(image credit: EDGE CCF)
“Liberté, égalité, fragrancité” blazons Christophe Laudamiel’s recently published Manifesto, a text that outlines the perfumer’s perfected world; a world in which the fragrance industry operates with increased transparency, the public have access to scent education, and as a result, they see fragrances being much more than fashion accessories. Christophe has always championed these causes. His Instagram feed @christophelaudamiel is one of my favourites. Online, he openly gives an insider view of the industry, the work of perfumers and the ingredients they use in their creations.
As was often the case more than a decade ago when perfumers remained mostly anonymous, I knew Christophe’s work long before I knew his name. Christophe has created fragrances for many well-known fashion and beauty names including Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Tom Ford and Thierry Mugler.
Despite the fact I had a bottle of Polo Blue years before, my first real introduction to Christophe was via a book by designer Della Chuang, which was about the design process of a fragrance. Christophe created Della’s fragrance, KyotEAU. The book with scent is being republished this year in Chinese and Japanese. A few years later on a trip to New York, I smelled one of Christophe’s fragrances at the New Museum in Lower Manhattan. It was a ”memory fragrance” he created in collaboration with artist Kiki Smith, whose inspiration was ‘plant sex”, by Kiki’s words.
Having read interviews with Christophe over the past couple of years, I was interested to talk with him myself. After a chance encounter on Instagram and a few messages later, we were both connected via Skype. Christophe founded his own company called DreamAir and creates fragrances for a diverse range of clients. He splits his time between creative studios in New York City and Berlin and as I found out, he is involved in plenty of different projects. After the wrap up of his Over 21 exhibition earlier this year at Dillon + Lee gallery in New York, we spoke about a number of things, from his initial training in the perfume industry to patchouli fractions. We spoke about aspects of the fragrance industry you cannot find written in books. He offered insights, facts and visions about fragrance creation and culture that have not been published before.
(image credit: Jost Fink)
WMSSL: French perfumers are often in this profession because their parents and grandparents were perfumers. How did you become a perfumer?
Christophe Laudamiel: I’m French, born and raised in France. Half of my family is very French and the other half is very Italian. It was a modest family but was very strict on flavours and quality of food. There was a huge proportion of our small family budget dedicated to food rather than the car and TV. I was very academic at school. I ended up being the French champion of chemistry and I love chemistry! I love love perfumery but I love chemistry, I like to have explanations for why things work. Everyone understands a little bit about physics but chemistry is a black box: it’s weird, and it’s toxic. So when you are a chemist, you have to give educational talks all the time to your family, friends or at university, so I’ve always had this educational vibe. Then I arrived into perfumery to find a big vacuum of education. Huge. I had very good mentors. They taught me stuff, real stuff. However, for the public, it’s worse than chemistry. People know less about perfumery than they know about chemistry or cheese. So from day one it was my mission to explain perfumery to people, to do presentations at universities, in schools and even inside the industry itself.
WMSSL: Reflecting on my conversations with other perfumers, I sense that mentors play a key role in developing a young perfumers’ knowledge and abilities. You first graduated from Procter & Gamble’s perfumery school, how did your development continue?
Christophe Laudamiel: As you say on your blog, there are not many books on perfumery so most knowledge is transmitted orally and spending a lot of time in the lab, at least in the range of 10,000 hours like for other disciplines. It goes from little techniques where you write very simple formulas called accords and learn how you compare two formulas. For instance here is a formula I liked. It’s cotton-magnolia-sage for Keap Brooklyn but there was something disturbing so you have to re-weigh it and re-weigh it. It sounds at times obvious but it’s like trying to make a French baguette. It’s only four ingredients and yet, guaranteed, you won’t manage. But then you work at a bakery for a month and you realize, oh of course. An accord has 2 to 10 ingredients roughly, a finished formula 15 to 100 ingredients, very commonly 25 to 60 ingredients, picked out of 2,000 ingredients and in proportions from 0.00001% to 80%. You have to be very good with numbers in perfumery. It’s a lot of extremely precise proportions whether you write it by hand or on the computer. A perfumer’s computer by the way is no Photoshop® for formulae, only a typewriter. So, you have to jumpstart learning all this knowledge with someone and then develop your own. I had the chance to work with several different world-class mentors. You start seeing the same challenges and you watch the master perfumers go about it at times in similar ways, at other times in different ways. You learn, you absorb, you explore, and at the end you create your own way to survival in the ingredient and the proportion jungles. It’s like cooking in a kitchen: if you learn with three or four chefs, you develop quite a lot of tricks and techniques. If you are self-taught, you still need to put in the hours. But I think with the same amount of hours you will learn fewer things: you may be very good but probably you will be good at fewer things.
WMSSL: Many people know your name now but in the beginning, how do you start to work on your own projects in a large company like IFF?
Christophe Laudamiel: it starts with original formulas translating into original smells. A visionary client, Estée Lauder, liked a creation of mine at first “sight”, but I was very young at IFF so they put me with two master perfumers, whom subsequently I could observe working on my formulas. Then as I was growing, a year later, I had a formula on which both Carlos Benaim and Sofia Grojsman worked together in the same office to improve it to win. I don’t remember which project it was, but here I was with these two huge perfumers who rarely work together. I was like wow. Too bad there was no Instagram at the time to freeze that special moment. It was heaven, although, mind you, it was strange because they hadn’t asked to be there. Then, because colleagues start trusting you, you also start working on formulas of other creators. I learned a lot from Alan McRitchie, Christine Cahen, Catherine Ganahl and Hugo Denutte at P&G (all great perfumers in the shadows of technical perfumery), then with Pierre Bourdon, Carlos Benaim and Sofia Grosjman, a lot too. And then quite a bit from Pierre Wargnye, who created Drakkar Noir, and also from Jean-Marc Chaillan. I partenered with Loc Dong on Island for Michael Kors. I collaborated with quite a few perfumers. Each time you learn new things, and you share things. It’s truly good and fulfilling, but at times I don’t like to be forced to collaborate.
WMSSL: It’s quite common now to see multiple perfumers getting creative credits. I imagine there are more junior perfumers working behind the scenes that don’t get credit as well. Is that how it works?
Christophe Laudamiel: It’s more like two, three or four perfumers/junior perfumers but sometimes there are only two masters. Note that it’s not two or three junior perfumers like in fashion where they help the main designer. It’s, say, one junior perfumer and the formula was created by him or her, and then two or three more advanced perfumers to try to win the project. For the big projects, it is scary to have one perfumer only responsible. Beside, clients often don’t respect it if you are going on vacation for 2 weeks: they expect someone else to continue work. Usually though, all junior and senior perfumers are credited.
WMSSL: On the topic of collaboration, do you like to work with evaluators when creating fragrances?
Christophe Laudamiel: Yes if we don’t call them evaluators, as this is a very wishy-washy term. The worst invention in this industry is this “thing” called evaluation. Be careful, I use the term as a department. The persons themselves are very nice and very knowledgeable and could hold some better or new positions that the industry needs. I don’t know any other profession that has its in-house critics and in-house judges. Academically and creatively it’s not right, business-wise it is not very efficient as it creates significant work not required by the client, it creates some redundancy in certain teams and at the same time that talent could be used for better defined positions and for initiatives that the music, or many other industries have. I said critics and judges, yet at the same time without being really independent and set: not really sales nor sales-assistant, not really marketing, not really librarians or curators or sommeliers, not really researchers, not really perfumers nor scent designers, not really personal managers or spokespersons to the perfumers. Evaluators could be used to make more independent empowered project managers and leaders, who can make independent, responsible decisions without the perfumer and without the salesperson. Projects and sales would be split among more people. At times the salesperson is the evaluator, at times, the perfumer is the evaluator. Some evaluators should beef up and be part of the sales teams, still with their important skills of being librarians or curators within that team. We also need librarians, sommeliers and curators as such, we need a few trainers and educators and historians, even for a company museum. We need also very applied researchers (here I don’t mean neuroscientists) and downstream innovators with the very uniquely trained nose and memory of an evaluator who has seen several aspects of our business at work and not at work: theories from how to select a fragrance on skin, to what is a significant move, to what is memorized and how is something memorized, to what new process shall we experiment this year in our creative team and between our perfumers and our clients. Let alone some awkward situations, whereby some young evaluators have to visit some legendary master perfumers and tell them they have to make the fragrance a littler bit more floral. I think this is a little bit disturbing at times, and, along with the brands, dilute signatures. I would not dare. It’s like asking a famous fashion designer “can you make this dress with a little bit more gold along here for the fashion show because I think my client likes gold?” That would be a team discussion in fashion, not one department’s role. I think evaluation is going to evolve into different more interesting functions and qualifications. It’s a very interesting debate.
WMSSL: How do you feel about creating from a fragrance brief or design brief? Are they necessary? Or do you prefer to work with clients that allow you to work without a specific brief?
Christophe Laudamiel: I like both, from “Christophe I have no idea, make me something.” I’m actually good with that: I create the whole story and the fragrance behind it for them. At the same time, with others, I listen to their ideas. They can be directive and I only have to think about how to do it. If you like lilac, I can put some lilac in there or base the whole fragrance on a lilac note. I usually don’t argue: if someone or a brand likes something, so be it. Why not? Rarely, I will ask them back if something sounds really not on concept or on smell, “Why do you want lilac?” Usually they don’t insist and ask first: “What do you think?” And I say, “Well you know lilac is more like this and half of the people are going to think of that,” and they say, “Okay strike it. Let’s think of something else.” Most of the time, there is always something interesting in people’s ideas for a scent, especially when they are the ones in charge of the overall project as the client. I am quite flexible and the expertise is to try to make it work. In general, I hate the concept of a brief the way we turn it. You don’t write a brief for a song. Do you write a brief for a poem? You don’t go to a writer and say I am going to brief you on my poem. Maybe brief could be a general term but not this formal thing that perfume marketing students have to learn how to write to be able to talk with perfumers, “otherwise perfumers won’t understand you” they are told. Ugh, I hate that! There are many ways to inspire a perfumer or to start a perfume project, and perfumers are understanding people.
WMSSL: True, and leading on from that, what place does storytelling have in fragrances? With the growth of niche fragrances, it seems every fragrance needs to have a story.
Christophe Laudamiel: For me I’ve always done storytelling. It is not a niche characteristic. I need a story in my mind to create. An ingredient is not enough. At times I create my own story to inspire myself, a different story from the story of the client, but it doesn’t matter, whatever gets you going! Also, I usually have the emotion and then a nod, a twist as I call it in The Zoo to something scientific or something real and quirky. Most perfumers hate the top-middle-base way of describing things. I’ve battled a lot against pyramids. But “stores require that” we are told. “Bloomingdales need a pyramid”. No. You don’t need a pyramid to sell a fragrance! So you need a story that has a few elements, ingredients and smells. When Island by Michael Kors came out, I remember vividly Michael Kors said, “I want to feel like I’m coming out of my plane in Hawaii and I’m hit by the sea and I’m hit by the flowers,” so I created that with a few little extra titbits, of course, and this is how I hooked him. That was storytelling for “commercial” perfumery. It’s not something invented nor reserved to niche perfumery. Niche perfumery, it is true, has stories that can be more special, or more polarising or just more niche. In niche perfume, you can have the same story where some people will say “Ah” or some people say, “Ew!” or “Never heard of it!” Another advantage from niche perfumery, it has increased the attention of people on the qualities of ingredients. People now know more about patchouli, vetiver and oudh than before so this is good progress. What is also fabulous is that the growth of niche perfumery is saving commercial perfumery. This is excellent because niche perfumery does not work with a brief and an evaluator and three perfumers imposed. I think this is important to redistribute the cards a little as we forget at times in the mechanics that perfumery is first an emotional artistic creative activity. Good to balance different methods. Moving forward, we have to teach the public even more so it knows how to find quality in niche and in commercial, and to navigate in the perfumery jungle in stores. You still have to sort through a lot to separate the gems. This will teach people as well to be more demanding of niche perfumery: I find niche perfumery a bit complacent at times, a lot of retro styles and we are still riding the patchoulis and vetivers of this world. A perfumer in niche should be able to do more, more original structures, and more contemporary “modern” futuristic style perfumes. That is coming we are only seeing the beginning.
(image credit: Josiah D. Ryan)
WMSSL: What role does chemistry and the development of new molecules play in scent trends? In niche and now in commercial perfumery, the use of amber notes is everywhere. It seems all the big perfume houses have two or three of their own trademarked woody-amber molecules and everyone seems to be using them in their fragrances.
Christophe Laudamiel: Watch there are several ingredient and scent families called ambers. I call the ambery notes you mention tar-like. I remember when I started perfumery in the mid-90’s they started to come out stronger. Some of them came first in laundry, then in fine fragrance. Now they are everywhere. When you want to add strength to a fragrance you put some in and it will be stronger. A few of them are long lasting so you put that in and it will last on skin. Sounds easy but if you notice, there are a lot of modern fragrances where you see this note coming out like a sore thumb. For me it’s a sign of a perfumer who didn’t know how to use it. One of them is an old note you can find in Cool Water, Cedramber by IFF. Cool Water was created in 1988, by Pierre Bourdon. When you smell Cedramber now, it’s not that strong although they were putting in a lot at the time (5-15%). Further companies came out with new notes in that family but much stronger: you have the ambery notes from Firmenich, some from Symrise, some by Givaudan, and it revolves again. I remember even in laundry it was coming out on fabrics like crazy. When you put a little, even if expensive, it goes a long way and people seem to like it. So that’s why it’s there. When you invent a molecule like that, which is so strong, it’s easier to sell its development within a company. As a high performer, it can justify a more expensive price of research and development and the public often likes strong performers. They are easier to justify than the ones that are more round. Hedione is much more remarkable in that it actually reached the market, because it’s very round and very low key as a smell. You have to be visionary and with a lot of guts and good trials to bet on it to become a big seller. Hedione is a monument now but it was courageous of Firmenich to put money behind it to develop it in the 1950’s – 60’s. The history of molecules and how they are selected is extremely interesting.
WMSSL: It’s fascinating. Actually, after our messages on Instagram where we discussed Fierce by Abercrombie & Fitch, I started to play around with a formula to try and understand its construction. I was working with a core of Polysantol and Ebanol, and musky notes using Firmenich musks.
Christophe Laudamiel: Bon, first of all, remember I was at IFF so there is no Ebanol in there. I would use it at times, but I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan anyway. Well I know I used a little bit of Bacdanol.
WMSSL: Of course Bacdanol!
Christophe Laudamiel: Actually not so much. The sandalwood effect you get is more of an effect because there is 1-2% Bacdanol® only. I’m not sure if there is 1% Polysantol® in there at all, however it is more expensive than Bacdanol, and it acts at a different level. At the time it was too expensive I think. But it might be 0.2 to 1% Polysantol®. Polysantol® by Firmenich is one of those miracle molecules that you don’t need much. It has more effect than you think and when you put more it stifles the fragrance. So sometimes it’s there in smell but not in quantity. Sometimes I just put several percents of it, but not here.
WMSSL: And then for the mossy note I put Evernyl. I thought it goes from the top of fresh dihydromyrcenol to the mossy note and sandalwood at the bottom.
Christophe Laudamiel: Evernyl yes. Certainly. Kind of 0.2-1% in pure, which is a lot for me, because this molecule brings me back into the cheap perfumery past very fast usually. Dihydromyrcenol: this would be about 4-10%.
WMSSL: There is a really nice soft muskiness in the bottom of the fragrance. I was working with Firmenich musks and I used Exaltolide Total.
Christophe Laudamiel: Exaltolide Total is a good molecule, has creaminess and woodiness but in this fragrance the creaminess and the woodiness come from other sources. Let me rethink what musk I have in here. Actually, before playing with these musks, don’t forget there is Cashmeran and that has a very musky tone. As soon as you add it, you feel as though there is much more musk than there actually is. So Cashmeran is really important. There is a little bit of Ambrettolide but most of it is from Cashmeran. I think if I had more musk it would be too thick for the rest of the formula.
WMSSL: And you mentioned on Instagram, there is a clary sage note that is important.
Christophe Laudamiel: Yes for the top note there is clary sage oil with a bit of cucumbery nonadienal. That top note: that’s how you get some of the signature that people don’t know how it is done, yet is described in the marketing description of the fragrance.
WMSSL: I imagine there would be a bit of Hedione as well?
Christophe Laudamiel: Yes, there is, maybe more than a little bit. A little bit for me is 1,2, 3%. No, there is more than that. You also need a little bit of Lavandin with the sage to give that effect.
WMSSL: I couldn’t figure out the subtle floral accord. Would I have to do a bit of an abstract floral accord between citronellol and say some rosiness? Would there also be any Lyral or Lilial?
Christophe Laudamiel: No because it is not fresh. It’s not clean. In the top note you need damascone alpha. You need that with the cucumber, with another Firmenich abstract molecule called Scentenal® , which gives the freshness and for the fougere floralcy you need salicylates. There is citronellol, very good. A little bit in the middle. That will give you some of the breath around coumarin. It’s not a long formula. Actually it’s a short formula of about 25 ingredients.
WMSSL: Looking at another fragrance you created, Polo Blue, how do perfumers create their citrus top notes for big commercial fragrances like this. Can you work with real bergamot or are you making a bergamot base with linalool, linalyl acetate, citral etc.
Christophe Laudamiel: Often with bergamot, we do use some or a lot of the natural one, truly. It’s always better. Patchouli is the same. There are a few cases, like for roses, where an artificial rose can be what is needed because it smells very different from the rose oil: less thick, less boiled, branchy, and smells more like the petals in a bouquet. Bergamot oil, the natural one, always gives an extra freshness or elegance, at times guts to the top of the fragrance. It can be expensive for those commercial projects. It’s about 2-3 times the price they allow you in commercial projects. But you can still use some. There is a nice proportion of real bergamot in Polo Blue, like, I don’t remember, 4-8% pure and natural bergamot. Having said that, every perfume house has a few well-reconstituted Bergamots that are good enough for certain projects or for certain functions like in candles. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. Now, since you are asking, even with that, you often dose linalool separately in the fragrance. Beside bergamot, you may want to have more linalool or beside bergamot you may want to have more linalyl acetate. That’s a different story. But I would say if you want bergamot that’s how we go about it. And even with the natural ones, every house would have three to six very different qualities available. That’s the other thing you learn with mentors, how much things are used. For instance bergamot is used much more in fine perfumery than orange and lemon. Another one people know very little about is cardamom. We use it very often. Not as much in quantity as bergamot but it is another ingredient that is fascinating. It’s fabulous.
WMSSL: Do you have a preference over cardamom oil or a CO2 extract?
Christophe Laudamiel: Cardamom oil is already fabulous. There are different grades and you pick the one you like. Cardamom absolute also smells very good. Green Cardamom CO2 is one of my favourites. Interestingly enough, it is one of those CO2 extracts that are close to the absolute. Note that the kind of cardamom you use makes also a big difference (India/green Guatemala).
WMSSL: Many perfume houses are promoting innovations in natural ingredients. As a perfumer, do these new specialty natural ingredients inspire or interest you?
Christophe Laudamiel: Well its like if I go to a market that has a lot of different peppers. I love choosing but I’m not going to say I need at least twenty peppers in my kitchen. Well roses you need a few but you wouldn’t need twenty. I do like to go through those things. Now, just like the public has to smell fragrances better, perfumers analyse these ingredients beyond the marketing, like in the instance of all those patchouli ‘coeurs’. We hear so many things about the patchouli hearts, patchouli this and patchouli that. Well, smell them and then pick the one or two that is going to make a difference. I would say for maybe ten different patchouli specialties, I would pick one, two or three. It’s like wine. Even if it comes from experts, you have to go and smell and see what actually makes a difference and the reason why some specialities were made. Sometimes it’s a cost improved extraction. Sometimes it’s to create a special quality for a large client. Sometimes it is to remove the musty top notes of patchouli. A large client, at times, likes to choose its own patchouli extract, exclusive for one year for that fragrance. Depending on how it is done, you could or could not do similar creations with other patchoulis once the patchouli gets diluted with 30 other ingredients. It is similar to cooking: in using a rum or another, at times you will see a difference, at times, the dish will blend the rum differences. Besides CO2 extraction, it is also very interesting what is done with molecular distillation, with cold distilling instead of hot distilling, or separating different cuts. It’s like whiskey. You separate different cuts of the distillate and that gives a difference. There is no prediction until you smell, until you see for yourself. It’s really fascinating to sort and then to know which one to use and when, and which ones to ignore.
WMSSL: The industry is moving very quickly on all fronts. What projects are you currently working on and where do you want to take your business in the future?
Christophe Laudamiel: My start-up’s name is DreamAir. I create a lot of fragrances for brands, for niche brands, as scent sculptures for retail stores and lobbies, fragrances for shampoo and other hotel amenities and of course regularly fine fragrances for skin for niche brands. I also always have two or three active projects where scientists ask me for very specific smells built in a very specific way to run scientific experiments. Sometimes it’s to see how certain smells respond in the brain. Sometimes it’s to see how people react to smells socially. If they buy a guava online, they will never get the formula. A scientist has to show what was inside that guava in their publication. Furthermore, I created the Academy of Perfumery in New York and I officially represent the Osmotheque in the U.S. It’s going slow because we are only three volunteers on this. It’s not-for-profit and people in perfumery don’t have this volunteer vibe much like we do in chemistry or in music. Instead they organise a golf competition. Each time I joke about it but that’s what they organise. So fine, but it’s kind of weird. I have started to release a few formulas on the DreamAir website. The next one will be with Keap Candles. Some of their candle formulas are going to be released online. They made a point to show how we make a candle. They discuss the coconut wax, the wick, the burning properties and a few other things so I said I would love it if we published some of the formulas. We took some of the formulas and I explained every ingredient and why it is in there. They are actually cool formulas. People will see a real fragrance formula used in a real way and I think it’s exciting. It’s good. NOTE: perfumers shall not be required to publish formulas, as they are not protected by copyrights. I publish a few to help the public appreciate across the board the amount of work and of artistry a fragrance entails.
If you want to see (and try compounding) some of Christophe’s formulas, which have been published for educational purposes, visit: www.dreamair.mobi
Thanks to Christophe for this deep dive into the world of perfumers and an enlightening interview!