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The Silver Fox meets Bertrand Duchafour


The Fox has been a huge admirer of Bertrand Duchaufour for many years; I have reviewed a number of his perfumes I consider to be truly exceptional; Séville À L’Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur, the carnal scent of liaison and sin that Bertrand created in collaboration with Denyse Beaulieu, author of The Perfume Lover.  And Vanille Absolument, a narcissus-soaked vanilla like no other and my signature scent for many years, each batch different, dependent on tonka bean and vanilla harvests. I have fifteen empty bottles in my study, half a bottle on the go and two full back ups.

Cuir de Nacre he created for Parisian jeweller Ann Gérard is a masterpiece of sueded iris, rooty and cold, but spellbinding in its delicacy and hush. Rose Cut, also for Ann, is Bertand’s boozy exploded rose, petals dripping in raspberry and rum, thorns and red wine rolling in a cut crystal glass.  Or de Sérail for Naomi Goodsir, boozy 1697 for Frapin gardenia and tomato leaf in Gardez-Moi by Jovoy, weird water and incense weirdness in Copal Azur for Aedes de Venustas…all exceptional.

In my Foxy opinion Ostara was the best fragrance produced by British heritage house Penhaligon’s in recent years, an outstanding narcissus scent Bertrand created to portray the life cycle of the daffodil from bulb to bloom.  It was while Bertrand was creating the majority of L’Artisan Parfumeur fragrances out of this Paris lab that he met Sarah Rotheram who was CEO of Penhaligon’s at the time and then later on of L’Artisan Parfumeur as well. A firm friendship was formed, based on mutual respect, olfaction and instinctive interpretation of ideas.  As she says, ‘He just gets me.’

2017. Sarah is now CEO at Miller Harris and looking to re-invent the reputation of the brand since the departure of founder Lynn Harris, to bring the catalogue of existing scents into a more creative and intriguing environment. Alongside this will of course be new perfumes, different in style and olfactive emotion. I wasn’t really surprised when Sarah decided to use Bertrand as one of the perfumers for her debut perfumes. It made sense, both artistically for Miller Harris and for her personally. I knew she was bursting with ideas for perfumes and at one point I thought seriously she might launch her own line. Sarah has also learnt an enormous amount from Bertrand about the technicalities of perfume, how to decode mods, provide feedback etc. She is also self-taught, working hard to be at point where she is now where she can commission work from master perfumers like Bertrand Duchaufour and have a professional and artistic dialogue that results in extraordinary work.

On holiday in 2016 while reading Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sarah came across a passage she knew could be a great inspiration for a perfume.  So this passage, a piece about the hypnotic power of flowers coalescing into a scherzo of intense hue, was sent as a brief to a selection of perfumers. There would be two eventually, Tender and Scherzo. The brief produced an array of responses that Sarah and the Miller Harris team whittled down to Bertrand’s cunningly imagined ink-black tulip in Tender and the green-gourmand roses of Scherzo by Mathieu Nardin.

I met Bertrand many years ago when he made the journey to Edinburgh to help launch some fragrances.  He was a resolutely kind and generous man with his time; sharing his knowledge in careful precisely measured ways. We had dinner at the Scottish Malt Whisky Society and beforehand he was nosing some of the barrel-aged whiskies exclusive to the Society. He didn’t drink, just nosed, fascinated by the vapours and mysteries of Scottish terroir distilled in the aromas. It is this ability to be unexpected that makes me such a Duchaufour devotee, so I am very happy to be able to interview him and ask some Foxy questions. He kindly agreed to Facetime me from Paris.

Q: Morning Bertrand! It is really great to see you. I have known you and reviewed your work for my blog since it started. It is your intricate and artistic evocation of place and condition that I admire so much. Your perfumes for L’Artisan Parfumeur and Parisian jeweller Ann Gerard are among some of my favourite scents I return to over and over again. As a successful independent perfumer what makes you to work with a particular brand or director?

A: Hello Alex. It is really good to see you too. You know, when I start to work with people I have to have a good connection with them; Anne Gerard was a friend and I learned to really appreciate what Sarah* was doing first at L’Artisan Parfumeur, then at Penhaligon’s. Any idea has to be original, it has to chime with me. It is important to me that the people I work with share a similar aesthetic sense in order for me to have a clear full dialogue with them.

Q: What do you enjoy about the collaborative process?

A: You know, for me it is about the appreciation of things on the same level, talking a similar aesthetic language, a shared expression of art and design. There must be an exciting consideration of one name, one shape, one idea, one design. Everyone working towards the same goal. This is what I find interesting.

Q: When your nose is your livelihood, how do you maintain a dedicated and consistent interest in scent?

A: Every time it is about … I want to do something new. It is this want that keeps me motivated.  What can I do that has not been done before? It is easy to say but harder to do. I like to evolve my ideas independently of the market; Alex.. you know a lot about what is happening, the names, launches. I prefer a little distance. It allows me to connect to my own ideas untroubled by what is going on, that way I am less distracted. I always have several streams I am working with, perhaps 15-20 fragrances. In order for them to evolve, whether they are eventually interesting or not, I need to work like this.

Q: You are well known for your love of art; particularly African tribal art. I obviously have my own opinions about perfumery as art, but I was wondering what your thoughts were? Can we truthfully elevate the creation of scent to that of says painting or sculpture? Or is it similar to the haute craft of couture?

A: Listen, I think perfume can be amazingly sophisticated and this is mostly due to the level of natural ingredients they contain; these increase the complexity of the formula, but a fragrance must also be able to breathe and vibrate, be voluminous and well balanced. But consumers now, they still cannot really recognise how sophisticated or indeed basic a fragrance is. Perfume is still a cryptic world and I think personally we still need a long time before perfumes can be considered as art in the same way as painting, sculpture or photography.

Q: Now, I am loving Tender, the new perfume you have created and one half of a beautiful new duo of perfumes from Miller Harris, inspired by Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Can you tell us how you responded to the literary brief and was it different from how you normally work?

A: Sarah talked to me early on about this idea she had for a fragrance for Miller Harris and I received from her the text from the book, some images of flowers etc. A simple interpretation in some ways but very interesting. And I had this idea of the black tulip as a main theme straight away. This is how I like to work with everything.

 Q: In the passage that Sarah used as a perfume brief from Tender is the Night black tulips are mentioned and now listed as an accord in the Miller Harris fragrance notes for Tender. I’m quite obsessed with this effect you have achieved. It smells very original to me.  If you don’t mind sharing perfume secrets, how did you achieve this?

A: With Tender, I knew right away I wanted this black tulip note. As soon as Sarah got in touch with the brief and I read the words I knew this is what I wanted to do.  It was in my head for over a year. As I said earlier, I like to do something innovative. In Tender I was crossing a floral green tulip note into black to give this black tulip from the passage. It is a mix of south of France fresh green floral effects and suggesting the black ink of the book type.

Q: Now…this is a question you might not want to answer but people are always interested. Do you have favourites among the perfumes you have created?

A: Yes. I do actually. Because it was a challenge and for personal reasons…Nuit de Tubéreuse that I made for L’Artisan Parfumeur. Because it I wanted to do something interesting and different with tuberose, focus on the green part, not the white fleshy flowers that everyone else usually looks at.  It is not perfect, but it is unique and still now young perfumers come to me and ask how I did this fragrance.  The other one is Eau D’Italie, the original fragrance I made for the Hotel Sirenuse**. This is very unique, with a clay accord that in fact I gave to Jean-Claude Ellena to use in his Terre D’Hermès. The clay is the foundation of the island and the other parts represented by classic citrus notes and aromatics like basil. There is a solar accord in there as well. It was an alien perfume, ahead of its time.  Now it would be accepted, but I guess not so different.

Q: Why do you think people are so fascinated by perfume?

A: It is emotionally charged, an instinctual thing, directly linked to the paleo-cortex; completely impactful on our emotions.

Q: What is your favourite material to work with?

A: Oooft. This is a hard question, there are so many. (Foxy… ‘okay… give me three then..). Ok. Iris of course. And vetiver, I love the complexity of this material. Davana. Oh and patchouli. I LOVE patchouli. Four then….

Q: So much is written about the different styles of individual perfumers; how would you describe the Duchaufour signature?

A: A signature? All about sophistication and as I said earlier, this comes from the use of natural materials.  I like to think of my work like books, the layers of scent like pages turning.

Q: As this is perhaps a more literary themed interview, do you have a favourite author or novel Bertrand?

A: I love the writing of Julio Cortàzor, his work is something very special to read. In fact I love Latin American authors, Allende, Marquez, these themes of magic realism, full of beautiful words and huge imagination.

Q: And connected to the above, is there a book you think you would be amazing inspiration for a scent?

A: I would choose two books. Rouge Brésil by Jean-Christophe Ruffin, an amazing book about the discovery of Brazil and the first colonisations by the Portuguese and French in the sixteenth century. It is an ode to all the senses, some unique olfactive descriptions of a very new world. The other one is Corrag by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a young wandering herbalist and healer in Scotland but considered a witch by the ignorant English like her mother who was burned at the stake when Corrag was a child. The book is a dialogue between her and an Irish Jacobite whilst she awaits trail and probable death after being captured  helping the sick in the aftermath of the Glencoe Massacre. An incredible book.

Q: Finally, what keeps you motivated, going forward?

A: Innovation. Wanting to do something new each time. This is what keeps me so enthusiastic. We have access to over 5000 chemicals, naturals, a more limited selection perhaps 200; really you can do anything your imagination can support.

 

This has been such a pleasure, thank you Bertrand for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend time with me, answering my questions. I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Foxy.

 

*Sarah Rotheram, current CEO of Miller Harris, was previously CEO of L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s.

*The Hotel Sirenuse is on the Amalfi coast and owned privately by the Sersale family. The daughter Marina created a skincare and fragrance line called Eau D’Italie, reflective of the local terroir, collaborating with Bertrand on the perfumes.