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An artisanal conversation with Bertrand Duchaufour – esteemed French Master Perfumer

Stagnation is something that is quite bothering, especially during the critical period like now with cities lockdown, confinement and business closure, it seems like something is getting stuck, yet, I believe in one thing, we might not be able to control the macro environmental issue, but, we can always control our thoughts over it by doing something positive and productive, and that’s what I’ve been doing in the past months, such as during last weekend, after dedicate my time to conduct my routine job search, I visited a fragrance boutique owner friend of mine, to have some casual talk, at the same time, revisits his specially curated fragrance collection. During our chat we’ve discussed about my own fragrance creation again (well, I remember I’ve talked about this three times but it still seems like an intriguing topic to him, apparently), and then we talked about some world renowned perfumers and the process and so on, this friend is extremely intrigue about fragrance (otherwise he won’t be running his own fragrance shop), and he kept asking me a lot of questions about why I shouldn’t do my fragrance in certain way, from positioning and perfumer selection etc., what I realized, is that saying is always easier than done, for a fragrance boutique owner might be skilled at curating brands or fragrance creation (s)he likes, but making one is a much longer journey, and takes more time, effort and resources, I can tell as I’ve been there, but, how much do I really know about the work and effort from a perfumer’s side of story? This seems like a bit of a mystery.

The process of making a customized fragrance, yes it sounds like we are going to a fragrance creation workshop, mixing some of our favorite scent into a small bottle under the guidance from an expert, then it will be done within few hours for a small bottle (a side note here, few hours of creation only occurs if one is clear-headed enough to know what (s)he wants), however, if you are thinking of turning this small bottle of customized fragrance into a product and sold, the process is relatively different unlike simply mixing a glass of special cocktail for your TGIF night, or, pressing a button of a soft drink machine to let the juice comes out in few seconds in your pre-selected scents and flavors, on contrary, it’s more complex than that, so, that evening at home after the chat with my fragrance boutique friend, I was having some thoughts while sniffing some of my beloved fragrance collection by my dining table, including ‘Gardez moi’ of Jovoy Paris which I got back in few years ago, and, ‘L’invitation’ of Alex Simone Monte Carlo, at the same time, the question keep prompting in my head:‘how can I lay out this picture clearly for those who are interested to know about the making of fragrance?’, and just like that, a light bulb suddenly lights up above my head! If one wants to find out the answer, the best way is to ask the perfumer himself. Just when my eyes were staring at the two fragrances in front of me, I then think of the perfumer behind them, who is the esteemed French Perfumer, Mr. Bertrand Duchaufour.

For those who are fragrance connoisseurs and collectors, the name of this reputed French perfumer will not be a stranger to you at all; born in Nancy and having been working in the perfume industry, with his hard work and constant pursue of his passion, he subsequently established his reputation on creating refined fragrances, Bertrand has been the in-house perfumer for French niche fragrance house, L’Artisan Parfumeur, back in 2008, he also created high quality fragrances for numerous luxury fragrance and fashion houses, from Christian Dior to Givenchy, Penhaligon’s to Acqua di Parma, Bertrand has been recognized as one of the most remarkable French perfumer in the world, and for this time, I am very thrilled and honor to have a conversation with this esteemed French perfumer, to share with us some insights about perfume making, and its relation with style, and more.

My Modern Darcy: Hi Bertrand, it’s been an honor to have you here in MMD. First thing first, can you share with us what intrigues you about fragrance? And what motivates you to become a perfumer?

Bertrand Duchaufour: Hi My Modern Darcy, very pleased to meet you and thank you for this very kind and flattering introduction. Perfume world is intriguing, it is the fact, and it is the first reason why I choose to follow this path. Path: actually, it’s a good term as well: fragrance is a kind of a path, you can follow it for finding back somebody who wears it, or bypassing it if you don’t want to meet him. A fragrance is a presence meanwhile you have your own. A presence which can precede you, an entity, a silhouette which changes your own while wearing it. A presence which is still there meanwhile you have left a physical place. It is a strong modificatory of personality: it makes you stronger, more self-confident, it appeases you, reassures you. As I wanted to be an artist, they were all the more reasons to choose perfumery, thinking that was, at the very moment I begun, something really different to express myself.

MMD: Like yourself having create countless perfume for different world-renowned fashion and fragrance houses, can you tell us what is the most memorable experience you had?

BD: I had a lot of very good experiences, with different brands, different interlocutors, but L’Artisan Parfumeur and the briefs proposed by its artistic team (Marie Dumont, and Paméla Roberts at that time) remains the most beautiful because they proposed me to work on olfactive representations of very original trips: Mali, Bhutan, for example which remains certainly the best ones. Nobody before them proposed such a beautiful idea which allied in the same time, a creation and a travel: a double and concomitant adventure beginning the exact day of the flying to destination. It was like a dream, a double research and with my skill for drawing and painting, I could even triple the way of expressing my feelings, amazing experience indeed.

MMD: Can you share with us how’s the process of making a fragrance for a brand / client looks like (e.g. duration)? What is/are the most challenging part(s) and how did you overcome them?

BD: The process can be very, very different from a customer to another. Depending on the brand he represents, of the personality of my interlocutor. The fact is that it is more interesting for me to have a lonely interlocutor than being front of a marketing headless team. But some pretend to hold and create a fragrance brand while they are completely incompetent and without any olfactive skills, or even worst, without having any sensitivity at all, they just go after business, so, it is a real pity and I confess.

I can stay one year on a project because of the lack of reactivity of my interlocutor, as it can take few months, one month, a day…..One thing is very sure, the success of a fragrance doesn’t depend on the duration of the creation, in contrary, sometimes, a very good impulsive idea gives a much better result than a long research for turning around… around what? Sometimes a client doesn’t know what (s)he wants, but (s)he is really aware of what (s)he doesn’t want! And it’s the worst of all the way of doing, a nightmare for me.

MMD: In your opinion, how do you define a qualitative fragrance? And what are the essential elements that a refined fragrance should have?

BD: There are four basic keys for a good fragrance, whatever can be the way of creation, and whatever can be its global shape of creation:

  1. The originality of the fragrance, meaning its strength of innovation; Very difficult to get!

  2. Its diffusion, meaning its volume, its “sillage” this is THE keyword, because it is the most efficient advertiser of the fragrance itself;

  3. Its quality of composition (meaning the presence of beautiful natural ingredients. Despite everything we can pretend, it is helas! Not the first quality of a fragrance. You can do a very rich fragrance… but not something good!);

  4. Its long-lastingness which is not the most important even if consumers are looking for it before all (a pity!).

MMD: What is your thought about the evolvement of the fragrance, either the style or consumer’s perception, from the past to present days?

BD: My thought is very negative because it represents a global image of how is evolving the world: consumers are more and more looking for being different by wearing many things, meaning consuming more, consuming different but not better! They confound differences and quality, they confound possession (the number of fragrances they can have in their “collection”) and personality is the proper character of a fragrance which could give to the consumer a strong own signature. I mean a fragrance should be an embodiment, a personal signature for the wearer meanwhile it is just a showing-off way to represent himself. We are not in the way of BEING but in the one of HAVING.

MMD: I read that you are excel at smokey and woody accords, grey and purple hue; can you share with us some of your favorite scent(s), and what appeals you so much about them?

BD: Yes, I usually like what is large, deep, profound (Frankincense, other resins, natural woods.) more inclined to appreciate base notes than fresh top notes, but still, I really challenge myself to work all the palette and the spectrum that perfume creation and all its ingredients can propose.

MMD: Let’s talk about style, how do you relate refined fragrance to a gentlemen’s lifestyle?

BD: Style? yes actually a good way of wearing fragrance is like a good cloth suiting perfectly the body it dresses whatever can be the silhouette wearing it. But the deal is more challenging because it is not only a question of shape. Fragrance is as well an alchemy between an odorant mixture and a skin. A fragrance doesn’t suit to every skin, it’s impossible, so it needs a serious research.

MMD: What is your fragrance recommendation(s) for a modern gentleman in the summer?

BD: In summer, things are luminous, light and fresh so… just do it: choose something luminous, green, fresh, aqueous and light. Aqueous is important for counter-balancing the fact that (in Europe more precisely…) air is drier during summer; In Hong Kong, the way should be a bit different, as you have a more moist climate, drier effects would be more appropriate, dry woods mainly even if they are overlying watery notes.

Nothing to do with what Arabs in Middle-East are looking for. They protect themselves against hot, heating temperatures by using deep, damping effects fragrances: resins oud, chypre effects.

MMD: As an expert, can you tell us what is the proper way of applying a fragrance?

BD: it can use it on certain parts of his/her clothes if (s)he doesn’t mind to stain it, an easier solution to wear fragrances (s)he appreciates. The second way is to wear it directly on the skin, where the blood is flushing with (neck, wrist, heart region…) consequently, the choice of the fragrance will be trickier because it depends on one’s skin. The quest is deeper, but the result is surely more personal!

MMD: If someone comes to you one day, and ask you how to become a successful perfumer, or, to create a refined fragrance, what is/are your advice?

BD: Strong personality, patience, pugnacity, and a very profound feeling of what can be faith. Because everything is a question of quest, and faith. The perfumer needs to be an artist, that’s the second sinequanone condition for me. Personal conviction.

Special thanks to Mr. Bertrand Duchaufour.

Image courtesy of Bertrand Duchaufour.

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