Canada has more than just a few perfume secrets to share.
Outside of its thriving retail fragrance industry and Fragrance Award Shows, its relationship with the perfume industry goes back to the raw wilderness in 1670 and the then, newly created Hudson’s Bay Company whose sole focus was the Fur Trade. One of the most expensive byproducts of trapping, was the prized Castoreum, notes of (glandular Beaver sac) which found their way back to Europe and into the Perfumer’s palette. Many European Royals and gentry found this note intoxicating when mixed with local flowers.
Canada is also respected in raw material circles for notes used in the Fine Fragrance and Personal Care aromas. Fragrance Classifcations that include Aromatic Fougere, Coniferious and Balsamic aromas have base notes that are cultivated from the depths of the British Columbia interior to the tree-lined forests of Quebec. Once these raw materials are refined, they are used in a multitude of scented products the world over. Raw materials found in these regions have also been used in ceremonial practices by North American tribal Indians for thousands of years.
Cedarome, Quebec (website)
is an internationally renowned Oil House which has forged deep roots with Global Fragrance Houses to offer up Canada’s natural resources such as: Spruce Needle Oils, Thuja Absolute, White Birch, Fir Balsalm and Cranberry Absolutes amongst others. The lush Canadian Forests afford broad harvesting of these materials and add great nuance and depth to many base notes in perfumery and commercial blends.
Canadian-based Fragrances Houses have also made their impact on a global scale. Riviera Concepts Inc
. was once the most notable Canadian company to create, manufacture and export Fine Fragrances from their headquarters in Toronto. The company established and assisted the careers of notable Designers such as Nicole Miller
, Bob Mackie
, Badgley Mishka
, Nina Ricci
, Lulu Guiness
, Nanette Lepore
, Adrienne Vitadinni
and the classic Alfred Sung
brands before eventually closing it’s doors and selling to Elizabeth Arden in the U.S
. Another noted Canadian name is the Recent Lifetime Achievement Winner at the Canadian Fragrance Awards 2010, Cosmetics/Fragrance Giant, Lise Watier
, who is based in Quebec and who also has companies and fragrances globally.
Other big Canadian Fragrance Companies include: Fruits and Passion
, Clean Fragrances
, Natural Perfumer Ayala Sender
not to mention Canadian Celebrity fragrances for the likes of: Celine Dion
, Avril Lavigne
, Shania Twain
and the Design firm of Roots, Canada
, all attainable in Global markets.
* * *
In 2009, I interviewed 50 Top Perfumers for a story in Basenotes called Scent Treks Through Time, The Inspirations and Distillations of a Perfumer
. To add a fresh take from Canada, I also wanted to include two new Canadian aspiring Perfumers: Jessica Buchanan
from British Columbia and Isabelle Michaud
Both of these women have ironically experienced similar perfumery aspirations but chose two different paths to perfumery education in France, one at the ISIPCA in Versailles and the other at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery.
Both have launched distinct perfumes with a narrative.
These are their stories:
You were born in the rugged terrains of British Columbia, Canada. Can you share any childhood odours that affected your fascination with your chosen career path?
Did you take up any fragrance hobbies or studies? How so?
I remember having a small vial of perfume oil when I was very young, a warm deep lilac-floral. The bottle had three little jewels on the top of the lid. Somewhere along the way, I lost it. A few years later, when I was about Ten years old, I was out exploring the forest and came across a small dark rather magical grove of densely packed coniferous trees. In the heat of Summer, that grove of trees smelled exactly like my perfume. I think something clicked in me that afternoon that a perfume could recreate experiences by taking us places through memory and I remember being intrigued by that. When did you become aware of odours and scents?
As for hobbies, I was fascinated with and studied wild plant medicine from an early age, and had a metal box full of little jars of dried herbs that I had gathered out in the woods and fields. I used to mix potions for my family if they ever got sick. I clearly remember the scent of tree pitch, yarrow leaves, wild roses etc. I suppose that was the beginning of my alchemic path.
I remember always being very aware as a child of how things smelled in the world around me. I spent my first five years on an island of the British Columbian coast, where I remember the smell of the seaweed, of lilacs, and rhubarb leaves, of roses and fruits that grew on our little farm which grew apples and sweet yellow plums. Later, in the interior of B.C., we lived and worked on cattle ranches, and one odour that I loved was the sweet warm dusty smell of my horse’s back, especially just after taking off the saddle when the skin is hot and moist. I used to stand and lay my head on my pony and just inhale his scent. I would go out riding alone and pick wild raspberries; their scent in the heat of summer is also a fond memory. I was home-schooled by my mother until the age of Fourteen years old and she is a person who is very sensitive to scent and sound. I think she taught me this awareness. How difficult was it resourcing oils with living so far from a City?
When I actually took up aromatherapy at the age of 21 (in 1991), I was again living on the West coast, near Vancouver. At that time, the health food stores were just beginning to stock essential oils. In latter years, when I studied Aromatherapy formally, I had already been sourcing oils from several companies in the U.S. who carry beautiful and unusual oils with a focus on ethno-botanical traditions and small producers from around the world.
Why did you choose the Perfumery School in Grasse as opposed to the ISIPCA? What sort of criteria was required to be accepted?
When I began to explore my options, Grasse was the only choice since the main ISIPCA program required a degree in chemistry as a prerequisite, which I don’t have, and the course was taught in French, which, at the time I didn’t speak. The One-year Fragrance Academy program at the ISIPCA did not yet exist. Later, when circumstances in my life allowed the possibility of going to France, I chose Grasse because of the history of natural raw materials that Grasse is built on. This region is really where it all began and that’s what I wanted to study. I had been self-employed for many years creating and marketing natural skin care products; but for the last 4 years, I had been creating natural perfumes. During this time I had searched everywhere and studied all I could find but I was very aware of how impossible it was to access the knowledge I needed without formal training. What was the most challenging exam at the School? What did it involve?
When the time came in 2006, and circumstances made it clear that it was time to go, it all happened quite quickly. Once again I looked up the website of the Institute in Grasse, and the next morning dialed the number and spoke to Isabel at the admissions desk. She asked me to submit an application form which I did; detailing my story and why I wanted to attend the school. It was a late submission but I was accepted on merit alone without any formal testing. (Fifteen years of working with natural raw materials, plus accredited certification as an aromatherapist is definitely above and beyond the normal entry requirements).
My first day at school was very challenging. We jumped right into the synthetic raw materials and studied ten of them on the first day. Coming from the all-natural, Aromatherapy side of the fence, this was brand new territory. I went back to my tiny top-floor studio in the old City that evening and actually sat in bed with my notes and the tester strips rehearsing out loud these foreign words (cedryl acetate, anisic aldehyde, citral, calone, hydroxycitronellal, ambroxan etc) and writing them down over and over, knowing that I would be tested on these by scent the next morning. This would be followed by another 10, and another the next day and so on…. Totaling about 160 synthetics, after which we would begin the naturals. What kind of Accreditation did you receive upon completion?
The year-end project that took 3.5 months to complete was deeply challenging on many levels. Mane et Fils was the sponsor of our year, and they gave us a “brief” to create a commercially viable fragrance with a functional extension, plus designing the marketing strategy, packaging, brand development, IFRA compliance, price restrictions and so on. Our class was divided into 2 groups and we were put in direct competition with each other. Needless to say, given that we were all from different countries, backgrounds and with different personal agendas and belief systems, we had very different ideas of how to interpret the brief. We were coached through it however, learning exponentially along the way and implementing all that we had been taught so far. At the year-end ceremonies when we presented the results of our work to a group of about 80 local industry people plus the mayor of Grasse; both teams definitely impressed the crowd.
You resided in the Perfumery town of Grasse, France. Can you describe in an olfactory way, your impressions and memories of this Historic town?
I was presented with a Certificat de Formation Professionnelle
qualifying me as a student Perfumer. This title is based on traditional learning structures that are specific to the French hierarchy within this profession. In addition to the Grasse Institute, I also completed a One month internship with Fragrance & Flavor House, Robertet in the Applications lab as well as Three month’s internship in the Fragrance & Flavor House: Mane et Fils, working on the development of an in-house perfume cataloging system within the Evaluation department.
Ah Grasse ! So many scents to speak of. Some beautiful and some not so. Grasse is a Medieval city with dark narrow little streets, with drunks and piss and dogs and stray cats and garbage bins. As much as we can romanticize places we have never been, there is normal life here too. That said; the beautiful scents of Grasse are more plentiful than the putrid. Spring arrives early on the Mediterranean, bringing never-ending waves of flowers. Did you have any mentors at the School or did you encounter any Special Perfumers there?
I remember a cold rainy night in April walking by Orange trees that were blooming and having their sweetness mixed into the smell of rain. Then billows of purple Wisteria tumbling over walls and fences with its soft sweetness, and of course the jasmine. What a novelty to walk by jasmine plants in curbside gardens or under clustered banks of flowers climbing up the sides of old stone houses. So intoxicating. I remember one Summer night walking home in the stone streets and smelling night flowers heavy in the warm air from some hidden walled garden within the old City. Of course there is the Rose de Mai; the roses of Grasse and in September, the tuberose. Each year there is a huge organic food exposition in Grasse and there is a vendor selling stems of freshly picked tuberose. That is a scent that can truly cause intoxication!
Besides the scent of flowers that fill the air on occasion, there is also the scent of an old deserted Perfumery on the edge of the centre Ville. Every day on my way to work, I would walk under a particular archway, and smell a cool powdery sweet musky scent whose actual source was completely ellusive. One day, a friend of mine, a born and raised Grassois, (who used to go up in the hills behind Grasse with his friends as a child to collect genet blossoms into jute sacks to bring down to sell at the Roure factory for a few francs) pointed out a tiny little barred window in a wall---- from that hole in the stone emanated wafts of the perfume that had been haunting me for months. If one looks into that window long enough, you can see in the darkness big Green glass demijohns all covered in dust. It is an old perfume factory whose ghosts still scent that part of the town.
Can you describe a visit with one of them and how they affected you?
First and foremost, in school, our Perfumery teacher was Max Gavarry, an accomplished Perfumer. He inspired me a lot since he is of the Grassois tradition of perfume creation that is based on natural raw materials. Max taught me to always begin with a simple natural accord and then ‘explode’ the formula based on the chemical components within the oils. He was my first mentor and I must thank him for his guidance while I was creating the first drafts of “Réglisse Noire”.
In addition, of course, Jean Claude Ellena was and is a hero of mine. We went to his studio while in school, which was amazing. Later I wrote him a long letter asking if he would accept me as a student. I also shared with him how his perfume l’Eau d’Hiver was my antidote to the shock I experienced one day when I came home to find my apartment broken into and completely stripped and trashed. I met him one sunny day in the gardens of the Musée International de la Parfumerie, and presented him with the letter as well as with a sample of my perfume. He graciously wrote me back saying that he wrote the little book in the Que Je Sais series to address the questions of Perfumery students. He also had kind words to say about Réglisse, which I will always cherish. My other hero, is Michel Roudnitska. I have gone twice to his studios out past Cabris to discuss my ideas and to seek his counsel. He is a very modest artist and one so very kind and helpful.
Through these Three masters, I have been inspired and guided and also have had the opportunity to learn how to not be so tongue-tied in the presence of those whom I admire!
One of my favourite Perfumery events in Grasse, was the annual “Concours de Nez”. This is an event celebrating perfume creation at its ground roots. There is an exposition of local companies showcasing some of the newest raw materials. (Payan Bertrand or Robertet for example). There is also a competition of olfactive prowess- open to anyone, where one is given paper tester strips dipped in certain raw materials to identify plus a written test. My first year in Grasse, Michel Roudnitska showcased his olfactive audio-visual film and scent performance at this event. It was based on 4 different regions of the world and their indigenous tribes and the film was accompanied by a scent track which was misted into the room.
Afterward for the ‘cocktail’ gathering, everyone was there, renowned Perfumers and other important society people of Grasse. Most of my class was there as well, and we were all rather star-struck by the whole event. What really amazed me at the time, was that the crowd was so small! I thought people should have been flying in from all over the world for this event! But with time, I would come to realize that this really was life as usual in Grasse. This culture of the perfume trade has been going on here for over a century and many of the people who live here have grown up in families who work and create within this tradition. Whether as Perfumers, assistants, the workers who harvest the plants or who pitchfork the massive heaps of the harvest into the distillers- it is simply ordinary life. Over the past few years, Canada and the United States are experiencing a very strong Anti-Perfume lobby group. Just curious? Do the French share this same sentiment? Do French Fragrance consumers wear their scents differently from North Americans?
I was not aware of any anti-perfume lobby movements in France. After all, I was completely immersed for almost 3 years in a part of the world where perfume and its tradition permeate day-to-day life. The industry also employs a good many people in the region. Everyone wears perfume, albeit with taste and finesse. Even little girls there often have a collection of child’s perfume. The French seem to be very current in their choices of fragrance and are quite fond of fragrances from their own traditional luxe houses such as Chanel, Dior, Hermes etc. (plus a lot of Thierry Mugler and Gaultier of course! ) I suppose it may be part of their good manners; they say “
Bonjour and “
Au Revoir” when they come and go from any shop. They often greet each of their co-workers every single morning with a kiss on either cheek, and they wear perfume in a way that is elegant and not overly intrusive. They are open to perfume and appreciate it and know about it, whereas in North America, it seems that there is a growing demographic who have become afraid of perfume and are closed to appreciating the experience of scent in an educated way.
Your company name is called 1000 Flowers. Is there a back story to this?
I am aware that this is a complicated subject, and I can’t say I agree with the way North American culture has become so highly fragranced (in regard to functional products) and at the same time sterile. The French are not germ-paranoid like in North America, so I don’t know if this relates in any way to the relationship to perfumes, but it may.
My company name comes from a Sanskrit word that loosely translates as 1000 Plants, or 1000 Medicines or 1000 Flowers. It is an idea that I resonate with, due to my years of study of natural medicine as well as the sense of well being I have discovered through many years of the study and practice of yoga. I also like the idea of the 1000 petaled lotus in Eastern philosophy that represents the unfolding of consciousness and oneness with spirit. Perfume is very much connected to the idea of the ethers and the invisible. I also think of 1000 as being an infinite number somehow- and imagining infinite flowers is quite enjoyable! Did you work on all aspects of latest launch, Réglisse Noire? What is the philosophy behind the blend and name?
Yes I have worn the hat for all aspects of bringing this perfume to fruition. Everything from building the website, using all my own photos, to sourcing packaging and raw materials and all formulation, the blog, facebook… and on and on. It is a labour of passion and love.
Réglisse Noire means Black Licorice in French. I created the formula in Grasse and at the inception it was inspired by my relationship to the traditional licorice allsorts- the candy from England. My grandmother always had a crystal bowl of them when I was little, so there is a sense of familiarity and warmth in the idea for me. As well, I wanted to create a fragrance that was not masculine or feminine but rather a perfume to be shared. I was very curious to explore what can happen if opposites find a balance between them. So I’ve taken, what to me are opposites, in raw materials and symbolism and balanced them with the goal of creating a meeting in the middle- a heart to the perfume that is a pleasurable representation of connection. The metallic, aldehydic and high tech top note molecules represent the fast paced world of technology, change and the masculine. Whereas the natural base notes of woods, vanilla, and musk represent the earth, femininity and a return to nature and sensuality. It is the heart of Réglisse Noire, with cocoa and spices that is this place of merging opposites - romantic, warm and filled with playful Gourmand notes. I believe that if we are to find harmony in a world filled with polarized views, it will be through playfulness and humour. The box is made of Canadian Cedarwood..how did you source this company? Does the Canadian manufacturing affect you in any way?
Yes, the box is made from off-cuts (leftover pieces from home construction) and is B.C. (British Columbia) Red Cedar. I specifically wanted to support local enterprise, but also to encase the perfume in a scent from the Canadian forests, which have given me so much enjoyment through my life. Also I was inspired by the idea of luxury products from days past, such as wines or cigars that were packaged and shipped in wood boxes. There is a connection here of travel and of ships and trains and bringing treasure to the new world…. and of my journeys between France and Canada and the treasures that come from both places. Are there any particular notes (in the scent) that have always appealed to your aesthetic? Why?
I suppose I have always been a fan of Gourmand notes. Edible and sensual notes. Herbs and fruits, spices, cocoa, vanilla, woods, musks ~ sensual notes really. I am also I huge fan of the white powdery and anisic notes like heliotropin and bitter almond. Gardenia blossoms make me swoon. And I love many man-made molecules as well. A material called helional, (a molecule created by IFF in NYC) is included in the Réglisse formula. I use it to represent the idea of high-tech modernity. It smells of melon and green grass, and a tiny bit of the seashore- an 'ozone' note. However, if I were to be stranded on a desert island, what raw materials would I have with me? I would choose an oil of wild lavender from the French Alps or a good German chamomile oil. Gorgeous scents that are also medicinal. ( I would also smuggle in a little bottle of Mitsouko just for those times when nothing else will do! ) You used to be a Natural Perfumer working with Organic Oils, what is your take on Aroma Chemicals after graduation? Can you explain this change in opinion?
I continue to work with Organic oils whenever possible since I do believe in their beneficial properties. Clinical essential oil therapy offers many valuable medical treatment possibilities. However, in relation to the perfumed art and the use of aroma chemicals or molecules, I was conditioned to believe that synthetic meant bad and natural meant good. But after actually studying these materials in depth in school, I realized my ideas were based on some generalizations. Many of these molecules are absolutely beautiful and the more I learned about them, the less reason I had to exclude a select few of them from my working palette. As well, as a scent artist, they give me a range of possible effects that are simply not possible with naturals alone. However, personal evolution isn’t always easy. I have spent almost 2 years coming to terms with this change in my perspective. I am embracing two points of view that I was conditioned to see as in opposition. And how do I explain this fusion through the identity of my company? I used to pigeon-hole myself as a natural Perfumer- but then when my reasons for doing so didn’t completely hold water and I wanted to branch out and explore what I was learning.
I used to categorize myself as a natural Perfumer but then, I wanted to branch out and explore what I was learning in school. As it turned out, I have found a way to do it. I walk a balanced middle road which is a fusion of my natural roots (and natural ingredients) and my concern for sustainability and the environment with modern Perfumery (and the particular molecules I have chosen). I am comfortable with this reconciliation. You have created a mandate for your company, can you explain what that is and why?
You have decided that your company partake in a Charitable cause, can you share why you chose these Associations as partners?
I grew up in very rural settings and my parents always stood for healthy natural living. These values have followed me into business and I have created a mandate for my company that represents the business practices I feel need to be considered if we are to sustain or improve the world we live in. They are as follows:
- EQUITABLE TRADE
- “LUXURY FRAGRANCE AS AN ACT OF LOVE.” This statement captures in a nutshell the foundation of 1000 FLOWERS.
1000 Flowers stands for the possibility that the world doesn’t have to be based on extremes or on rigid exclusivity. There is so much room for reconciliation between opposites. I predict that some natural Perfumers will move more and more in the direction of lab created materials, especially as green chemistry develops. We already see that the synthetics side is moving toward the naturals by consumer demand. Perhaps eventually, we can all meet in the middle and focus together on beauty and art and good ethics in the creation of fine fragrance. What I want to see, is companies and manufacturers in general, no matter what category they come from, to put the health and well-being of people and the environment absolutely first- before their bottom line. I want 1000 Flowers to be exemplary of this vision.
How would you envision your brand developing into? More commercial? A bit less attainable and Niche?
In addition, 1000 Flowers will share the pleasure of perfume through membership and donation of a portion of sales to two important organizations. 1000 Flowers is a member of the International Bee Research Association
, which is the oldest of its kind and is an “international organization collecting and disseminating information that will benefit not only those directly concerned with bees, but the environment and the world at large.”
And the Solar Cookers International
, known for their work developing and distributing solar ovens in third world countries and also in areas of disaster such as Haiti.
When I meet people who have never heard the term ‘Perfumer’, I explain it like this: Essentially I went to art school in Grasse, where the medium taught involves scent materials rather than paints or clay. It is on this artistic approach that I create perfume, and that I am building my business. Commercial usually means many restrictions on cost of raw materials and in creativity. I would like to maintain my creative freedom. How important is scent in your everyday life?
Once things develop to the point that I cannot produce the perfume myself, likely I will go to a company in Grasse who can compound the concentrates and bottle the perfume for me. However, I will never change the mandate or mission of my company. Cutting corners to reduce cost is not interesting to me. I will always offer perfumes that are made with the highest standards of pure and natural materials that have been sourced with fair trade standards, with the result being real perfume. This is how I want to continue my exploration of this art form. I must admit that I have visions of a little artist’s community one day, with perfume as the medium.
Absolutely crucial. Everything around me must smell good and in that, firstly, they must smell clean and after that, scented with some good perfume or Japanese incense or oils like lavender or sandalwood. I am a little hypersensitive to bad smells like mildew or stale smoke or food smells. I never cook strong smelling foods in my home. I have an aversion to highly fragranced laundry detergents or air fresheners. (I believe that it is these products which are partly to blame for shedding a bad light on perfume in general.) I like my immediate environment to be quite neutral. I think it would be interesting to be like Grenouille (from the book Parfum) who had no personal scent of his own, so that he could smell the ambient environment even more clearly. Which scents tickle your Fancy?
I love the smell of snow, and of the forest floor, of the ocean air, of creosote. I love the smell of sunshine on skin and all the flowers as they bloom in early summer. I think I love the smell of oxygen. And yes I do wear perfume, but I choose ones that do not distract me. I feel that I always want to be aware and ready so that when an important odour passes by me, I can catch it. It may then inspire a perfume or more often, give me an idea that I can use for one already in progress. I am constantly creating and complete a lot of the work in my mind, long before I sit down with the actual raw materials. Do you plan to stay in Canada or go back to France?
I am absolutely going back to France. When I packed up my life and went off to perfume school in Grasse, I didn’t predict that I would find a sense of home there that would capture me completely. I feel like I have no choice in the matter! My entire being has decided that the Grasse region is truly my home. (in fact I love a little village called Cipières in the mountains behind Grasse). I am in Canada for the 2010 year to launch my fragrance, but I am very anxious to return to France as soon as possible. Where can one purchase Réglisse Noire?
What is the most important thing you want for your customers to know about your new launch?
Réglisse Noire can be ordered directly from the 1000 Flowers website
- Full size eau de toilette 50ml with locking vintage atomizer in the cedar box -$110 CAD.
- A single 5ml pocket size vial -$25.
- And the ‘Love-Pair’~ two 5ml bottles -$42 (One for you, one for your love, your friend, your other….)
In addition, some time after the official release of Réglisse, I will be offering 50ml refills priced at $75.
Expected launch is the end of June 2010.
That Réglisse Noire is addictive. Some very reputable people in the know have said so…
When did the Perfume-bug hit you?
I have been a lover of perfumes since my childhood. A visit to the shopping mall was never complete until I did my smelling exercise at the perfume counters. At around eight years old I started to collect samples and miniatures that I would put in a special Armoire that my father had built for me and that hung on my bedroom wall. But growing up in Canada, where the connection to the perfume industry is almost exclusively at the retailer end of things, no young person ever thinks that a career in perfumes is even possible. It is on nobody’s radar. But when I got interested in soap making, I realized that the most interesting part of the process for me was the scenting of the soaps. I was naturally drawn to wanting to create my own unique scents rather than using pre-made fragrances. Where did you study Soap-making? Did it affect your desire to learn more?
Since I had always had an interest for perfumes, soaps and nicely packaged bath goodies as a child, I jumped at the occasion to enlist in a cold-process soap making workshop when I was living and working in Toronto a few years back. I actually stumbled upon a small ad in the window of a soap making shop on College Street. I was so excited at the thought of being able to make my own soap and give it the shape, colour and scent that I desired. At the time, I was in a rut career-wise and was looking to fill a creative void in my life with something fun and stimulating. It was the perfect hobby in the beginning, but a series of fluke events resulted in me leasing a space at a local market on weekends where I began selling my soap creations.
This was the best school to study customer behaviour, to test marketing approaches, packaging ideas and to play with all kinds of different essential oils. The scent combinations seemed endless to me and I quickly built a nice collection of oils that I would test in my soaps. This is how I first got acquainted with concepts of perfumery such as top, heart and bottom notes, as well as the relative strengths between raw materials and the proportions to be used. True understanding of raw materials can only come with hands on experience. When did you decide to study the Art of Perfumery?
After experimenting with essential oils quite a bit because of soap making, I got the yearning to know more about perfumes. I was very curious about the whole perfume creation process. I had bought a book on how to create perfumes with essential oils and vodka, but it seemed incomplete. I wanted to learn the true art of perfumery in all its complexity. Was there a pivotal moment when you realized you needed to further your perfumery knowledge?
There are a lot of soap makers out there, but very few perfumers, especially in Canada. A shift in my thinking occurred when I realized that I had to bring something new to the table to make my business stand out. It is at that point that I decided to look for some perfumery training.When did you decided to take a course at the ISIPCA in Versailles, France?
Perfumery courses are hard to come by. After some research, I found a few places in Europe that offered 1-day to 1 week initiation workshops but this was not what I was looking for. I wanted the rigor, the substance and the seriousness of a full and well-structured program. My searches eventually led me to the ISIPCA, which offered a program called the Fragrance Academy that catered to an international crowd. Can you describe the differences between your course and the regular courses?
The ISIPCA is a school where you can major in three different specialties: perfumery, cosmetics and food flavouring. For all three, you need to be a French citizen to attend the regular program. You also need to have obtained a Science Degree prior to admittance, whereas the Fragrance Academy did not require this. That was a good thing for me, because I would not have been accepted otherwise. Another difference is that the regular course is a three-year program with regular bouts of corporate internships (4 months of classes/4 months of working in the industry). The Fragrance Academy was a one-year full-time program focused on learning perfumery and all things related. Although we shared the same study grounds, the same library and access to the Osmothèque, the Fragrance Academy had its own lab, teachers, program directors, activities and conferences. How many attended with you? Is this still available?
We were 8 students altogether, which made for very personalized teaching. There were 3 Americans, 1 Romanian, 1 Brazilian, 1 German, 1 Taiwanese and 1 Canadian (me!). The Fragrance Academy program was unfortunately dropped after our graduation. They were supposed to make some adjustments to it after our year, but to this day it has not reopened.
What was a day like at the ISIPCA? Can you describe what the Fragrance Academy program consisted of?
A day at the ISIPCA started at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. We were in the lab pretty much 90% of the time. This basically means that we would smell, evaluate, create, recreate, compose, do trial after trial for hours on end. We had access to practically all raw materials available and we also disposed of some free time to experiment. I remember getting headaches from smelling too much in the beginning. Not unlike an athlete with repetitions, a big part of being a perfumer is training your nose to master and recognize raw materials and sort them by family, character, strength, etc. so as to be able to predict their impact in a perfume formula. There is also the learning of specific accords in perfumery, for example, which ingredients are used to create a rose note, a peach note, a dry fruit note, etc., and even more importantly, in which proportion to use them. Is it possible to get this training in North America?
The program consisted of olfaction classes (the discovery of raw materials, natural and synthetic), formulation classes (the art of composing a perfume), evaluation classes (learning how to dissect a fragrance), perfume creation classes (creating a fragrance to fit a brief or straight out of your imagination), functional perfumery classes (the specifics of perfuming different bases such as soaps, candles, creams, etc.). There were also many interesting conferences on marketing and trends, suppliers of raw materials and packaging, legal matters and safety regulations pertaining to perfume creation. We visited museums, toured production facilities, went on field trips, met with perfumers and industry actors of all kinds. Being from North America, I had no idea that perfumery was such a big industry, and that it branched out into so many other industries.
It is impossible to gain this type of perfume knowledge in North America, unless you are already part of the perfume industry and have access to labs, internal advancement programs, etc. If you are a layman/laywoman perfume lover, you might begin learning through the use of essential oils, but how are you going to gain knowledge of the synthetic materials, which are an essential part of modern perfumery? At some point you are going to want to go where it is all happening… and that was my purpose in going to France and signing up at the ISIPCA. What kind of accreditation did you receive at the ISIPCA?
I received the Certificate of the Fragrance Academy – Group ISIPCA, for completion of the formulation and evaluation course of the Fragrance Academy at Group ISIPCA (2006-2007), signed and attested by the Versailles Chamber of Commerce. Can you describe the smells of Paris and Versailles? What kind of significance do they mean to you?
Although I studied in Versailles, I chose to live in Paris and take the train to school everyday (about a 45 minute ride). I remember the smell of the train and ‘Metro’ tracks, which was a mix of a mothball smell (a note found in an orange flower) and of horse manure, a phenolic/inky note that can be found in a ylang ylang flower. Studying perfumery and all the raw materials makes you discover new associations for scents. Paris also reminds me of Chestnuts roasting on an open fire (street vendors), such a delicious scent for me.
I associate Versailles with the school lab smell, which was a huge pot pourri of all the raw materials we used everyday (not so good). I also remember the smell of the beautiful wisterias that grew in abundance around the school grounds and which we studied as part of a class project on recreating the smell of a fresh flower. Can you share a memorable moment (meeting someone important or something that impacted you greatly) while you were in France?
While in France, I became a member of the French Society of Perfumers (SFP), which is a dynamic organization that holds monthly conferences for its members. The themes/subjects discussed were always very current and the guest speakers were of such high quality. It was so exciting to mix and mingle with people that had the same interests as me. To be part of this impressive family was quite intimidating at first, but the more events I attended the more I felt like I belonged. I truly miss this connection to the trade. Although I am still a member, I can no longer attend the events because they only take place in Paris. I still get the invitations though, and read the newsletter, but there is nothing like being there in person. As an independent perfumer living in Montreal, Canada, the most difficult thing is the lack of contact with the industry. Sometimes it would be nice to share my perfumer tribulations with another perfumer. What was the most important thing you brought back to Canada with you?
Besides my new found knowledge, a complete collection of raw materials from the lab (we were allowed to keep samples) to make up my first perfumer’s organ. I probably shouldn’t mention this but I managed to send through the mail over 500 raw materials that I spent almost 2 weeks gathering, packing and shipping out in many different boxes (under the pretext of books). To my enchantment, they arrived intact 1 month later in Canada, except for a few broken bottles. What an adventure! I was so scared that they would get held back at the border. Since it is so difficult and expensive to order small quantities of raw materials, this crazy thing I attempted allowed me to start my own lab at home quite quickly. And like most crazy things I do, I did not regret it. You were raised in Quebec City Quebec and now reside in Montreal. Can you describe the aromas of your City?
I have been living in Montreal for only two and a half years. Which means that my first impressions, those that jump at us when we arrive in a new place, are not that far away. I had been living in downtown Toronto for 7 years before going to Paris for a year and then deciding to move to Montreal. So in comparison to Toronto, which is very urban chic, trendy, new, dynamic, but somewhat one dimensional, Montreal has a very artsy and chaotic 70’s feel to it. It’s kind of damp, brown, earthy, strange, which makes for very fertile ground for creation, and this is probably the reason why artistic movements of all kinds flourish here more than anywhere else. So to me, Montreal has to have some patchouli in it. I would add some incense for the Church bells, which still ring every day and remind us of a distant past. Montreal is also very vibrant with its numerous festivals, gatherings, laid-back atmosphere and colourful personalities, which I would interpret as an exotic fruit of some kind. What is your take on the fragrance scene in Montreal vs. Toronto or Vancouver?
I think there is a lot happening right now in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver not only because of multiculturalism, which means a greater connection to the world, but also because Canadians/North Americans as a whole have a very audacious and adventurous nature, untamed by an over-bureaucratic system (unlike in Europe), which allows us to believe in and pursue our dreams without too many obstacles. This translates into young people wanting to make careers out of what they love. And since there are Canadians that love perfume (although measures to ban perfume in public places in some provinces and the labeling obsessions of others might lead you to think otherwise), it was just a question of time before some Canadians would decide to pursue their perfumery dream and take matters into their own hands.
But there is a lot that’s been happening outside of Canada as well, which has stirred up major changes in the perfumery world. The perfume industry has gained a lot of credibility over the last years as a niche and luxury product the world around due to the emergence of young perfumers with a vision and outgoing personalities that are at the forefront of their creations and that are dusting away the myths about perfumes and that are able to sell them as modern objects of desire that can be fun, hip, artistic, a little crazy or just out there, which is a reflection of the uniqueness of individuals that make up a society. Being different is the new “normal” and has opened up the array of niche products that are on the market today and which are injecting a new energy into the perfume industry. Before, there was a kind of traditional oldness to perfumes, associated in part to an industry stuck in old-fashioned ways, and which held back a lot of people from enjoying perfume because of a lack of true resonance in their lives. The modernization of the approach to perfumery led by new perfume houses that are able to think differently has changed the perception of people towards perfume… in a good way.
This has generated a lot of good press in influential papers (for ex. Financial Times – How to spend it section) and magazines (for ex. Wallpaper, Monocle, etc.), has stirred up the need to critic perfumes and write blogs about perfumes, and discuss perfumes as art forms, modern objects of collection, etc. And this is trickling down to magazines, papers in many different countries, which in turn heightened the interest of the consumer for perfumes.
This energy is being felt right here in Canada and the curiosity for perfume seems to be growing more and more because of what has been happening on the sidelines. Perfume is “in” again! And it’s here to stay because once you get interested in perfume, there is such wealth of emotion, experience and knowledge associated with it that it becomes a part of you.
In Montreal, more specifically, I have felt this new interest towards perfume and the new markets in which it is evolving. Perfume has a much wider audience than we can imagine. And the way that perfume is being presented has a lot to do with it. More and more niche boutiques (and not only those devoted to perfume) are doing a better job than shopping malls at selling perfumes because of the personalized approach, the time and the passion they put in presenting the products to the customer. This personalized approach is introducing perfume to a whole new type of customer, the one that has never shown interest in perfume. The shopping mall experience has alienated this potential clientele because of the aggressive mass approach to sales, the amount of new launches every year (which disorients and desensitizes the public), and the lack of product knowledge by sales personnel (who also feel the pressure of reaching quotas set by the big brands). Perfume is not a product you buy with your head but with your heart. A perfume has to move you in one way or another, it has to connect with you, and that takes bonding time. To have someone knowledgeable and passionate talk about the products allows the customer to find that connection.
How long did it take before you set up a company after arriving back on Canadian soil?
A Montreal entrepreneur named Clarisse Monereau decided to tackle the lack of product knowledge in the perfume retail industry by opening up the first perfume school in Quebec called the École en Parfumerie
: which associated with the CCTFA (Canadian Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association). Starting in September, it will offer a variety of training programs of different lengths for individuals who want to pursue a career in perfume sales or for brands that want to train their personnel. I am honoured to have been asked to teach a few classes there.
I came back from France in August 2007 and launched my collection in December 2009. There is quite some work involved in building something from scratch when possible collaborators (i.e. suppliers) are few and far between. There is some trailblazing involved in every step. You have to develop your idea, create the image for your brand, write a viable business plan and find money to execute your plan (which is all upstream in the luxury market). You cannot cut corners on quality when you cater to a luxury market. Being a small, independent perfumer is also very difficult because the supplier market is catered to the big companies and the minimum quantities required to put the quality of product that you want out there is much more that what you would normally need to begin with. Developing good business relations thus becomes essential if you want to survive. How have you maintained the feel of France back home in Montreal? Is that important to your pysche and when you developed your scents?
What I learned in France is invaluable but my inspiration for perfumes does not stem from France but rather from life, the places that I’ve travelled too, the people I have met and the haphazard circumstances that life brings and that have touched my existence in a certain way. This is the pretext for my perfume creations. Of course, now France is on my radar emotionally because I lived there and I got to feel it on a very personal level. It is the emotion that births the perfume. When I travelled to Paris to attend the school in Versailles there was no doubt that I was coming back. This was not an exploratory exercise or phase in my life, but a means to an end which would result in concrete action. France was one very important step in a long journey that resulted in Monsillage. Your brand is called Monsillage (My Sillage) – can you explain the reasoning behind this name?
There has to be a click that happens when choosing a name. The exercise of choosing a name is so important because the name is going to represent you for the rest of your company’s life. For me, it started as a brainstorm and the more and more I came up with ideas the more it revealed the lack of depth of my project. A brand has to have a story that can be told and explained and that people can relate to. I did not want to just create and sell perfumes, I needed a story to back it up, to make it interesting, to give my products some roots, some meaning. It is only when I found my name that I was able to clarify the whole direction to my brand and dissect it to the point that it became mine, that I was able to own it completely.
I loved the French sounding elegance of the word “sillage” as well as its meaning in perfumery. But it can be used in different contexts, which also appealed to me. In perfumery, it is specifically used to describe the trail of scent that follows the perfume wearer. But in more general terms, it means the trail/wake that something leaves behind. I found that it made for a beautiful metaphor for life (i.e. the unique journey of each individual and the memories that make up this journey). It is the invisible proof that you have been somewhere, that you have done something, that you have existed in some way, and that you have left your mark. In combining it with “mon”, which means “my”, it created this new entity which would be the premise for my perfume creation and the bond that would hopefully interest the consumers to make it their own.
It is the name choosing that got the ball rolling for me. Once I got it down, only then was I able to clarify the whole direction for my brand. You have launched three fragrances to begin with. Can you share the stories behind each fragrance?
I find the inspiration for my perfumes in my life experiences, mostly travel tales so far. The first part of the story is included in the perfume box of each perfume. The story continues on my website. It’s a bit of an interactive process.
I have one perfume called Dupont Circle, which recounts my love affair with Washington D.C. and the unusual circumstances that led to my discovery of this amazing city. Is it a tale of friendship or love? Of coincidence or destiny? It is yours to discover…
Fresh and crisp citrus notes for freedom and youth. A floral heart note revealing a light, fruity rose to translate love and beauty. And finally, some woody notes of cedar, patchouli and oakmoss to ground that feeling of elation that could have carried me to the moon.
I have another perfume called Aviation Club, which recounts my incursion into a prestigious poker room in Paris. What happens after I enter the big tinted glass door can only lead to great poker story…
Green and metallic notes to translate the electrifying and adrenaline-filled energy of the game. Light floral notes for the elegance of the surroundings and of the dress-coded clientele. Wood, amber, leather, tobacco and coffee notes for the warm lavishness and male-driven atmosphere of the establishment. You have a theme of birds on your flacons – can you explain their symbolism?
My latest perfume is called Ipanema Posto Nove and gives you VIP access to the coolest spot in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Have you ever heard of Posto Nove?
The tale of a sensual orchid that meets the freshness of a violet on a bed of cedarwood, patchouli and incense.
I also have an “eau fraîche” to my collection. The only one of my fragrances that does not stem from a life experience. The Monsillage Eau Fraîche stands out by the sharp lemony top note given by the Grasse verbena and the aromatic notes of lavender, white thyme and rosemary. The heart brings an aquatic lilac on which rest the beautifully natural top notes. Then come the woody base notes dominated by the vetiver Haiti, which brings a special depth to the composition. The result is a modern, easy-to-wear fragrance which exudes natural richness.
The graphic design behind my brand took quite a few tries to get right. It is one thing to have a vision, but so hard to find the right graphic designer who will totally get you and be able to take your idea to the next level and translate it into something that will be able to move you and carry the emotion of your brand. There was the logo at first, then the bottle, then the packaging… and each step requires an enormous amount of decision-making, which can become quite overwhelming after a while. Were you involved in all facets in the development of your brands?
Since my concept revolved around life experiences, travels, sillage and a kind poetry in motion, the bird became the medium by which all these concepts came to life… elegance, trail, memories.
From A to Z. How difficult is for one person to set up their own label?
I would say very difficult because there is so much learning involved and you must become a specialist in many different areas. And so much of the knowledge comes from abroad. I was lucky to learn so much of the business in France, which helped me considerably in creating a product that is in check with International standards and regulations. The fact that I went to the ISIPCA also opened a few doors for me, especially where suppliers and minimum quantities are concerned. You also learn a lot along the way through trial and error. Things can be frustrating at times but there is always a solution if you persevere long enough. Where can one purchase your fragrances?
What is the most important thing you want for your customers to know about my brand?
You can purchase directly through my website
or click on the points of sale section to see a list of my retailers. At the present time, my perfumes are only available in Quebec City and Montreal but the near future should bring Monsillage to spread its wings to wider territory.
Monsillage is a labour of love, freedom and perseverance. Each perfume bears the imprint of my life story, and at the same time the endless possibilities of another’s journey.
About the Author
Marian Bendeth is a Global Fragrance Expert based out of Toronto, Canada. SixthSen@aol.com
. Marian has won three fragrance industry editorial awards for her writing.