Towards the end of winter I had a chance to sit down and talk with Grandiflora Fragrance founder Saskia Havekes. Saskia had just returned from Cabris near Grasse where she launched her fourth fragrance called Queen of the Night, a fragrance she created with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. This wasn’t our first meeting. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with Saskia on several occasions since she unveiled her first fragrances Sandrine and Michel in early 2014. We met again late last year after the launch of her third fragrance Madagascan Jasmine, which she created with perfumer Michel Roudnitska. Although Michel was not the perfumer behind this latest fragrance, he offered to host a dinner in its honour. Queen of the Night was celebrated under a rare pink moon in the Roudnitska family’s renowned garden, which served to inspire many of the fragrances created by Michel’s father, the legendary mid-20th century perfumer Edmond Roudnitska. Bertrand Duchaufour came from Paris for this intimate garden dinner and this was the first time Saskia and Bertrand were able to meet face-to-face. Up until that point the pair had collaborated over phone calls, emails, letters and of course through scent.
Creative collaboration is difficult enough without having oceans and continents dividing a team so I was interested to hear more about Saskia’s journey with Bertrand, a perfumer who commands a great amount of respect within the industry. A prolific creator, his name has been credited to many highly successful niche fragrances throughout his career and his style is distinctive. Given that Saskia’s first three fragrances were created in a way that felt very true-to-nature and Bertrand’s style is conceptual, I also wanted to hear from Bertrand about how he engineered this fragrance for Saskia. I’d spoken with Bertrand about his creative process before when he was making a lot of the fragrances for Penhaligon’s and L’Artisan Parfumeur and I used this opportunity to reach out to him again to talk about Queen of the Night. It wasn’t as easy as dropping by Saskia’s Grandiflora shop in Potts Point, an inner Sydney suburb not far from where I live, but we were able to speak over the phone as my day was ending and Bertrand’s was just beginning in Paris.
The result of those two conversations ended up being a guest review of Queen of the Night for US fragrance website Cafleurebon. Here I wrote a summary of Saskia’s work to date and the story of Queen of the Night, a fragrance about this rare and ephemeral night blooming cactus. Talking about fragrance with brand creators and perfumers is something I really enjoy doing, and I know a lot of my readers appreciate these rare insights, particularly into the work of perfumers, a profession that is cloaked in secrecy. Here I’ve put together a composite interview based on my conversations with Saskia and Bertrand, which I hope gives an entertaining insight into their work. More information about Grandiflora Fragrances can be found at www.grandiflorafragrance.com
Beginning the creative process:
WMSSL: Bertrand, how did you work with Saskia to create the fragrance she had initially described to you?
Bertrand: Saskia asked me to create this fragrance on the very specific theme of this cactus flower growing in the desert. In just in a few words she described the smell of the cactus flower and the desert area where it grows and blooms. The fact that it blooms in the night made her want to represent a very fresh, nightly, watery, ozonic fragrance through the flower accord, but still with the idea of something mineral because of the presence of the desert all around. So it was actually quite easy to represent this accord between three different poles, the mineral desert affect, the fresh-ozonic night accent and the very floral, blooming note of this flower; you know something very fresh and white floral. So I worked and Saskia took time to smell and evaluate everything I sent her. At the beginning I proposed several different notes or accords. She kept one and we developed this chosen accord through to the finish.
WMSSL: Were those first accords you sent her quite different from one another or small variations on the same theme?
Bertrand: They weren’t the same way. I offered something very light, floral and fresh but different at the same time because we have very different ways to represent white floral accords. It can be a little bit orange flower-like, or jasmine or even something a little bit more honeysuckle or orchid. There are a lot of ways to define a white floral accord. Tuberose is a white floral accord and gardenia is a white floral accord. They are both very different in a way. Or you can imagine a kind of magnolia. Not the big magnolia but more like a champaka flower. So I tried to develop different white floral accords, different kinds of fresh notes and she chose the one she was excited to develop further.
WMSSL: Saskia, the queen of the night is a rare flower that not everyone has access to. What flower do you think it closely resembles, or how do you describe this rare flower’s fragrance?
Saskia: Wisteria is the closest flower I could associate it with. Even the colour of the wisteria is something I can visualise when I think about this flower. It doesn’t have the same soft purple tone to it but there is something about the translucence of the petals and the way it changes in the wind. Queen of the night has a vanilla quality to it. It has a vanilla-wisteria feeling so it’s not completely sweet like a hyacinth. It has a watery quality as well.
WMSSL: I know with your previous fragrances you were able to introduce the perfumers to their subject matter. How was it working with Bertrand to create a fragrance guiding him only by your interpretation of the flower’s odour?
Saskia: He’s a great interpreter. He really understands the nature of flowers. He’s crazy about orchids. He’s a real orchid aficionado. He’s got thirty different orchids in his apartment and I could tell by talking to him how passionate he is about them and how well he cares for them like they are his children. My mum loves orchids too. I said, “My mum talks to her orchids,” and he said, “I do too.” I’m sure most perfumers are flower fanatics because the two go hand in hand.
WMSSL: Even though it’s a Central American native, does it grow here in Australia?
Saskia: We do get it here. There is even one growing next door. Our neighbours call it an aphrodisiac and it sends them a bit crazy. Whenever it flowers they come in and they are all on a bit of a high with excitement. They stay up through the night waiting until it flowers. There is a place not far from here in Rushcutters Bay that has a night party when their cactus flowers. So we have pretty good access to it. Bertrand wrote to me with his ideas about the flower. I could tell he had injected really interesting qualities into the flower. He wanted to put the air and the desert, the surroundings of the flower into the fragrance. He is very focused, very engaging and friendly so he’s very easy to communicate with.
Composing the fragrance based on three key themes:
WMSSL: Although Queen of the Night can be described by a traditional structure of top, middle and base notes, you describe it by these three accords or poles. Can we talk more about them and the raw materials you used?
Bertrand: Mainly two important aspects give the white floral accord, the syringa (English mock orange) aspect and the orange blossom aspect. I used them because they are full of indol, which is a keystone of the construction. It’s not that present as a chemical but very present through the syringa and orange blossom absolute. There is 0.6% of orange blossom absolute; actually it’s quite huge. I reinforced the indol effect with pure indol and some jasmine, and the syringa accord, which is very important and very indolic as well. Indol is a key note in all the white floral accords and at the same time it is very floral, very sexual, sensual and very mineral. For me, indol is like tar or asphalt. It has a ‘road’ note. So it’s a key part of the mineral desert effect and it’s a good link between this and the white floral accord. It’s orange blossom, it’s a little bit like orchid effect with some sweet vanillic notes, it’s syringa being very fresh in the top notes, it’s jasmine as well for developing a very sensual lactonic note and I just tried to refresh everything with some watery fresh ozonic notes like syringa aldehyde with Helional, watery notes, and even fresh floral notes like lily of the valley effect, which is quite important. Through this fresh floral effect I just tried to give the presence of the minerality of the desert through incense and pink berries reinforce this incense effect in the mineral accord. The rest is just contrast between the freshness, the sparkling effect of bergamot, mandarin and things like that and all the sensuality of the background. It’s quite musky, it’s woody-dry, a little bit ambery, and the dry note is quite important for giving this mineral effect of the desert. I used certain woody-amber-dry chemicals that have a very strong presence.
WMSSL: The vanilla note is quite interesting too. It’s not a gourmand vanilla. It’s very light and with the musk it’s sort of dry and powdery?
Bertrand: Yes, there is nothing gourmand about it. It’s vanillic. It’s powdery in a way. But at the same time it’s very floral and vanillic. There is a reason why I used the term orchid flower. Orchid is made of this vanillic effect mixed with salicylate notes and some tiny white floral effects. It’s an accord that is quite important for me. In the orchid note, for example the Cattleya orchid, there is a big presence of a vanillic, powdery note and I wanted to work on this kind of effect as well. Besides that I just used a certain natural freshness through fresh spices like juniper, the red berry, a beautiful, quite complex citrus accord, made of bergamot, lemon and mandarin, a very delicate sandalwood note that is not big, it’s something very discrete and a lot of musk. It’s a specific musk called Velvione. I used a huge quantity. It’s a very delicate, very sensual, powdery musky note.
WMSSL: It’s quite expensive too.
Bertrand: It is. It’s a very good musk. I used 10% of it and I used, as well, Turkish rose absolute, just for giving a kind of correlation to the white floral effect, which is quite beautiful so the accord is at the same time, rich and I think it’s unusual. There is a big opposition to this white floral note and a very important quantity of fresh white floral notes. I used a lot of cyclamen aldehyde, which is very fresh and transparent. It’s a very contrasted floral fragrance.
Bertrand’s creative process:
WMSSL: It’s amazing you can work remotely to create such a detailed work of art with someone in a different part of the world. Is it common for you to work this way, over email or phone and not meet face to face until the product is finished?
Bertrand: Yes, it’s more and more common for me actually. I work with a lot of foreigners who I don’t know at the beginning and maybe we meet first through Skype or something like that. It’s very important to have voice contact. Email is interesting for describing precisely what you want but the voice contact is very important to evaluate the way of expressing an accord. If the person is quite open and passionate, you will work maybe differently than if the person is more reserved or introverted.
WMSSL: Do you mean that this would affect the way you approach the project? So you will find an accord that will match their personality?
Bertrand: More or less, yes. I try to adapt the expression of my accord through the shape of the personality I have in front of me. So it’s easier to do something with someone you have already met of course, or you already know. But actually it doesn’t matter. The voice is very important so if you have this very first voice contact it’s okay. Well, I was not so surprised when I met Saskia for the first time in Grasse, because I just imagined she was that way just because of the way we talked before.
WMSSL: How much does culture play a part in your work? If you are working more and more with international brands and people, does that change the way you approach a project? For example if you were doing a white floral for a French person verses an Australian person.
Bertrand: Yes absolutely. I don’t know how to say it but I have this very strong impression that my perfumery, my style, is evolving with the contact I get with my customer, which is more and more international. It doesn’t mean it’s evolving in a strong way like I’m using more naturals or something like that, no. I really feel I’m not afraid to use anything I can because my customers are more and more open, you know? I’m working with American, European, Australian, Singaporean and Chinese clients. It’s amazing how I feel free to express anything I want because, actually, they accept to do different things. They don’t have this very strict approach of the old French tradition or French style and I do very different things just because of that. I think it’s a very unusual, very magical experience, something very new, more and more evolving, and more and more open. I really appreciate it and it’s the reason why I am still enthusiastic to work on something I have worked on for more than 30 years now. There is nothing to compare with what I did before, 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Everything changed so quick for me in my style and in the ideas proposed by my customers so I am still very enthusiastic. I really appreciate that because I was afraid that as I am working more and more and more quickly on more and more projects, I was really afraid of losing inspiration, but it’s not the fact. I’m still evolving and it’s still a pleasure for me to realise that. I feel very lucky to have this kind of experience in my work. I think it’s not given to everybody.
WMSSL: Is it important for you to surround yourself with other creative people? I know in some artistic disciplines, maybe not so much perfumery, but painters and musicians, they like to have others around them to bounce ideas off. Is it important for you to have other perfumers that you can share ideas with and inspire each other?
Bertrand: Not that much. I am very alone and very solitary. I think it’s maybe a pretention on my part but I think the good creators follow their own path even if they can be impressed by the work of somebody else, and I can be. It doesn’t happen that often but I can be impressed. Still, I don’t try to be inspired by others because I just try to follow my path. I would say my perfumery is evolving through the projects I work on, case-by-case, perfume-by-perfume. Some customers ask me to do the same think I have already done for another customer so through those demands I’ve realised my work did evolve for example on the leather note or through the wood effect, well I just evolved like that. My spring of inspiration is my own work. Maybe it’s very pretentious but at the same time I think it’s the best way to be recognised, to have a style. Actually it’s the first point many people say to me that I have a very strong and distinct style. I think it’s true because for 30 years I’ve just followed my own ideas. My spring of inspiration is nature and everything around me. It’s not a perfume. I would say nature is the very principle source of my inspiration.
WMSSL: And when you say nature is it the smells of nature or can it be a visual reference or the physical experience of nature?
Bertrand: It’s anything you can find in nature. Of course the smell but also other things like a landscape or even the concept of a duality like trying to do an opposition between, I don’t now, a spice and something fresh, or even icy. Something like that, you know like white and black. A rice accord through an ink effect, something like that. Like Tao is the opposition between white and black.
WMSSL: With so many years of experience, how do you record all of your work? In the big oil houses, they keep libraries with all of their work. If I came to your studio, would I also find a library with all of your formulas?
Bertrand: No. I quickly eliminate what didn’t work. I am very spontaneous. Even if I have a good memory of all the work I did, I rarely come back to a formula I did which didn’t work. I prefer to try something else. It either works or it doesn’t. Well, I can work on something I didn’t finish or I proposed, which wasn’t chosen just because I think this accord is interesting but very often I come back to a virgin page for launching an idea. I just put some material on my white sheet and try to create an accord. As soon as I think it can work, I try to make it evolve into a fragrance quite quickly. Actually I can even do something and propose it without any change. Just one try and I propose. I have already proposed things like that which have been accepted by the customer.
WMSSL: I’m picturing golfers when they hit a hole in one from hundreds of metres away. It’s the equivalent in perfumery right?
Bertrand: Yes, that’s the magical shot you know. It is something you are completely surprised by, but okay, you accept it, you propose it and it’s done – it works! But even if it doesn’t work the first time, it can quite quickly work for another. Sometimes it’s like that and you accept it, and it’s okay. You know the part of luck is very important in our work. The part of chance is also very important. You are sometimes very surprised by what you have done and you have to explore these surprises. Actually I think it is the real job of a good artist – to accept and to explore the surprise. You conceptualised an accord through a formula, you do it, then you receive your trial and it’s completely different to how you imagined it being but in a good way. You are surprised by certain contrasts and you just explore it. I think this is one of the more interesting parts of our job, to try and do something different and original.
WMSSL: It sounds like you have to really trust your intuition and take chances.
Bertrand: Of course, intuition is very important. I think so. I think that intuition and memory are the two more important aspects of a creator.
I concluded my conversation with Bertrand by talking about some of the projects he is currently working on. Now that his contract with Penhaligon’s and L’Artisan Parfumeur has finished I suspect we will continue to see his name signed to a range of international fragrances in the niche and luxury fragrance market. Saskia and Bertrand are tight-lipped about the possibility of working together on another fragrance although I sense this could be a work in progress. In any case, continue to watch the Grandiflora Fragrance space!