It has to be said, the world is not short of fragrance, or scented candles. From huge commercial offerings, to smaller scale perfume houses and bespoke designer creations, the consumer has never been so spoiled for choice. In amongst this fragrant diaspora lie the bland and the banal, but also some surprisingly original olfactory treasures. What makes a fragrance better than average, or pushes it into the territory of sublime or unforgettable?
Francis Kurkdjian is a formidable French born perfumer who, aside from running his own highly successful fragrance empire, finds the time to continuously create superior scents for houses such as Burberry, Nina Ricci and Kenzo. As a young boy, he became intrigued by his sister’s perfume sample collection, and began to memorise each scent. “I used to love to work out which of my mother’s friends was wearing what.” At age 14, he watched the film Le Sauvage (1975), starring Catherine Deneuve and Yves Montand, the latter playing a perfumer. “This was the first time I saw how a perfumer worked,” recalls Kurkdjian. “I said to myself, how amazing to create something invisible that can make so many emotions and memories. Something invisible that will give you so many things in return.”
It is the rare person who does not return to their childhood when citing some of their favourite aromas, and the memories that are stirred by them—those of us of a certain age remember the smell of our mother’s sticky, waxy rose scented lipstick as she kissed us goodnight on her way out to a party; designer Jean-Paul Gaultier cites the powdery, pleasant scent of his much loved grandmother, personal, secret memories that are connected to intimacy. Kurkdjian has, as expected, more than one memory that springs to mind. “My mother was a perfume addict. I remember every one of them,” he says. His grandfather was a men’s tailor, so he also mentions the scent of an iron “as it hit the wet tissue that was used to protect the fabric” as well as his grandmother’s fragrantly sweet home cooked “cherry and rose petal” jams.
“Basically, you build your olfactory memories until the age of ten,” says Kurkdjian. “What happens before then is very important because you fix, forever, the olfactory images in your brain. The likes and dislikes of perfume are very cultural. It depends where you grew up. For example, say you have a set of twins and one grows up in Japan, the other in Morocco, they won’t like the same scent. It has everything to do with your early environment. You need to be exposed to a scent to like it.”
Kurkdjian has been a perfumer for 22 years, and has created more than 40 fragrances for major perfume houses, including classics such as Le Male for Gaultier and the much admired, much commented upon Narciso Rodriguez for her and Elie Saab Le Parfum. He won the Prix François Coty in 2001, for his lifetime achievements, and was honored as a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2008, but when asked if he has a favourite creation, he replies quickly “the next one!”
“I never look back at what I have done. That belongs to the past. If you are satisfied then there is no reason you should be there. I train young perfumers, the next generation, and I always tell them to trash what they have already done. And to reconsider doing things again and again.”
Kurkdjian co-founded his eponymous luxury fragrance house Maison Francis Kurkdjian with business partner Marc Chaya in 2009, which has a superlative collection of signature and bespoke creations. But, there is a greater underlying purpose to perfume that drives him. “Perfume that you sell in a bottle, in a department store, or even in your own shop is not art. It can be art related, or inspired but it is not art. Yves Saint Laurent was the best at explaining it. He said fashion is not art, as it needs to be wearable. Clothes are designed to enhance the beauty of the wearer. For me perfume is the same.”
Kurkdjian continues to explain his philosophy, stressing that the commercial cannot or should not be considered art. “Take Picasso’s work, Guernica—a protest on the Spanish Civil War—the subject is not playful, it is anything but fun. There is no way I could launch a successful perfume that is inspired by Guernica, by death or war. Fragrance is about magnifying the beauty of the world, of women and men. That is why I do olfactory installations and events that allow me to explore my technique and sensibilities in a very different way. This is where I have no boundaries in terms of inspiration.”
It is unfettered imagination, combined with remarkable technical artistry that led him two years ago, to collaborate with a Syrian artist showing in a Paris church, and create a fragrance that smelled of blood. “There is no way I could create the smell of blood and sell it,” he remarks. In 2003, he worked with the French performance artist Sophie Calle and produced the scent of money. “I recalled the memory of a $1 bill from the time I lived in New York. It had a special smelling ink, very specific paper. This, mixed with the sweaty odour of something being passed from one hand to another, dirty, fatty, disgusting in a way,” he says. “This is what allows me to be a perfumer and an artist all together.”
It could be said that a master perfumer is dealing in the existential, creating something previously unknown in order to complement, enhance or signify a period of human existence, or to challenge it. “My nose is trained to smell something and then to break it down and recreate it with raw materials. I then have to envision something that no one has smelled yet, not just because it is good, or even right.”
“The future of perfume is not perfume in a way,” Kurkdjian reflects. “It is about the possibility to express yourself through different mediums, in different places.” Having already recreated the perfume worn by Marie Antoinette, he recently completed a unique fragrance for Versailles: Treasures from the Palace—an exclusive exhibition that opened Friday 9 December 2016 at the National Gallery of Australia. Kurkdjian will again go back in time to the 17th century to recreate the fragrance and the soul, of the colourful court of Versailles. “It is based on an orange flower accord,” he confirms. “That was the favourite scent of Louis XIV of France”—one would assume there will be more than a hint of decay and debauchery thrown in there for good measure, or that we may even experience the acrid smell of revolution and dissent. The 17th century was not known for its hygiene or high standards of personal cleanliness.
In opposition to beautiful scents—are there odours that Kurkdjian actually cannot stand? “I am like any other human being,” he laughs. “I hate the same things. There is nothing more, nothing less. It’s just that I know right away which is the exact smell that is bothering me. You might just say it stinks, whereas I will say that is because it is made up of that and that.” Indeed, the world of haute perfumery is made up of savants. They are the gifted makers of memories, who enrich our conscious and unconscious lives by creating unseen emotions, unique and eternal.
For more visit www.franciskurkdjian.com