Dressed in a sharp white shirt, Francis Kurkdjian is sitting in his fourth-floor office on Rue Etienne Marcel in Paris on a sunny winter afternoon.
On the table in front of us are a dozen different coloured bottles and beside them a rack of exquisitely folded paper scent-tasters.
An eloquent and expressive interviewee, Kurkdjian is enjoying the performance: just as his perfumes transform chemistry into alchemy, so does his talk bestow coherence and compelling metaphor to a notoriously slippery topic.
He is speaking, in excellent English, about his one-off commissions: the ideas that keep him creative and stimulated.
One which piqued his interest was from the distinguished French installation artist Sophie Calle to create a scent for money.
“I was inspired by the idea that money doesn’t smell, but also money laundering. And from the smell of a one-dollar bill. The ink and the paper of the US bill is special, like a cooked rice, a chiffon type of paper. And then you have the kind of dirty, leathery scent, on the back.”
I sniff the paper-taster. It smells fresh, metallic and slightly harsh: not at all comforting. It’s the correct response.
Kurkdjian smiles and then asks, “You want to smell the Marie Antoinette?” This is another of his one-offs, to recreate the scent worn by the infamous wife of King Louis XVI – beheaded four years into the French Revolution – who remains a talismanic figure in contemporary France.
“That was for work I did for the castle of Versailles,” Kurkdjian remembers.
“We found the archive of the castle, in the Parisian library, [and] the box of one of the perfumers, she had many suppliers. She was commissioning the perfumers to create perfumes for her. And the idea was to recreate the formula in the same way. It smells like an infusion of flowers. The process was like finding a new score for music, and you try to understand what are the instruments, and you try to manufacture the instruments, and try to mix them and play them together.”
The scent from the taster explodes into my nose: sweet with a tang, overwhelming and powerful, I tell Kurkdjian, and ask what the constituents are.
“Iris, orange flower and roses. I have facsimiles of the formulas from the early 18th century. The scent is super-big at the beginning and then, because it’s natural, fades quickly. At the time, people applying perfume through the day. Even different perfumes.”
“You know where the name comes from, eau de toilette? Toilette comes from toile [linen cloth]. During the 18th century, there were no dedicated bathrooms. You had your bath in the bedroom, or even dining room. For royalty in France, you could set up, mettre la table, in your bedroom, in the corridor. To clean yourself in the morning, you would take a table, like a Louis XV commode, and on top of it, you would put the canvas cloth, la toile, to protect it. Eau de toilette was the liquid you would put on top of the toile, to clean yourself.”
Perfume is the way Kurkdjian sees the world. “I am passionate about communicating the way I work,” he says, “and trying to step outside of the clichés. Is it chemistry? Am I a chemist? The work of the perfumer in future is going to be more artistry. Now you are encapsulated in the commercial bottle you have to sell, but you have to step back from the artistry and make it communicable.”
At 45, Kurkdjian is near the height of his powers: driven, charismatic, innovative, a rock’n’roll perfumer.
Of French/Armenian stock and born and raised in Paris, he embodies the city’s chic and sophistication, yet at the same time a restless innovator. “In France, perfume is a conservative industry,” he says. “People will put you in a box. I do a lot of business in Britain, with Burberry, as they are more open.”
The cosmetics market is huge, with sales more than £8bn in the UK during 2013 (fragrances alone accounted for £1.35bn).
During the last 20 years, there has been a massive expansion in male fragrances, driven both by celebrity products – Jay Z’s 2013 Gold Jay Z, for example – and an increasing sophistication within the market, as men use scents not just for grooming but as an expression of personal style. A top perfume can sell 10 million bottles but success is hard to predict, so the industry oscillates between tradition and innovation.
The power of the nose can be shown by the difference between visual recall (50 per cent) and scent recall (65 per cent). It is an underestimated Trojan horse in the array of senses.
To be a successful perfumer, it helps to have flair, good training and a track record. As Kurkdjian says, “When someone asks me how long it takes to create a perfume, I say 20 years, because you need 20 years experience.”
After studying at post-graduate fragrance school ISIPCA in Versailles, Francis worked with leading fragrance producer Quest International. After two years, in 1995, he originated a scent for Jean Paul Gaultier called Le Male, sold in a blue, male torso bottle with ribs mirroring Gaultier’s trademark matelot sweaters. It made his name.
Since then, he has created scents for major brands as diverse as Acqua Di Parma, Dior, Elizabeth Arden, Guerlain, Armani, Joop!, Lanvin, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent. He is currently working on “seven brands, and among those, 15 different scents. It’s like shooting two movies. But one project relaxes me from the other, because they’re different. It’s a creative process, so you can’t switch off your brain.”
“I don't have weekends,” he admits. So how does he relax? “A project can relax you. Relaxing is about being happy. It’s a state of mind which is close to happiness. If I go to a concert, to opera or to modern music or whatever, your brain is thinking and sometimes you just grab a word and get an idea for a perfume. So, even if you want to relax... for me, right now, 2015 is planned, over; 2016 is almost over, I’m thinking about the end of 2016, end of 2017.”
I ask him how it works. Perfume, after all, is an intangible item that’s not a Versailles necessity. It’s not just about the scent, but about the hopes and dreams that the bottle and the packaging evoke: most obviously, in the heroic fantasies of perfume advertisements.
Kurkdjian is pragmatic.
“My work is to write a perfume,” he says, “in the same way you write a book. What I really do first is find a subject, whether it is for my own brand, or someone else’s. Once I have my pitch, I start to think about it, and from my ideas, I am capable to turn that into a scent. The whole process, materialising the process is writing down the formula, that goes to the lab, I don't have anything to do there. It comes back to me in the form of a little sample.”
“Then if what I have in the bottle matches the olfactory image I have in my mind, then I’m done and I’m happy,” he says.
“What matters to me is the emotion. The feeling of something that doesn’t exist. Perfume is a feeling. If you tell people that there’s lavender or rosemary in the bottle – even if at some point they can recognise each scent – they’ll likely be totally incapable of saying what it is going to smell like as a result. But if I give you the idea that we’re on the beach, there is white sand, blue sea, an umbrella, a little chair, a coffee table on three legs, a glass,
I can describe everything to you and you can start thinking where we are. The problem with perfume is like explaining to someone that violet is made up of blue and red. It’s obscure, in a way. This is why there are so many clichés about what I do, how we create, the world of perfumery, because it is hard to understand. If I give images, it is very simple.”
“Which is also why I decided to teach,” he adds. “It helped me so much to explain to kids. When you teach, you have to find the right words, to conceptualise what you are was doing. You have to find images, when they come from a different background, you have to be able to talk to them. I have to find a common language.”
This is difficult, because, as to some extent with music, perfume is difficult to write about. There are the concepts of notes and accents, but the olfactory response, while enormously powerful, is hard to transcribe into words. Kurkdjian understands this difficulty. “We are trained with visuals,” he says. “No one teaches you to name sounds, or it is very basic, and with tastes and scent, forget it.”
Nevertheless, as a child and adolescent who was immersed in music and ballet, he is fascinated by the relationship of music and perfume: “Both have the same vehicle, or medium, which is air. The air vibrates and carries the music and the scent is carried by the moving air. If you are in a static environment, even if the source is very smelly, a strong scent, if the airflow is going backwards, you won’t smell anything.”
So perfume, like music, is environmental?
“Yes, because you have to occupy the space, the way that music fills a room. This is where I find a very strong relation with music. It’s an argument I have with a friend who is a music composer, when I say I am a perfume composer, he says, ‘Why do you use a word that belongs to music?’ In French, we make the distinction between writing, painting, composing music, but for perfume there is not a proper language. The reason is that it’s only 150 years old, which is nothing compared to visual art or music.”
Look at old ads for Seventies’ scents and you’ll see a hilarious array accentuating the grooming aspect, sporty associations (Royal Copenhagen’s Ultra Men’s Cologne, Pfizer’s Hai Karate) as well as blatant machismo. Faberge’s Macho aftershave came with the tag line, “Macho. It’s b-a-a-a-d” in a bottle with an undeniably phallic shape. This was the era of Aramis, Brut, Old Spice, what fragrance expert Lila Das Gupta calls “the fragrance Bermuda Triangle of the Seventies”.
During the Eighties, fragrances slowly became more sophisticated: new scents were introduced into the classic floral, oriental and woody families, like the Ozonic fragrances of Davidoff's Cool Water and Christian Dior’s Dune.
Since the advent of the metrosexual in the mid-Nineties, men’s scents have become less a necessity than a sophisticated source of pleasure, as men, to some considerable extent, have been target-marketed in the same way as women, with subtle psychological appeals to their desires and fantasies.
Fragrance, like music, is distilled emotion.
“Exactly, that’s correct,” Kurkdjian agrees. “In my process, what matters to me is the emotion of the scene, and then that feeling is turned into something concrete. If I need jasmine, I'll be using jasmine, if not, whatever is appropriate to me. Not so long ago, I heard on the radio about a composer who was obsessed with steam locomotives, and his idea was to translate into the music the feeling he had, being in a steam engine. He started with the feeling, and translated it into sound, using his materials. I do the same.”
The process of making fragrances is both highly technical, involving ingredients that might include complicated synthetic compounds calculated to the most minute degree, and highly subjective if not instinctive: how is it that a tiny change in the ingredients creates a winner from a dud? It’s a kind of alchemy and it’s hard not to see Kurkdjian as a magician.
In 2009, he founded Maison Francis Kurkdjian with business partner Marc Chaya, opening a Paris shop on Rue d’Alger. On its website there is a handwritten motto from Kurkdjian: “Perfume as a work of art is an expression of intimacy.” Maison Francis Kurkdjian offers three scents each for men and women, Masculin and Feminin Pluriel, Amyris Homme and Femme, APOM Homme and Femme, as well as two eau de toilettes, “fragrances to share”, Aqua Universalis and Aqua Vitae. There are also the colognes Pour Le Matin and Pour Le Soir, a scent called Oud in “silk”, “velvet” and “cashmere” moods plus perfumed candles, fabric softeners, and papier encens (incense paper).
Back at the table, it’s been a while since we’ve had a sniff, so Kurkdjian offers me another taster of a dark-tinted liquid, Aqua Universalis. It’s a scent from his own house and the smell is so overwhelming it’s like being high, the same massive stimulus to the sensory system
“The scent is one of our best sellers, one of the unisex scents,” he explains. “Very fresh and crisp. The inspiration was to recreate the modern haute cologne, which was started in the early 18th century, and it was drinkable. It was 100 per cent natural, composed with rosemary, thyme, orange flower, orange blossom, lavender, and people used to drink it for a digestive effect. You would have huge celebrities, like Napoleon, drinking cologne. I like that inside-out effect, that you would ingest something, like the good thing inside, to bring the good thing outside.
“I started to think about that Latin sentence, mens sana in corpore sano [‘a sound mind in a sound body’, Juvenal, The Satires], and this is how the ‘universal water’ became Aqua Universalis. It’s trying to capture the scent of the feeling of cleanness. It’s spring, airy. The first scent is very different to the scent that comes in a second later. It’s not all one level.”
We try another taster.
“This is Aqua Vitae, the second chapter of Aqua. I’m now writing the third chapter, Aqua Critique. Aqua Vitae is a celebration of life. Very outdoor, sunny, when your mind is light. The inspiration for this was the dust of a fig tree, you have the dust, the sun and motorcycling on a very dry island. It’s about the pleasure you get when your bed sheets are super clean. Or when you put on a shirt that has just been ironed. The feeling of the first time.”
It strikes me that a unisex perfume is a terrific idea, one that confirms what often happens anyway as lovers and friends swap their fragrances. “In western culture, we have a different concept of gender and sex,” Kurkdjian says. “It’s very important, gender in terms of taste. This is not something you have in, say, Middle Eastern culture. Even though there is a physical difference, in terms of perfume, they don’t.”
“Men came to perfume through grooming products, which have lavender, rosemary, thyme, herbal notes, because they have a kind of antiseptic properties — wet, fresh, citrus also. They put perfume on in the morning because it was before shaving. A woman could re-apply perfume throughout the day and, because she’s a woman, flowers, which is the most common pattern for perfumery. Women and flowers are close, throughout history of mankind. Rose and jasmine and all that. So, in our culture there is a pattern for men’s perfume, and a pattern for women’s perfume.”
“What is changing a little bit now is that an ingredient doesn’t make a gender, it’s how you use it. Think about silk as a fabric, you can make a tie, or you can make a dress. And you have convention that says the tie is more masculine and the dress is more feminine. I can put rose in a perfume, but it depends on how I cut in to make it more masculine or feminine. Or jasmine. Eau Sauvage, which was the world’s leading best seller for many years, is built with jasmine as a core flower. But you don't smell it. It’s blurred with lavender and aromatic notes.”
The tasters keep on coming: the Aqua Vitae was sensational but I’m getting punch drunk. Next is a fragrance which changes from its initial impact into something very different: Oud. “Not the musical instrument,” Kurkdjian explains. “This oud is an ingredient used by Arabic people, it comes from a wood. The same way patchouli in the Seventies had that cliche of being very hippy, oud wood is very clichéd now in terms of being an arabic smell. My idea was to give a modern western twist to a very arabic pattern.”
It reminds me of amber. I ask whether that scent is popular with men. “They like it, but not sweet. You have to go with the dry part. If you go unisex, you have to make sure there is no flower. Unisex perfume is usually fresh, crisp and easy, like a white shirt. A men’s white shirt for a woman is quite safe. Even for a man, you can always pretend. But think about something other than white cotton, it's much more difficult.”
I ask whether, when creating a scent, he thinks in terms of increasing sexual attractiveness. “Well, first, the power of the visual is super-important. More than your nose. When I create a perfume for myself, I am the first tester, I try it on my skin. I put dots on my skin, to follow different trails, and to follow them throughout the day. Until last September, I was using different colours. Then I noticed that many times, people were picking the nice colours. The brown, the green, the not-so-friendly colours, were like leftovers.”
“I decided to do the same test, using the same colours, no matter what the colour was. Your brain reacts totally differently. If I let you smell this perfume in a bottle, like that, or if I send you the packaging, your brain works differently. So, to go back to your question, what is sexy? A man or woman wearing a towel on their waist can be sexy. But does she have to smell of soap, because she might get out of the spa, or the shower? Or does she have to smell of sex, sweaty and all that?”
“This is why musk became a very sexy scent in the US, you had a thing called Jovan Musk, the advertising around it was about sexy attitude and half naked people during the Seventies. There is an association between the scent and sexy. But it is totally disconnected from being sweaty sexy. What I try to do with my perfume, I try to infuse that part of humanity that perfume needs, in my mind. Perfume is an artifice. You put something on your skin, and you pretend this is how you smell. It’s invisible. It’s not like an expensive watch, where you see the accessory. It’s a trick to distract people.”
Does he think about how the perfume acts with the skin?
“It’s impossible to think about all the people who put the perfume on,” he replies. “If you have to take care of everybody, you wouldn’t do it. To me, it’s like a piece of clothing. The designer has an ideal model size, whether realistic or not, and this is the way it should look. If the fragrance has a strong signature, it is a statement, then from one skin to the other you will find that statement. If it is a very vague perfume, then it won’t say anything on anyone.”
Where on the body should scent be applied?
“Chanel had a strong theory that you put perfume on where you want to be kissed. I tried and to be honest that is the worst thing. Put the scent next to it, that works.” He laughs, “Leave the place for the tongue, and all that.”
As well as his brand, Kurkdjian also does scent installations, as a kind of creative relief from commercial pressures.
“I’ve done it since 2003,” he says. “In the commercial world, artistry has to stop at some point, and be aware that am I going to be understood, in a hostile environment, in a department store? You line up the brands, and it’s not like in the museum or in a gallery, you have to look pretty. In that case, scent is about magnifying beauty. I’ve never seen a scent be a commercial success by talking about blood, sweat, war. Real art is magnifying the black side of humanity, I am magnifying the good side. I needed to find a way to provoke an emotion, but the emotion doesn’t have to be nice. I don’t want to think about being pleasant.”
“My first step was creating a bespoke scent. It added a new dimension to my work. Then I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sophie Calle, who works with installation and performance. She was commissioned by an American bank to work around the concept of money. She made videos, installations, writing, and at some point asked, does money have a smell? She asked me, with carte blanche, to create the smell of money.”
Kurkdjian is like another kind of magician, another juggler, moving his projects around.
A current project is a pop-up shop in Rue des Blancs-Manteaux, on the edge of Le Marais. “My idea was for two months to showcase my aesthetic, to display the things I like. People I believe in, designers, one is an olive oil-maker. Another makes organic vegetable juices. Also Baccarat. I have just created their signature fragrance for their 250th anniversary. It’s almost like home for me, there’s a homey feeling to it.”
How does a brief from a company like crystal-makers Baccarat work? Does it request a particular scent? “I tell them it’s not their job, it’s my job. Because you cannot be driven by the ingredients. It’s a statement but I’m not interested in that. Baccarat has worked with so many other perfume brands.
“I asked, what is Baccarat made of? Crystal is mineral, fire and blowing. Mixing these three things makes something super-dense and transparent in one single piece. I related the three elements, was able to find three raw materials and balance them with each other,” he says of its woody-amber-floral essence.
“Baccarat Rouge 540 is the trademark signature of the house, [the bottle] is made of crystal, when the crystal is boiling in the fire, you infuse pure 24 carat gold powder and you blow. Imagine you put this into another oven for four hours at 540°C, this will turn into a red piece of crystal. It’s pure alchemy. You keep the best of the tradition and make it into something contemporary. Which is what I’m trying to do with Maison. It’s the point of having your own house.”