I met her at London's Les Senteurs on the 22nd of June, at the UK launch of her new Vanille, Vétyver, Tubéreuse and Oud fragrances, and I began our conversation by asking her to explain the concept behind Nombre d'Or, the ‘umbrella term' under which these three fragrances have been released.
MdO: Before going to University in Nice, I was a student in Dijon, at an architecture school. I was always very interested in volume and shapes. And I was thinking about my art studies and architecture, and I was thinking about this idea of proportions, this magic number – almost a divine number – just to reach the perfect harmony. And it came in my mind that it was so clear and so obvious that it could be wonderful to use it as a base for a perfume, as a kind of philosophy. I was so happy that nobody had taken it already. I began to imagine my own Golden Ratio, my own balance, and how I'm going to build my formula. Always a short formula, with strong products, with a very heavy identity.
So I began with Ambre, Musc and Cuir. And I was thinking how to develop the collection. I was asking ladies around me what they enjoy. Vetivert was obvious, because it's one of my favourite raw materials. You have in each fragrance at least one drop of vetivert. I like very much the one from Bourbon, because it's very earthy. Sometimes I use the one from Java, but it's more smoky. But this time (in the Nombre d'Or Vétyver) it's the one from Bourbon. I wanted to do something personal and to do something a little bit different.
How long did it take you to create them?
MdO: Almost one year. I was working on four of them at the same time. When I was with my master, I began to work on these kinds of bases, so I already had in my mind some kind of ideas.
Tell me about the construction of Vétyver.
MdO: For the top I found a wonderful ingredient called blue ginger from Madagascar. It's a new product which has just arrived at the factory. This variety of ginger, it's like you're buying a fresh bulb of ginger, and you're going to cut it, and you're going to have your nose in the juice, and the juice is almost a little bit like rose, very gourmand and very sparkling and fresh. So I put a drop of blue ginger and a drop of pink grapefruit, for the bitterness, and a little drop of nutmeg, to make it spicy and creamy. And then you have the heart of vetivert, and in the base you have labdanum, to make it beautiful. I love labdanum. For me it's like a sun. It's a roasted resin. Really sunny.
What about Vanille? I should imagine it was very difficult to think of something different to do with vanilla.
MdO: Exactly! It gave me a headache. I was thinking, ‘Okay, vanilla is vanilla. What do people expect? They expect vanilla. But what more can I bring?' I had this beautiful vanilla absolute from Madagascar – not vanillin or ethyl vanillin – and you know the smell is totally different. It's wild. It's deep. So I was searching and searching. And I said, ‘I have to build a story.' So I was thinking, ‘Let's find the link, let's find the purpose between the ingredients.' I began to dream and I imagined this big ship, some centuries ago. And I was thinking, ‘So it's going to Madagascar, and it's going to the sea and to the Comoros Islands. So it's going to take the vanilla pods. What else you have on the boat? You have cloves. Of course you have some oranges, because if the sailors don't want to develop scurvy, they have to eat some oranges. And what else are they doing in Madagascar, because it's close to Reunion Island? So, of course, a drop of vetivert. And rum. I found a real extract of rum, a CO2 extract. A beautiful one. It cost a fortune. And they're going to the Comoros. So of course a drop of ylang. And what's the best wood for the boat? It's guaiac wood. It's very strong and it's perfect for water.' So I had the structure.
Is perfumery an intellectual exercise for you?
MdO: It depends. It's always different. Of course it's always intellectual, because I have to think, I have to see the shape, I have to memorise the shape. The shape I have in my mind, and the shape I smell, they must match perfectly. Sometimes it takes ages, and sometimes you find it quite quickly.
So when you're building your story, you're not actually touching any raw materials?
MdO: No, no. It's only mental. I smell in my head. I don't know how to do it differently. If I want to make people dream, I also have to make myself dream. I have to find an interest to do something.
So what about Tubéreuse?
MdO: The tuberose was the same story. At the beginning it's pink pepper and bergamot. And after, you have the tuberose absolute. And you know tuberose absolute isn't as heavy as the flower. The flower is very, very carnal, very heavy, very full and intense. But the absolute is a little bit green and with a little facet of water coco. Not coconut. Not milk. But a kind of water coco. It's very subtle. A real tuberose begins to smell when the sun goes down. And little by little, when you have more humidity, and when it's very dark, at this moment, the tuberose explodes. It's almost too much. So (for my perfume) I wanted to have the twilight tuberose. I wanted it to smell how it does at the beginning of the night, not to be too heavy.
And you've also made an oud fragrance. Why do we need another oud?
MdO: Well, to be honest, I didn't want to make an oud. We opened some shops in Arab countries, and they asked me, ‘You don't have oud in your collection?' So I smelt some different qualities, but I was not convinced. When I do something, I want something special. I asked my provider a couple of years ago, ‘Do you have any samples of oud?' And he gave me a sample and I was not convinced. And this time I said, ‘Listen, I need a very good quality. I need the top quality.' And he said, ‘Do you know what that means?' I said, ‘No.' He said, ‘Okay. It means 18,000 euros for 1 litre.' I said, ‘Well! Okay, first I want to be convinced by the quality I'm going to work with. First it has to seduce me.' He gave me a sample. I never smell pure products. I always smell them in solution, in dilution. So I made a solution of the oud, and I put some on a blotter, and I went to bed, and I left the blotter on the table near my bed. And because they were renovating the façade of my building, there was a lot of scaffolding outside. So in the morning, when the alarm clock was ringing, I smelt something… not a smell… I smelt a presence. I had the feeling that someone was in my bedroom. And because of the scaffolding outside, I thought that maybe one of the workers had come in, because I'd left the window open. And I was scared! It was very short, just a couple of seconds, but I didn't dare to open my eyes, and I turned my head, and I opened my eyes, and I saw the blotter. And I had a shock. And I said, ‘This is it! Wow! Okay, I want to do it.' I thought, ‘Now I understand all these stories, now I understand why it's so mythical.' You have real oud and you have fake oud. And you know, the percentage of real oud in the world is tiny. When you see so many perfumes on the market with oud, it's not possible. It's not real. It's a base from Givaudan.
Making the perfume was a struggle. I had the feeling that I had to tame a wild animal. I didn't want to take it in the direction of the other perfumes on the market. So I put osmanthus from China – a flower which smells like apricot jam – and a little drop of jasmine, and a little bit of opoponax and elemi.
You must be aware that several books have been written about perfume and that there are now many review blogs. Do you think it's ever possible to be objective when judging a perfume?
MdO: I think if you want to be truthful and polite, you are going to speak only about the perfumes you enjoy, because it's quite difficult to criticise and begin to say, ‘This perfume is not good for this and this reason.' You may think it, but to write it may not be a good idea. But if you are well trained as a critic, you are going to feel if the nose made a personal research, that the perfume is not a pale copy of something else. So on this level, if you are really well trained, you can give a kind of objective advice. But a lot of people would like to be critics of perfume, but sometimes they don't have enough knowledge to analyse a perfume. It's always very complex and very delicate to give a judgement of a perfume.
Tell me about Edmond Roudnitska. What we would he think of today's perfume world?
MdO: He would be really crazy. Because he was a purist. He'd say there are too many perfumes. A lot of bad quality in the mainstream. Too much money for the top model and not enough money for the nose. Poor formulae. No imagination. All the ingredients that are now forbidden by IFRA. He would be crazy. Even when I met him, it was the beginning of this big mess, and he was already crazy.
MdO: [laughs] It's a big joke. Believe me. I don't want to criticise, but for me... [she shrugs] You know, when I build my formula, you know how heavy it is? (With) tuberose I can't go up to such and such a percentage. Another product is forbidden now. All the products are now controlled. We are locked. So how do you find creativity? I heard some noses saying, ‘Yes, but it's a challenge. With these very strong rules, we have to have to more imagination.' And yes, of course we could stay optimistic and say it's a challenge. Let's be like that, we don't have a choice. But at the same time, I'm crying, because I'm wondering if one day they're going to totally suppress tuberose and other things. I'm worried. I'm really worried.
I would like to think that maybe we could have more solidarity between noses, and we could be more friendly. Could we, for one time, stop seeing each other as competitors? Why can't we go to IFRA together and say, ‘Now it's too much. We want to create perfumes!'
Vétyver, Vanille and Tubéreuse are now available at Les Senteurs; Oud will be released later this year.