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War Of The Noses - France's Luxury Brands Battle Over Top 'Authors' Of Perfume

From the flower fields of Grasse to the crystal perfume bottles sold in Paris, the process of creating a best-selling and enduring fragrance like Chanel N°5 or Poison by Dior is a long and delicate journey in a cut-throat business where competition and poaching are the norm.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Perfume as art (By Kilian)

PARIS - “I take my nose out, especially when nature 'gives itself a shake' after the rain..." So declares Jean-Claude Ellena, the "nose" of Hermès, speaking in his office at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris.

Since the day he joined the Parisian label in 2006, Ellena, who comes from Grasse (“the world’s perfume capital” in the South of France), has managed to give leather and couture brand Hermès legitimacy in the world of perfume.

“Producing lilac perfumes for the sake of lilac? I’m too old for that!” he states. “I enjoy conceptualizing the scents and giving life to abstract notions… Using a minimum of ingredients to attain a purified fragrance.”

Rather than copying nature, the fragrance virtuoso prefers to “create olfactory illusions”. This is the idea behind the very successful Terre d’Hermès and Voyage d’Hermès perfumes, which helped the brand rise to the top of the men’s fragrance market.

Since then, the trend of noses has spread. While most companies use big perfume labs like International Flavors and Fragances (IFF), Givaudan or Firmenich as subcontractors, luxury houses prefer to hire their own perfume creators.

In 2006, Christian Dior poached François Demachy from Chanel; in 2008, Guerlain hired Thierry Vasseur (ex-Firmenich); and at the beginning of this year, Louis Vuitton treated itself to the services of Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, the master perfumer from Grasse who created L’eau d’Issey and Dior Addict.

Maurice Alhadève, perfume consultant and Dean of the Superior School of Perfume in France, explains that “mentioning the ‘author’ of a perfume, like you would drop the name of a top chef, is a recent phenomenon”. “They are put in the spotlight by the luxury brands who want them to become a sort of creative spokesperson, the face behind the exceptional know-how.” Alhadève’s school, which opened in September 2011, imparts five years of training for future noses and perfume creators.

Fierce competition

Between 800 and 1,000 fragrances are launched on the world market each year. In that context, star creators are needed in order for their products to stand above the rest. “In the past ten years, the competition between noses has become much tougher because at the end of the day, only a very small number of them will be hired by a luxury house. Most of them are working for creation studios in direct competition with each other,” points out Jacques Polge, who has been working as a nose for Chanel for thirty years.  “The key to success is curiosity… as well as being able to grasp the Zeitgeist, that is to transform your time into a scent,” adds the creator to whom the couture house (which owns its own fields of flowers in Grasse as well as its own factories) owes Coco Allure, Egoïste and Bleu.

Some noses, such as Francis Kurkdjian, the creator of Le Mâle by Jean-Paul Gaultier, prefer to be self-employed. Kurkdjian founded his own perfume house in 2009. He sells his own creations, which include Aqua Universalis (a bottle of 200 ml costs 150 euros). Others hope to be chosen by Frédéric Malle, who in 2000 was the first to have the idea of 'curating' perfumes, just as a gallery owner curates a work of art. In Malle’s shop in Paris, each perfume bottle has the name of the nose written on its label. And others, such as Calice Becker (J’adore by Dior) and Sidonie Lancesseur, work with art directors such as Kilian Hennessy who founded his own perfume house, By Kilian, in 2007.

Perfume as art

“One day, as I was admiring the precious perfume bottles of the last century on exhibit at the Baccarat Museum in Paris, I felt almost ashamed: it made me realize that fragrances deserved more than the mundane production I was a part of," the former L’Oréal executive remembers. “Just like an increasing number of people want to dress in an original way, some women don’t want to wear the same perfume as two million others,” Hennessy adds. He sells his creation perfumes at 175 euros per 50 ml bottle.

Romano Ricci, 34, trained with his grandfather Ricci, the creator of the famous L'Air du Temps fragrance.  Juliette has a Gun, the “dissident” brand he created in 2006, is sold in over 600 outlets. “I create fragrances as a weapon for seduction that women can wear in different ways, from the most naive to the most self-assured,” he says. His perfumes have names like Lady Vengeance or Not a Perfume and are sold online for about 70 euros per 50 ml bottle.

“We are getting back to the tradition of the perfumer as an artisan, a craftsman, like in the 18th and 19th centuries, but with a contemporary vision,” sums up perfume expert Maurice Alhadève. In some perfume houses, you can order a custom-made scent: expect a minimum of 8,000 euros at Kurkdjian and a maximum of 40,000 at Guerlain.  The price is 30,000 euros for a made-to-order fragrance created by Mathilde Laurent, the official nose for the jeweler Baccarat since 2005. It comes in a 750 ml gold-and-crystal bottle. The jewel-like perfume costs about what an elegant woman would pay for a haute couture dress. And like the dress, she will be the only one wearing it.

Read the article in French in Le Monde

Photo - By Kilian

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