L'Artisan Parfumeur has unveiled its latest release, Séville à L'Aube (Seville at dawn), by perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. The creation is a collaboration between himself and the writer Denyse Beaulieu and was inspired by her experiences of a passionate night in Seville during Holy Week many years ago. The creative process of making the perfume was described in a recent book by the author called The Perfume Lover. Lila Das Gupta talked to them both at L'Artisan Parfumeur in London's Covent Garden.
In what way were you stretched working with Denyse? How was it different to other commissions?
Bertrand: The challenge was hard: the story told by her was very exciting and interesting and I thought the raw materials supposed to be included in that perfume – orange blossom and incense, were extraordinary to fit together, I thought it would be easy. The two main raw materials or players, both of them are very mineral in the same way -that was supposed to be easy. Finally it was more complicated to do something beautiful and wearable.
How do you go about bottling someone else’s memory of a night of passion in Seville?
Bertrand: The best way to be inside her head was to be faithful to her story, playing with the elements she wanted to find in her perfume, orange blossom, incense, the lavender colonia that men wear in Spain , her Habanita she was wearing at the time (we made a Habanita accord for the perfume). I tried to be the most neutral possible, (he laughs uproariously at this point) sometimes it went well, sometimes it was completely awful, we had a lot of disappointments.
I didn’t make the perfume for her, I tried to make the memory of the moment. The perfume is a kind of mirror between us: of Denyse’s feeling at that moment in Spain reflecting itself at my own point of view.
Denyse, What were the challenges for you?
I didn’t know my way round a development, I only saw perfume as a fait acompli: you dive in and you analyse. The surprise was looking at something unpromising and looking at its potential, it’s something I’ve never done before. What did make me angry was when he asked me what I wanted. I didn’t expect to be put in that position. I thought I would give him my story and he would make the story. He said “it has to reflect what you want from that story”. At that point I thought that I had been failing him, that I hadn’t been there enough.
Bertrand: Yes, at the beginning I couldn’t find what I wanted to find.
I asked in desperation “what do you want?”
What was the breakthrough?
Denyse: When I brought back Modification number 5, which had obsessed me. I remembered that when I visited Spain I used to wear Habanita all the time. I thought about the Mod and realised that there was something missing: we had an orange tree in the perfume, but there was no one sitting under it.
Bertrand: Lavender was the breakthrough after Mod 5. The lavender was supposed to be a top note, but it was very difficult to make it fit with orange blossom by itself. I had to find a cologne/ fougère note on the top to fix it to that. We found the solution by chance because a partner of mine presented me with a new raw material, Luisieri lavender. It has a very different smell of leather, cistus, tobacco, incense - nothing to do with lavender at all. It was a good solution to link all the effects from top to bottom.
This became the keynote, the thing that holds it up – it’s only 0.2% of the formula, but it makes such a good effect and vertically with lavender on top, it makes an echo with it. So, the top is lavender fresh cologne, mixed with sappy, vegetal green notes, mixed with orange blossom solifore, reinforced by jasmine and beeswax, beeswax is the best way of harnessing the pollen effect and the wax of the church during Holy Week in Seville.
Denyse: Miraculously it’s called Seville lavender: incredible and magic.
How did you deal with the part of the brief, described in Denyse’s book (The Perfume Lover) that says “ the perfume should make me want to say a prayer and get my knickers ripped off at the same time”...
Bertrand: It’s easy to try to re-interpret or to make bullshit. You can force images into people’s head, just because you are supposed to be a good perfumer, but I wanted to have all the presence of these things. It was a very satisfying thing to mix them.
Denyse: Bertrand has never been to Seville, I took him there with my words. The difficulty for me was keeping the story on track. I’m not a client or an evaluator, but it is my story! There were moments I was terrified I had derailed his process, but he forced me to know when I was right, to listen to my intuition. I remember the time when Bertrand told me that I was to be trusted in evaluation was when I said the fragrance is breaking up into 2 pieces: one that stays on me, and one that goes into the room.
How do you know when to stop (there were nearly 130 mods)?
Bertrand: We knew when the accord was right and fitting completely well. But then we had stage two - it wasn’t exactly right because it was not smelling enough. It was not diffusing enough.
How did you know that?
Denyse: I wasn’t getting any compliments for it!
Bertrand: I just reworked on rebalancing everything, sometimes it’s sufficient to alter only 0.05% of the formula to get a large change.
Time also plays an important part. It’s very important as an artist to let your creation live by itself. Time is doing more than you are doing in the mixture, so let time do it. Sometimes you leave things for 15 days or 3 weeks for example, then just re-discover it. You can’t imagine what happens in these few weeks, even for me, an accomplished perfumer, it’s always a surprise.
The second criteria in the creative process is to try to leave things to chance – you realise that chance is always the best advisor because it surprises you a lot, and if you are a good artist, you can profit by that and exploit these chance things. You have to be open to it.
Is creating a perfume a bit like writing a book? Are there periods of depression and self-doubt? Do you wonder if you can carry this burden and finish it?
Bertrand: I paint as well, I enjoy painting very much. Sometimes you are filling all your painting on the canvas but you are asking ‘is it all I want it to be’? Then you go about erasing all that you did and begin again. It’s like that with perfume.
Denyse: It’s similar to writing in that sometimes you don’t find your motif immediately ... you have to build things but let things evolve. It alternates between intuition and analysing.
What sort of emotions do you feel about Séville à L'Aube?
Denyse: I feel something in my gut when I get the first whoooosh! But for me it’s not about this note or that note, it’s all the different aspects of culture, life and experience that makes you appreciate a perfume. It’s everything else you bring to the table. You use it as a door to open your imagination. When you open that door, what does it open on to: music, fine food, it could open all those doors if it’s a good perfume. I hope that the perfume, because of its richness, can be told in a lot of different ways.
When people ask me if it takes me back to Spain, I tell them it takes me back to its exhilarating moment of creation, which for a perfume lover has to be the thing. Plus the stupid simple beauty of it – you don’t have to analyse it.....
Bertrand: I’m just trying to go on further on my own path, through beautiful occasions, and meeting Denyse was a beautiful occasion.
Denyse: (smiles) La gallantrie Française !
Denyse Beaulieu is the author of The Perfume Lover and writes the distinguished blog Grain de Musc. Follow her on twitter @theperfumelover
The perfume is available at the Covent Garden store, Tel 44 (0)20 3040 3030
And via the company website L'Artisan Parfumeur