What’s in a fragrance? We sit down with Paris-born Oliver Pescheux (1966), the man behind Montblanc’s widely successful Legend scent, to discuss life as a perfumer, the process – from brief to bottle – of creating a fragrance and the tools of the trade.
“For the fragrance, Legend, we wanted to make something simple… this simplicity was difficult to achieve because sometimes you want to add more. The idea was to find something that goes back to the essence of Montblanc, something strong and pure, yet bold, which should also be reflected by the black metal bottle. We wanted to have the have the guts to say that Montblanc is strong and sophisticated.”
Perhaps we can start by talking about your work for Legend, and the inspiration behind it?
The development took around a year and a half. I came up with the idea of working around Fougère, which means ‘fern-like’ in the family of perfume classification, it comes from Houbigant, Fougère Royale, and it describes a fragrance based on oak moss, lavender, Tonka bean, all very masculine smells. If you smell fragrances from the last 70 years it’s always based on this, and by using nearly the same ingredients, or a balance between them, you can create something new. So, for Monblanc we based the fragrance on these scents, and also sandalwood and bergamot.
How do you go about choosing these scents?
I have a palette of about a thousand materials to work with. From this I start with an idea according to a brief. I try to imagine the scent then I write the formula. It’s like when you bake a cake, or make a new recipe. At the beginning the idea is quite simple, but as I said it can take up to a year. Week after week you have something more sophisticated, more facets, and your formula gets longer, and finally after a year you have a finished product, which is the perfume. It’s a long process and it’s never straight forward. There could also be a lot of accidents, and you have to adapt to the new situation as a perfumer.
When trying to imagine the final product, you have the brief, then how do you proceed?
I have the brief, then I think of how to translate a particular DNA into a fragrance, in this case it was very masculine, very direct, but not bling-bling. Also, if you look at the man in Montblanc’s advertisement, it fits very well with the brand, he looks ‘simple, confident, sophisticated, and bold. So I had to translate this in a simple but sophisticated way, with all values of the brand.
How do you imagine masculinity as a scent, or in general how do you translate an idea i a scent?
How do I imagine a scent? Well when you first start this job you learn to recognise new smells everyday, and all of the materials. Then step by step you start to mix different materials together. For a scent, I try to imagine and idea, and I have to reach that idea. I then mix the materials in various quantities, like for a recipe….or, imagine you are a musician, if have something in your head you would then put it on paper. It is somewhat the same as when you imagine a scent.
You mentioned earlier that you have a palate of around a thousand scents? How did you compile that palate? And why use only those particular materials?
Step by step, you smell materials, and you make your own palate, you can use a thousand, but it does not mean I am using a thousand every time. One formula takes from between 25 to 120 fragrances. Legend contains around 74 raw materials. Technically, you also need certain ingredients for the diffusion, or sillage, and linking these materials together is quite complex. The initial idea can be very dense, but step by step you try to open it up, and make it smell good and sophisticated
And how do you know when to stop, or when do you know you have the desired, final product?
One day we need to stop. If you don’t you can work for years, and you can change it again and again. But we have to finish because there comes the time to launch the perfume. In the end, sometimes you are happy with it, while others you think you could have done it a different way.
Personally speaking, how do you feel about the result of this one?
I am quite happy, when you see the success of the fragrance you know there is something in it. It can happen otherwise. But, when it is a real success like Legend, you feel proud, as well as when you smell the people in the street wearing it…it has sold two million bottles per year since 2011.
How many trials did it take to get this one?
A lot, I don’t know how many but I showed Pierre, our marketing associate, maybe around fifty. But I made about four or five hundred – you try with different qualities of the ingredients, maybe a different type of bergamot or lavender. It has to be very precise, and the choice and quality of the materials is very important.
What are you tools, or what does your workspace look like?
My office is like yours…. I have the qualities of the scents in my head, I type out a formula then send it to the lab. I work with my assistant. When I began as a perfumer I used to mix the materials myself, but now to save time I work with an assistant who mixes, and I smell and test … then we try and smell again. But everyday it’s as if I am a beginner. When I started to work, I used paper to write the materials. Today, I just type lavender in the computer and the qualities of lavender, for instance, come up. It saves time, and you can also see the price and the norms and regulations for fragrances in the European Union – there are regulations that limit the use of certain materials to avoid any kind of allergenic reactions.
How do you refresh your nose, clear it from all of the different scents?
By smelling coffee, walking in the corridor, talking with my colleagues… or just opening a window.
On a slightly different note, when and how did you decide you wanted to become a perfumer?
It was through watching a movie. I was 12 years old and I was watching a French movie, L’homme sauvage, with my mother. I then saw one of the characters making a formula for a perfume. Ever since I’ve had that image in my mind I knew I wanted to do that…it was like doing magic.
What steps did you take after deciding that was what you wanted to do ?
I studied chemistry, then perfumery at ISIPCA in Versailles, the International Institute of Perfumery, for three years. First you have to learn all of the materials, then you make extractions, then you work on mixing together the materials, on the colour, and the different families of perfumes, Oriental, Fougère, and so on. It takes time to really feel comfortable – it took me about five years. But to be honest even after twenty years I don’t feel entirely comfortable with my work. It’s like everyday is the first day. I am not entirely lost, but each day I’m not sure I can do it. I think it’s dangerous when you control your work too much. Being not so sure of yourself is good…you have more motivation to prove that you can. Especially with this type of work, because in the end it’s a competition. During the same time there were other perfumers also working on this project. And in the end the costumer can say ‘sorry, but we don’t like it.’ At Givaudan, I work on about twenty projects at the same time.
What are some of the traits or qualities someone looking to be a perfumer should have?
A good imagination… I don’t think my nose is better than yours just because I am trained. The nose is just a tool I use to create. The idea does not come from my nose, but from my imagination. You have to respond to the brief, have good ideas, develop them and be open. It also depends on the person and their sensibilities. And inspiration can come from anywhere. For me it can be films, I am very visually inspired, and catch a lot through my eyes. I also realized with time that when I work on a fragrance, the idea is influenced by my culture and environment, and they impact my personality. This means the fragrances I create today are different than the ones I created ten years ago.
Do you work with all natural materials?
We work with both natural and synthetic materials. People working at Guivaudan do molecular research; their job is to develop new scents, scents with a lot of facets. This is a good thing for a perfumer, as it means our palette can grow and we can create new things. If you compare the perfumes today with the ones from fifty years ago, today’s have more molecules. Old perfumes are very basic. Sometimes we think things before were better, but this is not the case for perfumes. The sophistication of perfumes today is much better than it used to be, thanks to molecules. Usually people think natural products are healthier, but there are also many allergies caused by natural products.
You talked about having a large palette, and many kinds of scents, but could there be unknown plants, which can expand the palette?
It seems like we have tried all of the plants in the world. But sometimes one finds something in nature, which can be interesting for perfumery, but you cannot cultivate it. Say you find a rare flower, we can’t cultivate it, but we can use headspace technology to extract the scent.
The world of perfumers, is it somewhat of a niche?
It is a kind of niche. There are perfumers for softeners, detergents, and other things, which is the most important part of the business. But for fine fragrances, there are maybe two to three hundred working from one of the three important bases for the fragrance market: Paris New York and São Paulo.
Lastly, what advice would you give people deciding what perfume to wear?
In terms of personal use, I would say the best rule is no rule, do what you want with fragrances. The only important thing is to feel comfortable with the fragrance you are wearing. It also has to be a good fit between the fragrance and your personality. It’s a part of you, and it can be used just for you or to send a message to others.Feature image by Capucine Spineux