Perfumers have become the rock stars of the fragrance industry. After stepping out of the shadows to talk candidly about their work in Michael Edwards’ book Perfume Legends (1996) and receiving top billing on the bottles of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle’s fragrances, the public are intrigued by these composers of scent, a role which blends the romance of science with pure artistry. Still, relatively little is known about the reality of their work, and the journey they take to become a perfumer.
The small alpine village of Grasse, overlooking the French Riviera, is described as the cradle of French perfumery. In the Middle Ages the town became famous for producing perfumed leather gloves. Grasse’s microclimate is the perfect environment for growing botanical ingredients used in perfumery. Over time the leather tanneries closed but Grasse’s perfume industry boomed. Today it’s not uncommon for every Grassois to say they have at least one perfumer in the family.
This was the case for Grassios perfumer Vincent Ricord, who recalls the moment he became intrigued by his extended family’s work in the industry. “At family gatherings I was listening to them chatting. It was like a James Bond discussion. ‘I am coming from Japan, and I have smelled such and such quality of this ingredient.’ Another was coming from Bulgaria; ‘Yeah you know, the price of rose has increased so much!’ They were dressed in nice suits. It was the 1980s and 90s, a different period to now. I was so curious about this job. They were travelling. They were working with flowers. It seemed glamourous.”
Ricord is now based in Paris and works for CPL Aromas, the world’s largest fragrance-only fragrance producer. His role as Senior Perfumer follows more than a decade of work in the industry. One of his latest creations is called Everlasting Light, which showcases Ricord’s creativity as well as CPL Aroma’s exclusive raw materials and standards for responsible sourcing.
As a young boy, Ricord developed a curiosity for music, a passion he still follows today, and drawing. His father was a well-known mechanic in Grasse who restored vintage luxury cars. His first olfactory memory is the smell of benzene in his father’s garage. “I am not a perfumer who grew up in a field of jasmine.”
At age 13, he could pursue a career art or music, but it was a school internship with a fragrance company that catalysed his interest in perfumery. It was a window into a new world, one that until now had been abstract. “I was not keen to stay at school. It didn’t interest me. I had dyslexia. School wasn’t difficult but I had to find my own keys, my own way to learn. I arrived in this laboratory and there were all these bottles with long difficult names. It’s a nightmare for a normal person because when you start to learn perfumery, the method is hard at the beginning. But I said, OK, a lot of different products, it’s a mess with no organisation. That’s perfect for me! I felt so comfortable there because it felt like my normal life. I spent a week in this laboratory, and I didn’t want to leave.”
Unlike musical and artistic hobbies that can be practiced at home, Ricord didn’t have a laboratory to practice perfumery, so he sought out further internships. A family friend, perfumer Jean-François Latty (creator of Givenchy III, Clarins Eau Dynamisante and Yves Saint Laurent Jazz) advised the teenager to practice cooking to sharpen his senses, which he did. Ricord approached another company director for an internship. “He asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said I wanted to become a perfumer to which he replied, ‘Yes, like everyone else.’ Then I said the only thing I want to know is whether behind-the-scenes is what I am expecting, because I don’t know. Can you help me? He said, ‘Okay that is different.’ I worked for months, and I was happy. Later the owner asked when my internship was finishing. It was two weeks ago. He said, ‘Okay we have to do something about that.’ I spent 15 years in that company.”
Ricord worked in several departments from Marketing to Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry analysis, but it was the perfumer’s work that felt like a natural fit. Ricord explains that composing a perfume is like writing a book. First you need a vocabulary and to understand grammar, which is learned over years of training and mentoring in a fragrance company. Then you must listen to the client, and understand their world and the story they want to create in a fragrance. Ricord says that the key to a good fragrance is to have a memorable riff, a catchy melody like in music. “For me if it doesn’t sing, it means it’s too complicated. You don’t have a clear message.”
When asked for the names of the catchiest olfactory melodies across the four main fragrance family groups, Ricord gives the following examples:
Roger et Gallet, Eau de Cologne Jean-Marie Farina (1806)
Why would this be an example of an iconic citrus scent? "Because it smells good. Sometimes we forget what is important for a fragrance... it needs to smell good. Colognes have been loved for many decades. At the beginning, it was not only to perfume yourself, it was also to drink. It was medicine." This feel good elixir with its simple structure of citrus, aromatic herbs and neroli has inspired generations of perfumers, and will no doubt inspire future generations to come.
FLORAL Christian Dior, Diorissimo (1956)
"We’ve started to know perfumers by name, thanks to the work of perfumers like Jean-Claude Ellena, Jacques Cavallier and Christine Nagel. I think this is good. But before them, a perfumer who really showed that fragrance could be different is Edmond Roudnitska." Ricord's example of an iconic floral fragrance is Roudnitska's olfactory essay on the muguet flower - Diorissimo. "It’s lovely. This is like the flower, the lily of the valley flower. For me, still today, it's kind of the definition of what is perfect."
WOODS Serge Lutens, Féminité du Bois (1992)
Féminité du Bois was originally launched by Shiseido before its creator Serge Lutens set up his own eponymous house in Paris' Palais Royale gardens. Féminité du Bois is often regarded as a pioneering niche scent. "When I smelled this fragrance for the first time, I was transported somewhere else. It wasn’t a classical structure. It was so different. There is the cedarwood. Bam! It's a big quantity. Then the spices and everything else. It was rock and roll for me. Elegant rock and roll. Like a David Bowie song."
AMBER (Woody Amber) Christian Provenzano, Esprit de Oud (2021)
"I work with master perfumers here at CPL Aromas. There is Dominique Preyssas and of course Christian Provenzano, who really has his own signature. When he is composing fragrances around amber, around all these rich, warm notes like frankincense, he creates a masterpiece each time. With an amber accord, it’s more about the way you write it since it’s not an existing product on the market." An accord is born from the creativity of perfumers and their technical ability to compose a handful of ingredients that collectively create a new smell. This is the magic of perfumery. Vincent Ricord currently develops innovative fragrances for a diverse range of clients alongside some of the industry’s biggest talents, perfumers Alexandra Kosinski, Dominique Preyssas, and Christian Provenzano to name a few. Now celebrating 50 years as a company, CPL Aromas remains dedicated to nurturing perfumery’s talent in the present and for the future.