Master Perfumer Olivier Pescheux on being inspired by Paris, the joys of working with Oud, and the fragrant masterpiece that he would love to have created.
In the past couple of decades, famed Master Perfumer, Olivier Pescheux, has been instrumental in creating some of the world’s finest fragrances.
The proud Frenchman graduated from the ISIPCA school in Versailles back in 1990, before moving to Bangkok to work for Payan Bertrand. He returned to his native Paris in 1992, and worked for Annick Goutal, and latterly the Kao Corporation, before joining Givaudan in 1998.
Among his most enchanting creations is Fragrance Du Bois’ Oud Vert Intense, which features fresh top notes that surrender to a complex and seductive undertone.
Released in 2013, the fragrance opens with elements of Mediterranean bergamot, Madagascan ginger and Sri Lankan cardamom, which blend perfectly with the aromatic heart of coriander seeds, captivating nutmeg and a dash of green geranium, on a base in which smoky Oud melds with vetiver, cedar and musk.
I caught up with the 2010 International Fragrance Prize (formerly the Prix François Coty) winner to discover more about his life and inspirations.
Where were you born? Any childhood olfactive memories?
I was born in Paris, I am 100% Parisian. I have many olfactive memories, and the strongest one is probably the scent of the hot bread coming out of the bakery near the home where I used to live with my parents. I also remember the scent of the lily of the valley in May, and the specific odour of the nearby vineyard in summer time.
Why and when did you decide to become a perfumer?
I was 10 years old when I watched the French movie Le Sauvage, starring Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve. As you can probably guess, it is a love story, but Mr Montand is playing a perfumer: he is smelling flowers and paper blotters and writing a perfume formula. I said to my mother, “it is magic, I want to do that.” And she answered: “it is probably not so easy.” By chance I reached my dream.
I’m sure there was much more to it than chance, but we admire your modesty, Olivier. What are the qualities and characteristics that a Master Perfumer needs to possess?
The main quality is to have a lot of imagination and to be able to stick to ‘l’air du temps’.
What makes a truly great fragrance?
A unique signature and a strong trail.
What was the first fragrance you bought?
I remember it very well because I was 16, and I bought a bottle of Eau Sauvage by Dior.
What do you do when the person you meet is wearing a terrible fragrance?
If I don’t know it, or if I can’t find the name of the fragrance, then I ask for it.
What makes working with Oud such a special experience?
Oud is so very special. It is fascinating; rich, dark, deep, animalic. We love it, yet we hate it at the same time.
Why do you say “we love and hate” Oud?
We love Oud because the scent is so unique and special that it is fascinating. Yet we hate it because some facets are dirty and animalic, and almost disgusting. It shows that our brain is fighting between a deep animalic root, and our education that bans bad smells.
But you wouldn’t argue when people say that Oud is the ‘fragrance of the 21st Century’?
Oud is the main contribution from the Middle East to the world of perfumery. This material has been used for centuries in the Middle East (even in Japan for the KODO), and, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is finally here as a global phenomenon.
What are the similarities between a Master Perfumer and a top chef?
The capacity to imagine the final result by mixing different materials. Writing a perfume formula is like writing a recipe. The sense of detail and precision is immense.
If you weren’t a Master Perfumer, what do you think you would be?
A cook or an oenologist. I’m really into wine.
How long have you been into wine? Are you a collector?
Concerning wine I consider myself a real non-professional. I buy wine, but I am not a collector.
If you could only drink one more bottle of wine in your life (horrible thought I know…), what would it be?
If I had to choose one bottle it would be for sure a Moulis en Médoc designation like Chateau Chasse-Spleen (2009 would be great). I can’t explain why, but I like the taste of this wine – the balance of the flavours, the lingering in the mouth maybe. It is not the most expensive within Bordeaux, but it is my favourite.
When creating a fragrance, do you ever get it wrong?
Always. That’s why it takes so long to finally create a fragrance that is well balanced and with a strong signature.
Which fragrance do you wish you’d created?
No doubt: Eau Sauvage. A masterpiece.
What makes Eau Sauvage so special?
Eau Sauvage by Dior is a piece of art. It is the symbol of elegance, the perfect dosage between the raw materials, and the finest choice of ingredients. Few perfumes reach this level of perfection.
Which fragrance took the longest to create?
It is always a long process, but I would say that One Million took a long time.
Why did One Million take so long to create?
The creation of One Million was a long process because the objective was very ambitious: create the most innovative fragrance from the last 10 years. It was a real challenge.
Can the ‘art of the perfumer’ be taught?
I don’t consider myself as an artist, but more like a craftsman. So, as with all jobs, it can be taught, but there is no guarantee that you will become a good perfumer.
Jean-Claude Ellena once said, “I smell with my brain.” What did he mean?
It means that the nose is only the tool to evaluate the perfume – the ideas come from the brain and not from the nose.
How many ingredients should a fragrance contain?
The main rule in perfumery is: there are no rules. So the number of ingredients is not a question.
Where do you stand on the ‘natural versus chemical’ debate in the composition of a perfume?
Perfumers need both. Creating with only natural materials will not bring innovation. Thanks to chemistry, perfumers can be more creative and enrich the palette.
Is there a difference between a nighttime scent and a daytime scent?
Usually daytime scents are lighter, but once again no rule.
Who do you look up to within the industry?
Every day I am impressed by the talent of my colleagues at Givaudan and at the competition. It is a real challenge to compete with such talented people.
Can you talk a little bit about ‘seasonal scents’ and how we can best adjust our perfume style?
People need to feel comfortable with the fragrance they wear. In Europe, cologne, fresh waters, sparkling and light fragrances are preferred in summer time. In the Moyen-Orient (Middle East), and maybe because of air conditioning, fragrances need to be stronger. A date will probably require a more sensual fragrance. Sport will ask for a clean, fresh fragrance.
Do you read blogs or critiques of your fragrances?
I can’t be a judge and also be part of the game.
What is the best way to apply perfume?
You know the answer: no rules! On skin if you prefer this way, or on clothes if it is your choice.
Of all your creations, do you have a personal favourite?
Can you ask a father which is his favourite kid? It is a difficult question, but I am particularly proud of Oud Vert Intense because I had the opportunity to use real, excellent grade Oud. I’m also very proud of One Million, because it is one of the market leaders around the world.
How do you remain inspired and what has been the biggest influence on your career so far?
I try to be open to the trends in art, music, lifestyle, movies etc. My biggest influences by far are the ideas brought by the niche perfumes. This segment is very creative and a real source of inspiration.
When does the nose get tired? How many fragrances can you really smell?
I realise my nose is tired when I smell a blotter with no reaction (I ask myself, what am I smelling?). It means I need to rest and maybe to stop for the day. The capacity to smell is totally given by your physical condition – if you’re tired and sleepy then it will be a real struggle. A good day is when I can smell from 9am to 6pm, but I need to have some breaks during that time.
What advice would you give to someone looking to follow in your career footsteps?
Be patient, work hard, and try again and again to reach the ultimate scent.
If you had the day off right now (or weren’t answering these questions…) what would you be doing?
I would love to walk around Paris, my city.