies of the last bestseller to please a voracious global market. My attitude was that perfumery is an art worth more than the low end of commerce.”

Perfumers are silent, modest, unsung geniuses, says Malle. “My idea was to put things back in place… to publish the name of the perfumers and credit them as authors in their own right, not the usual celebrity or fashion house.” Malle’s “small, friendly” list reads like a Who’s Who of perfumery. The Editions coterie includes Pierre Bourdon (who revolutionised men’s fragrances with global bestseller Cool Water), the creator of French Lover (£85, 50ml), all incense, leather and musk, and its cashmere-soft feminine counterpart, Iris Poudre (£90, 50ml). Another name is Dominique Ropion (creator of Givenchy Ysatis, Thierry Mugler Alien, Burberry London), whose exquisite and explicit tuberose in Carnal Flower (£115, 50ml) has been rightly described as liquid lust.

Then there’s Jean-Claude Ellena (the man behind Van Cleef & Arpels First and Bulgari Thé Vert), who revitalised classic cologne with a massive injection of bitter-orange oil in Bigarade Concentrée (£90, 100ml). Having already established his own niche brand, The Different Company, with daughter Céline, Ellena adored working for Malle. “It was my secret garden,” he recalls. “Frédéric gave me total liberty, which brought me nothing financially speaking, but was a real pleasure.” Malle recalls that Ellena had dreamt of using large quantities of orange oil, beyond the four per cent safety limit set by the industry watchdog. So he had it fractioned (fragmented and cleaned up by molecular distillation) in order to use an unprecedented 50 per cent in Bigarade. “The price was horrific, but he redefined cologne,” Malle says.

In 2004, Ellena moved in-house at Hermès, where his preference for an amber base rather than musk (too mass market) and his restrained style (he has pared down his palette from a possible 1,000 ingredients to around 20 per scent) is reminiscent of his mentor, the legendary Edmond Roudnitska. Hints of Roudnitska’s 1951 Eau d’Hermès – a citrus élan that gives way to the subtly sexy scent of skin after a day smoothing the saddle – are echoed in Ellena’s soignée Kelly Calèche (£59.50, 50ml) and the earthy but nurturing masculine scent, Terre d’Hermès (£47, 50ml). But they’re most apparent in the succinct but eloquent “haikus” of the Hermèssence series. Witness an unusually animated pairing of rose and rhubarb in Rose Ikébana (£140, 100ml); the androgynous intrigue of peppery oakmoss in Poivre Samarcande (£140, 100ml); and, in Brin de Réglisse (£140, 100ml), reassuring yet stirring liquorice and lavender wafted in on the Mistral.

An in-house perfumer such as Ellena ensures continuity, protects brand identity and reinforces the trend back to traditional artisan values. In short, it’s what separates consistently stylish perfume houses from the trend-hungry fashion pack. Thierry Wasser (Dior Addict, Lancôme Hypnôse) is now widely held to have put the Guerlinade back into Guerlain with Idylle (£39, 35ml), his exquisitely soft Oriental homage to his new patrons and adopted father figure, Jean-Paul. Christopher Sheldrake has returned to his roots at Chanel after 22 years with Quest International, where he created over 40 fragrances with Serge Lutens and established his uncompromisingly rich, often curious technique of reconciling seemingly contradictory ingredients. Sheldrake rejoined Chanel in 2005 as director of perfume research and development, reporting to house perfumer Jacques Polge (Coco, Allure, Chance and No. 5 Eau Première). The result has been niche-style editions such as the outrageously patchoulied Coromandel (opening page, £160, 200ml), peppered iris 28 La Pausa (£160, 20ml) and sappy, aromatic Bel Respiro (£160, 200ml) that sit alongside re-tweaked classics in the boutique collection Les Exclusifs de Chanel.

But whereas an in-house tenure undoubtedly benefits a brand, to many perfumers it’s still too much of a closed shop. Residencies offer the best of both worlds – a showcase for their talents plus the freedom to stay in the loop, working in the creative mainstream. It’s a deal that suits both sides.

“Perfumers can get frustrated working in a ‘walled garden’ because it limits their creative expression,” explains Jo Malone’s Dominic de Vetta. When they work out in the industry or with other perfumers, everyone benefits from that extra stimulation, he argues. Jo Malone has co-opted Swiss-born Christine Nagel, a former research chemist and market analyst turned award-winning perfumer who, says de Vetta, is “one of the new wave of modernists in the vanguard of a new approach to creating scent”.

With Eau de Cartier, Lalique Encre Noire Pour Elle and Narciso For Her on her CV, Nagel’s short-form style of using between 10 and 20 key ingredients fits the Jo Malone “modern English naturals” tradition (her mentor, Lucien Piguet, co-created the company’s first bestseller, Lime, Basil and Mandarin Cologne). Nagel’s new work, the balmy, juicy English Pear & Freesia (£34, 30ml), is inspired by Keats’ Ode to Autumn, with quince and rhubarb lending a crisp kitchen-garden edge to its mellow fruitfulness. Nagel contends that working for Jo Malone is her creative bubble, where ideas come from the heart and are open to real consideration. “With large organisations, I work to a closed brief to present instantly commercial versions that are easily acceptable,” she says. “But each time a little bit of me goes in, so when I lose a project, I cry. It’s like a child – I can’t make the same one again with another man.”

Fabrice Pellegrin (whose salty sweet, fig and caviar contrast makes Thierry Mugler’s new Womanity strangely, if suggestively, pleasing) enjoys a similarly creative relationship with boutique perfumery Diptyque, for whom he has created four “eaux”. Pellegrin is known for his essentially spicy, refreshingly unflowery style, and his latest creation, Eau Duelle (£45, 50ml), is a compelling battle of two vanillas – moreishly sweet Firnat and leathery, animalic Bourbon pacified by a surprise overdose of watery green calamus. “All clients want me to create something they’ve never smelt before while pleasing the broadest market possible. But with Diptyque, creative ideas come first and that’s ideal for a perfumer,” he says.

Meanwhile, with nine Comme des Garçons, a couple of Acqua di Parmas and Penhaligon’s Amaranthine to his immense credit, Bertrand Duchaufour is honing his nuanced, “fusion food” approach at L’Artisan Parfumeur. Like a fragrance version of Heston Blumenthal, he exploits “the temporal and spatial links of molecular structures” (in plain language, that’s harmonising seemingly disparate ingredients). In the exquisite Nuit de Tubéreuse (£60, 50ml), his “rooty, vegetal” signature gives the celebrated sexual bloom an almost breathtaking humidity.

That’s not to say that a perfumer’s style is defined by similar-smelling scents. “It’s not the ingredients, but the way I write the formula,” says Jean-Claude Ellena. A good perfumer is a chameleon, able to realise different complexions while maintaining his integral form – a challenge for mainstream players finessing up to 30 formulas in a single week.

The mass industrialisation of perfume has helped foster the maverick cult that’s been gaining momentum since the turn of the decade. Iconoclastic, precocious – and, crucially for their fans, esoteric – the professed aim of this new wave of perfumers is to reset the parameters of acceptability and even, occasionally, good taste. Ex-Demeter perfumer Christopher Brosius (whose potting-shed-ish Dirt gained a fanbase on both sides of the Atlantic) has channelled his energies into his protest range, CB I Hate Perfumes. Scents are inspired by books, movies, memories. Fire From Heaven Perfume Water (£60, 100ml), for instance, which takes its name from a Mary Renault novel about the young Alexander the Great, is at once peat-earthy and incensed. Kilian Hennessy, grandson of the founder of the LVMH group, is gaining plaudits for his fledgling By Kilian range: new Love and Tears – Surrender (£140, 50ml) is a bright but pensive, jasmine-infused floral. Elsewhere, chemistry graduate and self-taught perfumer Andy Tauer has progressed in a swift five years from the raw hit of jasmine in hippie-ish Le Maroc Pour Elle (£90, 50ml) to the more rounded Vetiver Dance (£85, 50ml), leavened with grapefuit and sage.

These are undoubtedly future names to follow. But in perfumery, maturity matters. Last year at IFF alone, more than 80 international perfumers brought 129 scents to market – impressive when you consider that these were the ones that made it out of just under 1,000 briefs. Making perfume is a speculative business. Clients such as fashion houses tender projects to several competing companies who each produce a prototype. But only one will secure the contract – reason enough to trust truly grand masters who, with their sure touch, gently steer you in the direction of scents you may not even have thought of. As Dominic de Vetta points out, “It takes a master perfumer 10, 20 years, or even longer, to reach the pinnacle of their skill. In addition to their artistic genius, what they bring to perfume is finesse and balance, much like a great winemaker.”

Worth trusting, then, is the perspicacity of Belarus-born, New York-based Sophia Grojsman, who began her career at IFF as a lab assistant in 1966, then went on to create global favourites including Calvin Klein Eternity, Lancôme Trésor and YSL Paris. Her cultish and compulsive grapefruit zinger Calyx (£45, 50ml), which is now 24 years old and back on the shelves as sole survivor of recession-hit Prescriptives cosmetics range, gets the full five stars in Perfumes, The A-Z Guide (Profile Books). It is described by scent critic Tania Sanchez as “one of those rare fragrances you could wear all your life”. Grojsman’s “hug in a bottle” signature reflects an emotional integrity and unswerving empathy with her consumers. “Women are unselfish, loving and bloody. The one thing they won’t put up with is false femininity,” she says. And that’s the bottom line.

In their quest for scents with a genuinely distinctive style, bloggers and maverick perfumers are in danger of intellectualising a basic instinct. Better not to lose sight of the reason why we should derive pleasure from wearing them. “Fragrance will exist as long as the mind is working. It gives you personality, identity. It makes you feel alive and well,” Grojsman reminds us. Read the reviews, but follow your nose blindfolded. “I teach new perfumers to pick up ingredients they love, then use proportions they’ve been taught,” says Grojsman. “What I put into my fragrances is love. If it doesn’t work for me, it’s not worth it.” Follow that.

See also

Perfume