Last year I had the fortune of a brief introduction to French perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. We were introduced in Florence at Pitti Fragranze, one of two annual perfume events in Italy. I was there with The Perfume Magazine and Bertrand was there, no doubt to support the numerous niche perfume brands that have one or more of his creations in their collections. Bertrand is known for his prolific work. Not only is he the “perfumer-in-residence” at the French house L’Artisan Parfumeur and British label Penhaligon’s; his name is credited to perfume titles by Aedes de Venustas, The Different Company, Neela Vermeire Creations, Acqua di Parma, Parfums MDCI…the list goes on. These brands are diverse in aesthetic and geography yet the one thing they have in common is the desire to produce the world’s most innovative and qualitative perfumes. Speaking with Bertrand, I understood why he is the preferred perfumer of these houses. Not only are his perfumes celebrated for their originality and beauty; there is integrity in his work and the perfume houses he works with are aware that Bertrand’s nose for detail comes at a cost. After launching his career inside some of the world’s biggest perfume manufacturing houses, Bertrand has carved a niche for himself. Now the perfumer has the luxury of only accepting projects that allow him to work with the raw materials of his choosing, and this can be expensive. His passion for quality raw materials means he is constantly looking for new sources. This month his travels have brought him to Tasmania and Western Australia. Unfortunately his schedule was tight and he was unable to include Sydney in his itinerary. Instead of meeting the perfumer face to face, we arranged to speak while Bertrand was in Perth. My phone rang and the voice on the other end spoke with a heavy French accent, “hello Clayton, this is Bertrand speaking. Betrand Duchaufour the perfumer.” After reintroductions this is how our conversation unfolded.
WMSSL: Bertrand, no doubt you have inspired many young perfumers; do you remember your first olfactory memory that inspired you to become a perfumer?
Bertrand Duchaufour: The very first memory was when I was 16 years old, when I left my province and I went to Paris. At that time I met a girl who became my girlfriend. She was a student like me and she was passionate about perfumes. She wore Chanel No 19, a beautiful fragrance and I was completely amazed by this fragrance on her skin. Until then I had no interest in perfumes or any kind of scent. She had a collection of several perfumes, so through her passion, I discovered a lot of fragrances. I would say that this was my very first discovery of perfumes. It was a long time ago.
WMSSL: Before you discovered perfumery, what had you planned to do as a career?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I had more or less the idea to do what my elder brother and father had done. They work in pedology, which is a branch of geology. So I just imagined I would do the same. Well, it was very vague but I had the idea to be a scientific researcher in geology or pedology, something like that, nothing very precise, as I was still very young.
WMSSL: You moved to Paris at a young age. Where did you spend your childhood years?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I was born in Nancy not far from Strasbourg and I lived there until I was 16 before moving to Paris. And then I lived in Paris for a few years before I went to university in Marseille and Lyon. And after, I had the opportunity to go to the South of France, to Grasse, where I started learning perfumery. I was more or less 25 years old at the time. I wanted to make perfumes but I gave up the idea when I went to join one of France’s official perfume schools and one of the school’s secretaries dissuaded me; she told me it was not necessary to attend the school to become a perfumer. She advised me that the best way was to go to the South of France, to Grasse and learn directly in a factory. This was the best and more direct way of getting the opportunity to create perfumes. After that experience I gave up for a while as I didn’t have any idea how to get in, to be introduced to such factories. I didn’t know anyone inside the industry. Some time passed and then I had the opportunity to attend perfume training for six months in Grasse thanks to an old friend who studied with me in Marseille. This opportunity paved the way for me to be introduced to perfumery.
WMSSL: It sounds like a long journey for you with many different experiences leading to you becoming a perfumer.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Yes, at the very beginning it was a little bit by chance. It was not direct or an immediate itinerary but that doesn’t matter now. It’s been a good journey.
WMSSL: And so today, what do you enjoy most about your job?
Bertrand Duchaufour: To create, to discover new accords and I would say to meet new people who bring new ideas and new challenges. It’s always challenging and it gives me enthusiasm to discover new things through new stories. The most important part of my work is to always have this enthusiasm for creating something new. Always trying to innovate each time I am creating a fragrance.
WMSSL: If you look back at your career as a perfumer what moment or what perfumes have you created that makes you proud?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I don’t know exactly. My wife is a fragrance evaluator for one of the world’s biggest perfume manufacturers and she tells me that in many cases she finds a lot of my fragrances on the desks of perfumers who are trying to be inspired. To be a reference for other perfumers is something very interesting and very important for any kind of creator. So I am quite proud of that.
WMSSL: Originality is often sacred for creative people. Does it frustrate you or are you happy for other perfumers to take ideas from you and rework them into their own creations?
Bertrand Duchaufour: No, this does not frustrate me. It is not important you know. You make parts of the creation and the creation is evolving like that. I’m proud, not to be copied, but to be a reference. Being a point of inspiration is something interesting and good.
WMSSL: In order to keep innovating, how do you find time to recharge your creative battery since you are famous for working on many projects simultaneously?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I don’t know, I don’t know. (Bertrand pauses to think) I work with time. Time is doing as much as me in the creation because the process of maturation and maceration is as important as my work. When I am working on different projects at the same time I take time away from one fragrance to work on other projects. When I come back to the first project after 15 days, even three weeks, I rediscover everything. When I consider my creation after some time away, it is easier to focus. I see the things I have to do and it is easy to work like that. Of course it is a question of habit as well. It is my manner, my way of working you know. I pass from one project to another, I can leave a project to go on by itself for two or three weeks and then I come back to it. I work fast in this way because when I come back everything is clearer; time did its work, I rediscover the product and I continue to quickly evolve the fragrance. I am working by contrast as well because every kind of project is different and the more the project is different from another one, the easier it is to work them together by contrast.
WMSSL: You must be very disciplined with your time management.
Bertrand Duchaufour: I would say methodic. Yes, more and more. Before, I had certain difficulties with that but now it is quite easy for me. And I have the opportunity to work in two different laboratories, with two assistants who are weighing my formulas and working with me as trainees. They are helping me to evolve the fragrances. So to have this luck of working in two laboratories with two different assistants, I think it is very good luck.
WMSSL: Is there anyone in your life that is a key inspiration for you as a perfumer?
Bertrand Duchaufour: Do you mean other perfumers?
WMSSL: Either perfumers, a friend or your wife? Is there anyone close to you that you look to for inspiration? A muse?
Bertrand Duchaufour: No, not exactly. No one person or people are inspiring me. A person can inspire me if it is a bespoke perfume or creation. Between the person who is requesting something very specific and myself then yes OK, and that’s the dialogue for making the fragrance evolve, otherwise individuals do not directly inspire me.
WMSSL: What would be your key inspirations? I have read in other interviews you travel a lot, you are also a musician and a photographer.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Exactly. It can be anything and everything at the same time. It can be travel; a very specific moment in a specific place, it can be a mood and the atmosphere of a place. It can be a monument, a landscape at a very specific moment. It can be any kind of thing you know. It can be a word; it can be a concept, like a concept of duality, a concept of an emotion, a very specific emotion. For example I recently worked on a collection for L’Artisan Parfumeur called Les Explosions d’Emotions and these fragrances try to evoke specific emotions through fragrances. It was really interesting and difficult. I know it can be very dangerous, well not dangerous but risky you know? It’s something that can fail, but anyway we will see; I just tried to do my best.
WMSSL: What has been the response to Les Explosions d’Emotions so far? For me it is a different collection for L’Artisan Parfumeur.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Well it is supposed to be something very different. It was a challenge to do something out of the normal, out of what we smell already. I wanted to explore new atmospheres, new spheres of scent, new accords and new fragrances. It is supposed to be something completely different, not outrageous but something provocative. I would say the reaction of the consumers has not been that bad. The most difficult people are often the French. Because French people are very proud of their perfumery and they are sure the French are the best at it. But at the same time they are very conservative and they often react against something new. For me, Anglo-Saxon people are more open to modern perfumery and avant-garde brands. I know that for this kind of collection by L’Artisan Parfumeur, the reaction is much better from Anglo-Saxon people. American, English, Australian and also German consumers are more open to it. And Italians really appreciate niche product. So I know already, this new collection is a success because of these people. It is not a big success but it is a success. For something very new and innovative I was really afraid of a bad reaction by the public.
WMSSL: The first time I smelled Les Explosions d’Emotions, after reading about the launch of this new collection, I was expecting something avante-garde, in the sense of being shocking. I am currently wearing Skin on Skin and the first time I smelled it I thought it was very easy to smell. It wasn’t the big shock I expected. After wearing it for a couple of weeks my nose began to smell different parts of the fragrance that I didn’t smell the first time. For me it wasn’t love at first sight like Timbuktu. I remember the first time I smelled Timbuktu, I had to ask a stranger what they were wearing and I immediately went searching for it. Skin on Skin has been a different experience for me. I love it now, but I fell in love with it in a different way. It was a gradual seduction.
Bertrand Duchaufour: You didn’t think it was very aggressive? It was more acceptable, more wearable? Do you think it was an easy fragrance to wear?
WMSSL: For me I find it easy to wear because it doesn’t have any big scary notes that are shocking even if they are beautiful. When I think of the name, Explosions d’Emotions, I thought it was going to explode, I thought it was going to be loud.
Bertrand Duchaufour: These perfumes are supposed to be powerful but you are right. Skin on Skin is not so aggressive as in an explosion; I would say it is more of an implosion than an explosion (Bertrand laughs). It is about skin, and it is not intended to be discreet. I think it is not discreet, but it is more intimate than the other ones in the collection.
WMSSL: For me, Skin on Skin seduces by whispering. I guess as a perfumer you could have gone down a different path with the theme, with dirty, animalic notes of civet or cumin etc.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Yeah
WMSSL: It is a very romantic notion of what skin is. There is no dirtiness.
Bertrand Duchaufour: (Bertrand laughs again) Ok so bon; I did a romantic note!
WMSSL: I love it; I have been wearing it a lot lately. It is a new favourite fragrance for me.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Ok thank you. It is also a qualitative one. I have the opportunity to work without any limits of price. This allows me to choose any kind of raw material I want to work with. It is my first mission to do something in a qualitative way.
WMSSL: Are there any raw materials you are working with that are currently inspiring you?
Bertrand Duchaufour: Yes, of course. I try to keep my palette as wide as possible. I always try to work with certain products I have never worked with. And this was the case for this collection. For example, for Deliria, I used a chemical called Floralozone. I put in my formula more than 10% of this material. Usually, I never use it so it was a challenge for me to do something with a raw material I had never used before. More than that, I used a huge quantity or an overdose. Besides that I work with certain products I have preference towards because for me they are the best quality and they create richness in my fragrances. For example I am fascinated by iris. I also like ambrette seed and davana. Carrot seed CO2 is very interesting and it is sitting well with iris so I really appreciate it. I like violet leaf and I like a lot of resins such as incense. I usually use them in big quantities and quite often, even if I am looking for something else, I am always coming back to them. This happens because I have a natural preference for these raw materials.
WMSSL: And how do you find new raw materials? I imagine with your reputation, companies are sending you samples of new raw materials all the time, hoping you will use them in your creations. Is part of the reason you travel, to find new raw materials?
Bertrand Duchaufour: To source? Yes, of course. I have the opportunity to source raw materials not only for me but also for my customers. Because I am a freelance perfumer I am working with other companies who are my customers. Earlier this year I travelled through Indonesia, looking to create a network on the island of Sulawesi for patchouli. As well I’ve travelled through countries like Madagascar and Cameroon, looking for good raw materials at the best price possible. I realised that to avoid some of the intermediaries, to go directly to the source of production, you can get the best quality at the best possible price.
WMSSL: Have you had a chance to smell the new Australian sandalwood oil being harvested from santalum album trees?
Bertrand Duchaufour: Yes, I know it. I am also working with the founding farmers of sandalwood in Australia so I know this product very well. It is very interesting.
WMSSL: Going back to you as a perfumer, do you think that there is a way to describe your style? Imagine I had a range of unmarked bottles in front of me. Could I tell by smell, which one is a Bertrand Duchafour fragrance?
Bertrand Duchaufour: (Bertrand laughs) I don’t know if that would be easy. I don’t know. But one thing is sure; as I have the ability to work without any limits of price, I use good quality raw materials and I think this is one of the best ways for making something smell different. I am one of few perfumers who have the possibility to work like this. I am fortunate to be in this position where customers are looking to work with me and it’s not the contrary. So they have to accept my conditions of work. I have the luck to continue working how I want to work and to improve my style as you say and it is a good way. I think so anyway. I don’t want to give up working in this way.
WMSSL: After I finish publishing this interview with you I am interviewing Neela Vermeire (Bertrand is the perfumer behind Neela’s perfumes). When I smell these fragrances I can smell the quality, particularly the rose and the jasmine. They are so rich and vibrant.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Exactly. Neela’s product is the best example of this. I am sure that a lot of people, even the more basic consumer can tell the difference between that kind of product and a normal mainstream product.
WMSSL: Definitely. And since we are talking about Neela and India, I also have the new Penhaligon’s fragrance Vaara, another of your creations that takes inspiration from India. I know that a lot of your fragrances have been inspired by travel. How do you capture those smells when you travel and how do you bring them home with you? How does that process work for you?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I do a type of reportage for myself. Although, not just for myself as sometimes this kind of reportage can be used to promote the fragrance at the launch using my drawings, my thinking and my words. I am recording everything through my drawings and through the ideas that come to me during my travels, during any kind of moment I am living, for example in an Indian spice market or experiences like that. It is a very strong, very direct, very rich way of influencing inspiration. So it is an amazingly enjoyable way for me to work. I write, I draw, I take pictures with my camera, and that’s all. Everything comes to me like this. Through certain words, through certain raw materials I am already choosing in situ, everything is coming back to me easily when I get back I to my laboratory in France.
WMSSL: Do you have your own language for recording the smells you encounter when abroad and how do you translate them for others to understand?
Bertrand Duchaufour: It is a vocabulary that is mine. I think it is a vocabulary that is sometimes not understandable by the consumer but it doesn’t matter, it is my language.
WMSSL: Going forward, do you think there is need for a better language that everyone can use, a universal language of scent that goes beyond taking about perfume notes and raw materials?
Bertrand Duchaufour: Yes, even though it is a long learning, I am sure that everybody could improve his or her way of perceiving fragrances through the use of language. I think in the future, the normal consumer, through blogs, magazines and things like that, will have greater opportunities to improve this language. But anyway, it is a long process. I am sure of that. It is like painting. The language of visual art has been developed over thousands of years and now, people are more capable of describing the experience of seeing art than they are capable of describing the experience of a fragrance. I think it will eventually come. But I think this new language is only in its birth. Maybe in fifty to one hundred years people will be more aware.
WMSSL: I notice more perfume press releases, not only niche but also in the mainstream, are now using the language of synthetics. Instead of saying their fragrance contains a note of ambergris, they promote it as Ambroxan, or instead of saying jasmine, they might say Hedione High Cis. Do you think this leads to a better understanding of what perfumes are? Does it help consumers develop a more advanced language of perfumery?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I guess so because it is a necessary way of thinking, of understanding. People have to be aware that we are not only using natural products. Chemicals form part of the creation process, a very important part. They assist with innovation and modernising a fragrance and consumers have to understand this. I think the more interested consumers already know this but we still have to improve this knowledge. Chemicals are something completely necessary in a good fragrance.
WMSSL: If we consider the perfume industry of today, where do you see it evolving in the next decade? We have seen niche brands become such a big part of the perfume industry over the past 10 years. Do you have any idea of where things will be ten years from now?
Bertrand Duchaufour: Not exactly no, I can’t say. But I am sure niche perfumes will continue to increase and the mainstream products will reduce. But at a point in time there will be a balance between those two worlds. They will be living beside each other in parallel. I don’t know at what percentage. And I can’t imagine how the quality of the fragrances themselves will evolve. I don’t know how the niche market will evolve with the quality of the raw materials it is using.
WMSSL: And with perfumers such as you, promoting the use of highly qualitative raw materials, how does this effect the evolution of raw materials you have access to?
Bertrand Duchaufour: The process of extraction is evolving a lot. We are improving the quality and we are controlling more and more the product itself. We now have different types of jasmine and different types of oils, like for spices, for example clove, red berry, black pepper, white pepper; those qualities are evolving because the techniques of extraction are evolving with technology. For example we made a lot of progress with the extraction of ylang ylang. We had in mind a certain criteria and now we are working with a beautiful raw material because of controlled factors at the source of production. For example when I visited Madagascar to see the production of ylang ylang, I realised certain things and I tried to advise the person who was producing the oil and we did very beautiful things just because we realised we could work in a particular way. Every day, every year, perfumery is evolving.
WMSSL: With many smaller companies creating unusual raw materials by fractional distillation, new solvents or other modern methods, do you think there is any risk of raw materials and later, certain perfumes disappearing over time? For example with the couturier industry, much of the savoire faire has been lost because small businesses closed down as business was moved away from France and Italy to countries that offered less expensive production costs. Just as vintage couture is fashionable, vintage perfumes, before IFRA regulations, are also popular.
Bertrand Duchaufour: Yes this is sure, but even if a raw material is not available, we can always retranslate or reconstitute something that has disappeared. Sure, with certain products it is difficult to recreate the original quality. For example with oak moss and tree moss, even if we try to recreate the original smell, I know that we can’t; there will always be some very small differences. It is impossible to recreate exactly what existed before. I have this problem as well you know. For some of my creations, I have to rework my formula because certain products have disappeared and they need to be changed by a reconstitution or by another product of the same family. I have to work with a new substitute and I do my best to compensate the lack of certain effects the new material offers. There will always be tiny differences. But we always have solutions.
WMSSL: There is always a lot of talk on blogs about perfume regulations and reformulations. From your point of view, are there aspects of perfumery you think the blogging community focuses too much on? And is there anything you wish would receive more focus from bloggers?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I think that blogs, Youtube vlogs and Internet media are very important for perfumery because they are detailing everything and they are circulating information, so it is very good. Information is now shared in a much more direct way than before but at the same time they can do damage. If they publish inaccurate things, those things are spread very quickly and it can be bad. Like all rumours, they can be good as well as bad. So I don’t know what to say about it. I just say, be prudent, even if it is a good tool for knowing a lot of things and for improving one’s knowledge of perfumery.
WMSSL: A good answer. As a blogger, writing with integrity and distinguishing between what is fact and what is my opinion is important to me. And finally what can we expect from you next year. Are there any exciting projects you can talk about now?
Bertrand Duchaufour: I am working on three new fragrances for Les Explosions d’Emotions that will be launched in 2014 and I am working on a very limited edition for Penhaligons. It is in collaboration with two trendy and creative fashion designers, Meadham and Kirchhoff. They are two young designers, one is English and the other is French. They are quite crazy. Both of them graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. They are doing very special things and through Penhaligon’s we are doing a very special edition for them. I met them several times to understand exactly what they wanted and what were their smell preferences. They were very precise, very unusual and very crazy. It was a huge challenge for me and that will be launched in the first half of the year. It has a wonderful name, which I can’t reveal I am sorry but I really appreciate the name. I also have projects for Aedes de Venustas, Neela Vermeire, for a few Italian brands and for Fragrantica. I am doing a lot of work for Fragrantica. They are very interesting and crazy. The owners of Fragrantica are Russian. They are such kind people and so crazy. They are so passionate about perfumes it is really great and I really appreciate my work with them. So you will see. A lot of things are coming.