The Process Of Simplification - Carlos Benaim At The London Launch Of Dunhill’s Icon

27th January, 2015

It’s always the way. Just as you start asking a perfumer some probing questions and steering an interview away from cliches, a discreet PR hovering in the background takes a few steps towards you, coughs and smiles. Then come those familiar words: “Sorry to rush you, but I’m afraid we’ve got to start rounding this up.”

Dunhill Icon
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened when I met one of the fragrance world’s most highly-respected figures: Carlos Benaim. The Tangiers-born creator of Eternity For Men, Pure Poison and Polo - and currently one of the most prestigious names on IFF’s roster - was in London recently to promote Icon, a new masculine from Dunhill. The scent marks something of a new venture for the brand: an attempt to target a more up-market demographic and to entice the sorts of customers who might normally reach for a fragrance along the lines of Terre D’Hermes. Its bottle is certainly attention-grabbing. A weighty cylinder covered in a lattice of gleaming, silver ridges - and sporting a cap which emits a very satisfying click - it’s bound to catch the eye of shoppers drifting through department stores and duty free outlets.

Carlos Benaim
“But what about its contents?” I ask Benaim. “What did the brand want from you? Did they simply say, ‘Give us the smell of Dunhill’?”

He chuckles and his endearingly lined face breaks into a smile. “Right, it was that simple. Actually, John Ray, Dunhill’s designer, has very specific tastes for his brand and the way he wants to design. And he has very specific tastes in fragrance also. John said to me, 'I wear a lot of perfume. I layer it. I wear vetivert perfumes, leather perfumes and lavender perfumes. See what you can do with those.' So then my mind started working and I was really taken by the idea of the leather with the vetivert.”

“Those are absolutely classic ingredients of masculine perfumery,” I say. “How do you do something new with them?”

Benaim’s smile broadens. “What you do is that you look at the type of leather you're going to use. Instead of using the typical, burnt leather, you go to leathers that are much more creative and much more suede-like. In this case, I used notes that have nothing to do with leather, such as orris and several other notes. I put them together in an accord - with a touch of violet - that smells like leather without being leather. I had already done that, not specifically for this project. It had been something I'd been working on for years, for personal interest.”

“And what’s the burst of freshness at the top?”

“That's the neroli. That is an accord that I had also done separately. When I did the vetivert and leather, it was a little too dark. I decided to take something and put a tremendous amount of it on top, to create something different. The neroli overdose was super-interesting when it happened. Then, from there, we had to fix things and to reduce the neroli etc etc. Eventually we ended up with this.”

Benaim created Eau de Magnolia for Frederic Malle
“It sounds as though you had to direct  yourself  to a great extent when working on this project; you were given a relatively free hand. How did that differ from the process of working with Frederic Malle on Eau De Magnolia?”

Benaim pauses to consider his words for a moment. “Well, Frederic Malle is much more directive. But he doesn't  tell  you what to do. I would sit with him and he would give ideas. Sometimes I agreed with his ideas, sometimes I didn't. We experimented a lot, we tried a million things. The work was more... how can I say?...  checked  by Frederic, than in the case of Dunhill. Both types of processes are interesting. The process of Frederic Malle is very exacting and very thorough... and a true  process. The Dunhill process was more impressionistic.”

“You may be aware that when Eau De Magnolia was released, several people saw it as a descendant of 70s chypres, like Diorella. What’s your response to that assessment?”

He shakes his head. “I personally would not trace my heritage to those lines,” he says. “It was not at all my intention. It might have been an accidental finding by somebody.”

“Would you say that Icon comes from some sort of lineage?”

“No, I think it came more spontaneously. It is what it is.”

Polo: "full of stuff"
“Let’s look back for a moment,” I say, hoping to broaden the discussion, “do you think you’re now a very different perfumer from the one who made Polo in the late 70s?”

“Very much so,” he laughs. “My ideas are a little simpler now, and clearer. In the old days, you had a lot of ideas, but you didn't have enough craft and experience. Things were more complex and complicated.”

“Do you think the drive for simplicity is a reflection of what consumers wanted?”

“Very much so. I started that process many years ago with Eternity For Men, that process of simplification, compared to Polo, which was  full  of stuff. With Eternity, I went through a whole process asking myself what I would do, a la Picasso, if I wanted to simplify things. The formula for Eternity was short, but the formula for Polo was a major complication. The process was not only prompted by me, it was also prompted by the company I worked for, which was saying to the perfumers, 'You guys have to think simpler.' That process started then, and over the years, it continues, and it's still here now. And the consumer is also looking for much simpler notes in general. You have to be more direct. If you look at niche collections, they're all direct things.”

Eager to keep delving into the past, I ask Benaim what he remembers about making Eternity.

“It was very interesting,” he says, “because Calvin Klein had been looking for a fragrance for a year, and they couldn't find anything that they liked. So they called us to their offices and showed us two photographs. One was of the sea, the immensity of a beach, with a few people that you couldn't really see, a lot of sky. The other one was of a father hugging a son. They told us they wanted something like those two pictures. They said, 'We want a big nuzzle effect and a big Wow effect.'”

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“How did you compose it?”

“It was single accords, single ideas, but very powerful ideas. The main accord was a very woody, sensual note. And the top note was a very fruity, green, striking effect. I put them together. The vanilla was killing it, so I had to remove it, and then the fragrance started taking shape. And at the very end, I added an ozone effect, with a touch of calone, which must have been one of the first times that it was used.”

“In an interview I read online, you said that the process of creating a perfume is like the process of being an artist. Could you expand on that?”

“I would think that all creative processes are very similar. You have different stages. You have the inspirational stage, the dream-like moment, when you start thinking, 'What am I going to do? Where is my mind going?' Then images come to you. Ideas come to you. You create an olfactive image, some weird image that is not really an image, but is a mixture of things in your head. And you say, 'Okay, I'm going to try to do that.' Then you start the process of the sweat of experimentation, which takes quite a while, sometimes a year, sometimes two. A process of back and forth, trial, error, trying to realise your vision. So I think those processes are very similar to the process of the artist. I also paint and I draw, and it's the same thing. You find the idea in your head and then you execute it.”

“I understand that you visited Morocco recently, after not having been there for a very long time. What was that like?”

“Yes, I went back two years ago after a break of forty years. It was very strange, frankly. You ask yourself, 'Is this still my place?' It  is  my place, my family's been living there for centuries. So it  is  my place. But you arrive in a city where your family is no longer there. You arrive in a hotel where you feel strange. The major things are still the same, but without the people. And that’s very weird.”

Promotional Image for Dunhill Icon
“Were the smells the same?”

He smiles again. “The smells are always there. The smell of all the spices in the market. The smell of the meat and the shish kebabs mixed with the spices. The mint tea. The leather smell. There is a typical scent of the population; I'm sure they must be using some kind of derivative of oud, especially in the djellabas that they wear.”

And that’s when it happens. Before I get a chance to ask him about his multi-cultural identity, or his views on the influence of Arabian perfumery on the West, or his support of the ISEF Foundation, I hear The Cough. Benaim is whisked away to another presentation. But before he goes, I manage to squeeze in one last question.

“You’ve made such a vast number of perfumes,” I say. “Which one are you most proud of?”

He lets out another hearty laugh. “It's always the first one and the last one,” he answers. “But I do become very attached to all the big milestones.”


Dunhill’s Icon is available now at Harrods; it goes on general release at the end of March.

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About the author: Persolaise

Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer 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. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.



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      • Diamondflame | 10th February 2015 09:19

        Thanks for the interview. Love the bottle design and the notes sound promising. I do however wish that fragrances are less spartan and more 'full of stuff'.

      • Diamondflame | 10th February 2015 09:19

        Thanks for the interview. Love the bottle design and the notes sound promising. I do however wish that fragrances are less spartan and more 'full of stuff'.

      • Diamondflame | 10th February 2015 09:19

        Thanks for the interview. Love the bottle design and the notes sound promising. I do however wish that fragrances are less spartan and more 'full of stuff'.