I suspect Fabrice Pellegrin would rather be in his lab, trying to work out the mechanics of some new accord, rather than giving interviews to journalists. There’s absolutely nothing rude about his manner - indeed, he is politeness itself during our brief meeting at Diptyque’s London launch of Volutes - but there’s also a hint of reticence in his body language.
Frankly, I don’t blame him. I daresay that when he decided to become a perfumer, he wasn’t interested in attaining rock star status. So the thought of spending an entire day answering what can sometimes be crushingly inane questions probably fills him with dread.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t: he’s too diplomatic to give me any hard evidence on which to base my conjectures. For all I know, he relishes the attention and enjoys the break from the introverted silence of fragrance composition. Certainly, at the start of our conversation - which takes place through an interpreter - he responds to all my queries with diplomatic efficiency and never allows his professional demeanour to slip. So when I ask him why he thinks Diptyque have turned to him for several of their recent releases, he tells me:
And when I enquire about the brief for Volutes - a scent which was, unusually, named by its creator - I’m immediately treated to this:
“It was connected to a childhood memory, from the 1930s, of Yves Coueslant, one of the founders of Diptyque. When Yves was crossing the Mediterranean on a liner as a child, he would stand on the top deck, and on the lower decks were all the ladies smoking. And so the coils of smoke - the volutes - would rise up. There was something magical about that smell, particularly because of the sort of tobacco. Women who smoked at that time were from the high bourgeoisie. There was something very prestigious about the smoking, the boat, the crossing. So that was the starting point of the story. I thought of mixing two raw ingredients together: tobacco absolute and Provençe honey.
“Honey adds sensuality, softness, sweetness, something gourmand, almost like dried fruit, similar to the smell you'd have in some tobaccos. Then we added iris to it for a feminine note, because tobacco is quite masculine. We also added spices, pink pepper, black pepper and saffron. Practically every raw ingredient represented a stop on the route of the ship heading to Saigon.”
At no point does Pellegrin sound like he doesn’t believe in the words he’s uttering. Indeed, he delivers them with a matter-of-factness which suggests a great deal of confidence in the finished product. But he does seem slightly weary of having to re-tread the same ground over and over again. So I decide to enter geekier territory, in the hope of sparking some passion: I ask him what challenges he faced when making the scent.
He gives the Diptyque rep a quick glance, as though to check whether it’s acceptable to acknowledge that the pristine world of the candle makers’ is ever anything less than problem-free. And then he leans forward in his seat and starts speaking at a slightly faster rate. “It's quite difficult to work with tobacco. It's quite a harsh note, very earthy in a way. It carries a connotation which isn't completely positive. We had to try to make the note acceptable. That was the role of the honey. At Diptyque the philosophy is to produce unisex perfumes, which was difficult to do with tobacco as a starting point. That was a challenge. But I think we've managed to create something beautiful by using two different voices, in a way: an eau de toilette, which is a unisex version that may be more oriented towards men, and an eau de parfum, which again is unisex, but may be more oriented towards women. In the edp some of the notes are stronger, for instance the iris and the styrax and the musks, to make it more sensual, more enveloping.”
These feel like fresher words - they don’t sound as though they’ve been airbrushed by the folks at PR HQ - which means it’s time to delve further into geekdom.
I’m sure the perfumes have been made with a fair amount of naturals, I say, but obviously they must contain some man-made substances too. So, are there any exciting Firmenich synthetics in Volutes? For instance, have any NaturePrint materials been used?
At first, Pellegrin is silent. This was clearly the last question he was expecting to hear. But then a twinkle appears in his eyes and he says, “The tobacco is a NaturePrint. And there’s the famous Paradisone, which is like a concentrated Hedione, and gives more breath, in a way, to the fragrance. It's quite new to Firmenich. It wasn't developed for this product, but it was very helpful in this composition. Nowadays, Firmenich are developing more and more natural ingredients, and Diptyque allowed me to use quite a few of them, especially some CO2 extractions, like the pink pepper, the black pepper and the benzoin. It gives a more natural dimension to the fragrance and makes it feel richer and more noble.”
He smiles. “To start with, the idea came from Thierry Mugler. He wanted to have fig somewhere in his portfolio of perfumes. In Womanity, the fig has been treated as very green and crunchy and juicy, rather than sticky or overripe. The combination with the caviar, which is a sort of marine, salty note, gives it a feminine signature.”
“The whole idea came from Mugler?” I ask.
“So you're putting the blame on him?”
“Yes,” he laughs. “But what I should add is that the perfumer will have his own ideas and bring his own creativity. But then after that, when he's at the service of the client, he has to follow the client's idea.”
“Are you happy with the perfume?”
“I'm very proud of it,” he answers with a nod. “And I'm very satisfied with it. And what I think is very notable about it - which is very much in keeping with Mugler - is that when a woman wears Womanity, you turn around and recognise it, the same as with Angel and Alien. I hope it's going to have the same success as Angel. It took 10 years for people to really accept Angel, but today it's one of the leaders in the market.”
When I raise the subject of IFRA, he seems less eager to talk, despite the fact that the Diptyque representative appears to give the green light to negativity by sighing and saying, “It’s a nightmare,” as soon as I mention the organisation’s name.
“Instead of companies gathering together to unite and to fight against IFRA,” he says, “ they're all very fragmented and secretive. And that's a problem. It's divide and conquer. IFRA are doing whatever they like.”
I mention the frequently-raised analogy with the food industry: if it’s legal to sell potentially fatal peanuts as long as their packaging is correctly labelled, then why isn’t the same sort of freedom extended to perfumery?
At first he’s silent. Indeed, I wonder if he’s going to say anything at all, so I start forming the next question in my head. But then he takes a deep breath and starts speaking, measuring his words carefully. “What is a shame in my view is that we don't know if it's the perfume that causes the reaction, or maybe the combination of things someone has been eating, or a shower gel. It's very complex. And for us it's really a problem, because the palette of ingredients we have is getting smaller. And we don't have any substitutes for these products. And when we do find substitutes, we get a vicious circle. There are some products like lyral and lilial which are used in lily of the valley scents; IFRA decided to restrict them. So companies tried to find replacements for them. But now, because the substitutes are used in high quantities, IFRA start wondering if maybe they could be potential allergens too.”
“A perfume is a secret thing. I don't know how the formula could be shared.”
“So you believe it wouldn’t be possible to do what Wasser suggests without sharing the formulae with too many people?”
He shakes his head. “If we tried today to recreate a real, original Guerlain, I think it would be impossible.”
There’s a quiet shuffling of papers and feet: our time is nearly at an end. But before I leave, I ask him which perfumes of yesteryear he misses the most.
“The products that have been most damaged by all these transformations are the Guerlains. They had a lot of civet, a lot of animal products, and nitro musks, and oakmoss. And today we don't have anything that can be a real substitute for any of them.” A wistful smile appears on his face. “It would be great to smell a real Mitsouko or a real Après L'Ondée.”
And after that, there’s really nothing else either of us can say.
About the author
Persolaise is a Jasmine Award wining writer and amateur perfumer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by writing to him at persolaise at gmail dot com.