Last month I invited New York perfumer Kevin Verspoor to join me for lunch at Soho’s Balthazar Bistro. Perfume expert, Michael Edwards had generously connected the two of us via email and after an hour of introductions over the phone, I found myself, the following day, sitting across the table from Kevin, discussing the secrets of Guerlain’s Mitsouko between spoonfuls of chilled avocado soup. I of course had no Mitsouko secrets to offer, it was all Kevin. Like many perfumers of his experience, Kevin is filled with all kinds of stories you will not find written in any book.
With more than 20 years of experience working for perfume companies such as IFF, Symrise and Drom Fragrances, Kevin recently set out on a new journey in his career. He joins a small but growing number of perfumers leaving the major fragrance companies in search of independence. Having created fragrance for everything from Victoria’s Secret to Jennifer Lopez, not to mention collecting a Fifi Award along the way for a niche fragrance signed to Odin New York; as an independent, Kevin is now working on a commercial line of fragrances that will for the first time, carry his own name.
After lunch our conversation continued as we walked the streets of Soho and Nolita. Most of this interview comes from an audio recording I made with Kevin, sitting on a street bench in Mott Street. Along with his love of vintage perfumes and modern music, Kevin was very open and answered all of my questions regarding the perfume industry he grew up in and the direction he has now set out to take.
WMSSL: You are currently working on your own line of fragrances and we have spoken about many of the things that inspire you. Technically speaking, when you transcribe your ideas into a perfume, what does that process look like?
Kevin Verspoor: This is not even a full sketch of how I begin. Kevin produces from his bag an A4 drawing pad. He opens it to a page that is filled with handwritten words and drawings. It starts from an olfactive structure. This one, for example, I have visualised in colours, tangerine and fuchsia. These are the top notes. I want to see a green thread run all the way to the top and it will run all the way to the bottom. I want this to be very fizzy; a grapefruit inspired chypre-styled fragrance. So it’s going to be tangerine, grapefruit, prunol from De Laire, geranaxal, which is a new aldehyde that is fruity and rosy. And fruity notes such as frambinone give it a reddish hue. Then you have the next arc where the chypre accord extends. It’s based on alpha-vetivone, vetiverol, vetiver oil from Charabot, timbersilk, which is a new, stronger version of Iso E Super from IFF and veramoss. I also want to use the new linear musks, helvetolide and romadolide. Then it’s fixed with ambrox notes and naturals such as vanilla, tonka, sandalwood and benzoin so it becomes very smooth and round.
WMSSL: (pointing to the lower area of Kevin’s drawn diagram) so this whole area is talking about fixation?
Kevin Verspoor: Yes. This whole bottom section is fixation. Between your top note and your background you always need a bridge. (Kevin turns to another page in his sketchbook) if you look here, typical bridges that are in the centre of the fragrance are things like rhodinol, which comes from geranium, or geraniol from citronella. Even lavender or linalool and linalyl acetate; they reach into the top but they also reach into the heart of the fragrance.
WMSSL: When you talk about a fragrance’s backbone or bridge, is this similar to our discussion of Guerlain fragrances and that abstract ‘something’ they often have?
Kevin Verspoor: Yes exactly. Even Jicky has it. If you look at it, it has a very long backbone between the bois de rose, sandalwood and bergamot oil. It creates a very long thread the fragrance is stretched over. You get past the bergamot that has a main ingredient of linalyl acetate and the bois de rose’s main ingredient is linalool so it forms a citrus floral accord. As the fragrance progresses you smell Bulgarian rose oil, the civet starts to come up and then the coumarin and balsams come into play. Also added are notes of mint, cinnamon and clove, which are typical 19th century modifiers. What is interesting is when you combine these spices with lemon and orange; it forms a type of soda accord. That’s why they call it the Guerlinade; you can almost drink it. It has a fizziness to it.
WMSSL: From the time Jicky was created, how has the creation of perfumes changed or evolved?
Kevin Verspoor: There was a big shift throughout the 1900s. Until that point it had always been about French perfumery. All of a sudden IFF and Roure (now Givaudan) began to happen. Jean Carles, Germaine Cellier, Francis Fabron and other well-known perfumers of this time began taking all the classic bases they were making and they turned up the volume on them so the fragrances were really in your face. At first the French didn’t know what to do with this new style but they eventually loved it. From the 1920s all the way up until people started becoming more nostalgic in the 1990s, everything that was new was good. The American consumer responded to this and IFF did well. For 30 years you couldn’t touch them. They made Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew and much more. Later Firmenich came out of leftfield and they had all these new chemicals. They had been busy creating oxane, muscenone, norlimbanol and all these new notes, which in the beginning you couldn’t really smell in their fragrances because they used them in trace elements in their bases but this gave their fragrances a juicy, zingy twang, which fragrances never had before. Another thing that happened in the 1990’s was Quest. They were hitting them out of the ballpark with perfumes such as Le Male, Tommy Girl and Angel. Yves de Chiris was running Quest at the time and he came from the Chiris family who were the great distillers of the 19th and 20th century. They invented solvent extraction and sponsored Coty’s business and many of the things Lanvin did. Coming from such a family, Yves de Chiris completely understood the history of perfumery and through him, Quest were able to recreate the classics. For Le Male, Jean Paul Gautier wanted something that was reminiscent of an old-fashioned barbershop and Francis Kurkdjian executed it very well. He recreated the fougere. You had something that smells somewhere between Brut and Canoe. By adding lilial and a bunch of tonalide to it instead of any nitromusks it made it smell very new and it was so big you could smell it a mile away. Thierry Mugler’s Angel is in some way a modern response to people that wear Shalimar. With it they recreated the oriental. Instead of all the bergamot, lemon and the old fashioned notes; they replaced it with their dewberry base, which was juicy enough to handle all of the heavy notes, the patchouli and the chocolate etc. So the thought process is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Perfumers often replace old materials with new ones to achieve something new. And if a material is too new, a company may use it in a cosmetic product first so people become familiar with it. Later they will use it in a fine fragrance.
WMSSL: If companies use this strategy, what is the timeframe for a new molecule or base to sit in say, skincare or air freshener before it would go into a fine fragrance?
Kevin Verspoor: Even just a year. If Estee Lauder uses a new material in a product, within a year millions of people are using it. When calone happened, it was used in quite a few Estee Lauder skincare products, and then they did New West. Calone was a major discovery because like aldehydes, when you add calone to a fragrance, no matter how much you add, it changes the structure of the fragrance from top to bottom. It is a very important ingredient. I think the biggest masterpiece in the calone era was L’Eau d’Issey. It smells extremely simple but it is highly complex. It has many bases in it, an osmanthus base, a muguet base, the oceanic base and it goes on and on. Firmenich often designs their fragrances with bases. Look at a G.C. (gas chromatography report) of one of their fragrances and there will be 120 materials on it. But I know there are not 120 materials in the fragrance. I know they are using Wardia and other bases. Also they are constantly using new materials so you may not have any idea what some of the materials are either. That is what is good about Firmenich. They are always pushing the ball forward as far as new fragrances go.
WMSSL: In this highly competitive market, what makes a good fragrance?
Kevin Verspoor: It has to have a very sound structure. It has to have diffusivity, strength and character. It’s important and you will probably hear all perfumers say that. It also has to have contrast. This will create signature. You can understand contrast by studying the charts of Jean Carles (1892-1966, Perfumer and founder of the Roure Perfumery School. His technique of combining 2 or more materials in consecutive ratios in order to create accords is known as the Jean Carles Technique). You trial back and forth until you find a perfectly harmonic accord or you have something that is dissonant. When it is dissonant or not totally harmonic that is where you can build your contrast. For example in Acqua di Gio, calone’s watery, dewy, oceanic note is contrasted by rosemary, which is very herbal and agrestic. Then oxane is added, which helps support the citrus accord and grapefruit note. Oxane smells hot, tropical, grapefruit-like and super juicy. Calone smells cold, watery, wet and marine. So that is contrast. You put the two together and the contrast creates the vibration and volume you are looking for. Perfumery has been done like this for a long time. Even in the 1700s-1800s, perfumes were built around contrast. They were less contrasted because single note perfumes were popular, but if you look at something like eau de cologne, it is a highly contrasted fragrance. I was studying one of the ancient Egyptian fragrances called Metopian. We think Chanel No. 5 is important as it has been popular for almost 100 years but Metopian was popular for 4000 years. It was a highly contrasted perfume of galbanum, cardamom and myrrh. There are about 7 or 8 other primary ingredients including mint, geranium and spikenard. It was so interesting for me to follow these ancient Egyptian formulas. It was so perfectly balanced that it becomes another smell, which is more pleasant than all of the materials separately. I thought the myrrh would have turned into a bad mushroom thing but it didn’t. It was perfectly balanced. So did the ancient Egyptians understand contrast in perfume? Yes, very much so.
WMSSL: If all perfumers agree on the characteristics of a well-made perfume; what makes one perfumer’s work more appreciated than others? You’ve mentioned Sofia Grojsman and I think of perfumers such as Edmond Roudnitska and today Jean-Claude Ellena. What is it about these perfumers that make them stand out?
Kevin Verspoor: They often create perfumes that have an element of the unexpected. I remember the first time we smelled Terre d’Hermes and Un Jardin Sur le Nil; we were like “whoa, what is that fruity note in the centre and how does it work? Do I smell papyrus or is that jatamansi? What is that?” As a perfumer you are left wondering, how did they do it? I remember the first time I smelled Eternity on someone. The closer I got to her the more the diffusion of the fragrance began to effervesce. Sofia has a very good way of contrasting notes. In Eternity the indole plays against the diffusive lilial and lyral, bits of natural rose and jasmine, which all bounce against each other to create this sphere around the wearer. At the time it was really new. On Sunday I was speaking with Sophia and she reminded me that there always has to be an element of surprise in a fragrance. She said that for most Americans it has to appear quickly. For Europeans it can appear somewhere in the body of the fragrance. When an element of surprise is there, people will be tuned into it. Edmond Roudnitska worked at De Laire for a long time and he had his hands on all sorts of chemical processes. These processes could be applied to a fragrance as they compounded it. Things could be heated and fractionated and worked into the fragrance while it was being compounded. I talked with people who knew and worked with Edmond Roudnitska and they spoke of many special tinctures that were made especially for his fragrances. Edmond Roudnitska took perfumery to a whole new level.
WMSSL: Speaking with you and other perfumers, there seems to be a lot of knowledge that isn’t learned from a textbook. It is passed on from one perfumer to another. How does this work?
Kevin Verspoor: The old way of apprenticing as a perfumer, which they had me do at Harman & Reimer was that you had to work behind the bench as a technician. You had to earn your stripes. Then you were given the opportunity to become a technician to not one but four perfumers who would train you in your specialty. Part of my training was that every ingredient I poured, they wanted me to smell. At first it was a bit much. Eventually my nose turned into galvanised steel. You begin to know each and every ingredient inside and out. A perfume teacher may say, “These are all the salicylates. Dip them all, smell them all and follow them for the next 24 hours.” You would do this, often more than once. By daily smelling and constant focus you innately start to know what the cis-3 hexenyl salisylate that you added into your fragrance is going to do in the top note and in 2 hours what is going to happen in the mid note. You have to know each stage of the drydown for every ingredient. Some are very linear, they don’t change at all through their drydown and some are very complex and they act like naturals which have a top, middle and base note.
WMSSL: So with that knowledge you are able to troubleshoot from a technical perspective? For example, if the jasmine in your formula is not diffusive enough, knowing how important diffusion is, how do you problem-solve?
Kevin Verspoor: The best way to do it, at least for me, is to look at some of the headspaces of jasmine and an analysis of jasmine absolute. I’d look at some of the most diffusive ingredients that are found within jasmine. It could be dihydro jasmone or methyl anthranilate and you would bump those up in your fragrance. It will definitely push the jasmine up and out into the fragrance. You can also use trick elements like celery seed oil, it definitely helps pull the top notes of jasmine absolute and the jasmine accord up and out even further because if you smell cis jasmone or dihydro jasmone they smell celery-like somewhat. Or your indole level could be too low so it has to be increased. It all depends on what type of fragrance you want to create. If you want to create a super clean fresh fragrance you can’t put too much indole in it because you are going to get down into the fragrance and you will be hit by a wall of what is going to smell like bad breath (Kevin laughs). A more sophisticated consumer will understand that but not everybody. Actually they did studies on jasmine fragrances and when they lack indole many people found them to be unpleasant. Fragrances that have the right amount of indole are found to be much more enticing. So it’s not just the beautiful notes that make a fragrance smell good, the ugly notes are also important.
WMSSL: Now you are working as an independent, you have total control over the way you work. What will you change or what do you think is missing from the way perfumes are made today?
Kevin Verspoor: One thing I think is missing is a lot of young perfumers aren’t really living with their creations. For basic projects, they are not given the time. They need to work at a fast pace. I feel for me, I will create a fragrance and then I create another fragrance based off of that. I may even take the fragrance I made before and use it as a base for the next modification. I might wear it for a couple of days and then come back to it two weeks later and then I will rework it again. Some of the best fragrances I have made have been made in this manner of creation. If you look at Guerlain and Caron, the big perfume houses of the 20th century, before perfume became the couturier thing, and even the early couturier’s perfumers; they all worked this way too because they wanted to make sure that the top note, mid note and base note, all three had hook. Now, so many fragrances are only focused on the top note hook and then it becomes a bland melange of vanilla and musk in the background, it’s not really something that the consumer is going to want to go back to.
Kevin and I ended our afternoon of perfume talk over cocktails at Soho’s Pegu Club where I got to talk more with the perfumer about his other passion, music. An accomplished and well connected musician on New York’s dance music scene, it will be interesting to see how music’s influence on Kevin will reflect in his pending collection. What Men Should Smell Like will definitely be watching with interest!