End Note: Perfume in a Poem
Extraordinary NYC: Odds and Ends

Perfuming Literature: Interview with Christophe Laudamiel

Christophe_laudamiel_2Christophe Laudamiel defies categorization.  He is one of the most sought-after perfumers working today, but he is also an inventor, chemist, artist, educator, and fearless pursuer of his own ideals.

I first became aware of his name in November 2006 when I read Chandler Burr's "Smellbound" article in the New York Times Magazine.  In it, he reported that the Patrick Süskind novel Das Parfum was to become a movie, and that a coffret of scents inspired by the book was being developed for Thierry Mugler by two perfumers who collectively call themselves "Les Christophs."  But it was the way Burr described Laudamiel's personality that resonated with me:

"A young Frenchman named Christophe Laudamiel was still in perfumery school when he first read Süskind’s book. What struck Laudamiel most was a description of ripe, juicy pale yellow plums and the girl who sells them to Grenouille, the first virgin he murders.  But what also struck him were his own similarities to Grenouille. Tall and painfully thin, the young Laudamiel wasn’t social. He didn’t always feel comfortable with people. He wore a red mohawk. In the novel, when Grenouille retreats to a cave in the middle of France to live the life of a hermit for seven years, Laudamiel understood. The day I become a perfumer, he said to himself, I will do something with this book."

I understood the solitude of awkwardness, of being an outsider, and most of all I understood the power of literature to transcend those difficulties and quietly inspire the pursuit of a life goal.  I was further excited to find that not all of the scents in this coffret smell like what most of us consider "perfume."  MSNBC writer Coeli Carr wrote that "the coffret contains fouler offerings, such as 'Atelier Grimal,' 'Paris 1738' and 'Human Existence,' which evoke the squalor and filth found in the sewer that was Paris nearly two centuries ago."  Just as a great writer would purposefully explore the uglier side of humanity, Christophe, in his own literary way, had been creating scents inspired by the book on his own for years and had not avoided the stench of "human existence." 

I would have continued to admire Christophe from afar as a sort of avant garde rock star of literary perfumery, but early this year I had the unexpected good fortune to find out that we have a mutual friend, writer and perfume consultant Michelle Krell Kydd, who introduced me to Christophe by email.   In my first letter to him, I introduced myself as "irrationally devoted to both perfume and literature," and asked him if he would be willing to answer a few questions about his approach to literature, art, and the art of literary perfumes. His first response began:

"I do like to promote a more literary approach to the language of perfumery, not only to describe scents but also to describe the creative process.  What was going on in the mind of the perfumers?  How did an ingredient end up where it is? ... I want to reach the level to what I see in music and in literature, although I am not a specialist in those areas; certain things fascinate me. So I'll be happy to participate to your effort.  Please send me your questions, any question is ok, I may just not answer them all!"

In fact, he did answer almost all of my questions, and generously responded to several rounds of follow-up inquries.  What follows here is a transcript of some of that correspondence on the subjects of perfume and literature.  (Note: Christophe was one of the first people to whom I "pitched" the idea of using Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" as an inspiration for a perfume.  His contribution to that project was published on March 23, 2008, as "Christophe Laudamiel: Perfume in a Poem," and the footnotes to that entry include his thoughts on "scent memories" from childhood, and his love of tulips, which are quoted again here.)

 

Heather: You mentioned in your email that you "want to reach the level to what I see in music and in literature, although I am not a specialist in those areas; certain things fascinate me." What are some of the things in literature and music that fascinate you most?

Christophe: I'm fascinated by intellectual challenges--academic interests--but my pride is very much built upon doing something that people will use (a scent, a product, etc...).  So, while I love the academic pursuits, my approach is more entrepreneurial.  

What fascinates me in literature or music?   In the magazine Le Monde, I once saw a whole article written about the last musical note of an opera by Haendel; a whole article about how that one note has been played and how it should be played by different orchestras. (Yes a single note, not even a whole chord, the very last one note from the whole opera).  Wow.  That is fascinating.

If you wrote a book, what kind of book do you think it would be?      

I am looking at different ways, but writing is so time-consuming.  I want to create perfumes, not spend all my time writing!  Right now, though, I am on a crusade to propagate true and open information about perfumery and to improve formal education in this area.

[Reader: An excellent article on Christophe's crusade to educate the public and dispel the "secrecy and mysticism" about the perfume industry is "Making Perfect Scents" from The Boston Globe,  February 22, 2007.  In it, the author quotes from a standing-room-only lecture given by Christophe at Harvard: "There's too much confusion, too much secrecy. I think perfumery should be raised to the same level as music, and painting, and architecture. With a symphony orchestra, you can see all the music, you can see all the instruments, and in the end it's still magical. When you're educated, you can determine the true value of things, and you can make better choices. It's time for that same level of education to occur with scent."]

If you had not become a chemist/perfumer, what occupation do you think you might have enjoyed?

I know exactly: either to be a chef or to be a veterinarian.

[Reader: The  MIND08 Symposium Web site includes a brief bio of Christophe, who was a presenter, and ties his early love for edible aromatics to his present occupation: "From a young age, Laudamiel wanted to be a chef. His childhood was spent learning the tropical fruits, spices, plants and flowers that were native to the various places his family lived in France and New Caledonia. While doing an internship as a flavor chemist, his eyes were opened to the greater possibilities of perfumery and the many quality ingredients that go into a beautiful scent."]

I recently watched an interview with Jean-Paul Guerlain in which he recounted an early scent memory of a tarte aux fraises that his mother bought him for his birthday during a particularly tumultuous time in his childhood.  What are some of your early scent memories?  In what way do your scent memories influence your work as a perfumer?Tulips (Tulpen)

I am fascinating by the scent of tulips.  First you will notice that many people, even in the perfume industry, will say "tulips don't smell." Well, yes they do and you cannot miss it.  Or they will say "tulips just smell green." Yes, but not only green.

I find the scent of tulips fabulous because each time I smell tulips, I cannot remove from my eyes pictures of colorful Easter eggs.  For me, tulips smell of Easter eggs, even though Easter eggs do not smell (in the shell) or at best, smell of chocolate.  It is a weird association, I know. But in this case, I cannot detach myself from the association that "tulips smell of Easter eggs" although Easter eggs don't actually smell.  The imprint on the mind is extremely strong.

Explanation: as children, we would always look for Easter eggs in the garden, and it was always the time of a big family reunion, and the time when tulips were blooming in the garden where the eggs had fallen from the sky, and also my grandfather--a tulip freak, I don't know why--would always bring home a huge bouquet of tulips for Easter family lunch.

As a perfumer, scent memories allow you to be creative, allow you to create retro fragrances or to play with nostalgia, which is always a feel-good experience for you or your customers.  Scent memories, usually associated with nature or with some fabulous scent, provide you with quality references and create challenges for you, allowing you to reach for greater things.

Also note that one also has to be aware of his or her own scent memories because they condition you in appreciating or depreciating a new creation. One has to learn how to smell independently from his or her own personal emotions when it is necessary to provide a non-biased critique about a fragrance.

I've seen pictures of some of the artistic olfactory installations you've done, which you describe on your Les Christophs website (with perfumer Christoph Hornetz) as "Iconosms." Would you mind explaining the concept of "Iconosms?"  How did you decide to pursue this particular form of artistic expression?

Iconosm

When I met photographer Laurent E. Badessi, we decided to collaborate on a project bringing scents and perfumes together, to show how scent can bring the next unique dimension after images, color and sound.  Icon is from the Greek, meaning "picture" and osmo means scent in the same language.  Those were the first photography + scent installations in which scent was an essential part of the art piece (not a gadget, but an essential part of the concept).  I want to pursue it more, but now we are looking for a backer since we can't carry the costs to take the concept to the next stage.  It was all personally funded plus a contribution from IFF [International Flavors and Fragrances].

You clearly have a complex appreciation for literature, since you took on the challenge of creating the coffret of scents that were inspired by the Patrick Süskind book "Das Parfum."  What aspects of the project particularly appealed to you?   [Reader: Marian Bendeth's interview with Christoph Hornetz and Christophe Laudamiel on Basenotes.net regarding the creation of "Le Coffret" is highly recommended.]

I wanted to go into territories where commercial perfumery never goes.

Were there other scent portraits that you would have liked to include in the coffret but didn't make it into the final version of the project?

Yes, we had the last scene of cannibalism and the fish market, for instance.

Do you have a favorite from among the scents that were created for this project?

Not really, it would be like choosing between your daughter and your son!

The "coffret" is (to use poetry terminology) a sort of anthology of fragrances around one concept.  Are there any other scent "anthologies" that you'd like to work on?  Are there any other books (or passages of literature) you'd like to create scents for?Perfumecoffret

Yes we are working on it.  But I can already mention that, for instance, I created a perfume from the song "Dans Le Port d'Amsterdam" by Jacques Brel.  No one has ever seen it.

Do you think any of the Le Parfum individual scents will be available for separate purchase?  I remember reading that Aura was intended to be a separate launch at some point.

There is one planned so far.  Hopefully we will hear more in the Fall.

Do you have a favorite quote from literature?

Le Dormeur du Val
- Arthur Rimbaud -

(Click here to listen to this poem in French, read by Paul-Emile Dieber.  QuickTime Required.)

C'est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D'argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l'herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dart dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

The Sleeper in the Valley
after Arthur Rimbaud, by Robert Mezey, The Pedestal Magazine

There is a hole in the foliage through which you can hear the stream's
Bubbling warble as it drapes the bank with its silvery rags,
Where the sun gleams down from the lofty mountain crags--
There is a quiet little glen made radiant by its beams.

A young soldier, his mouth open, helmet gone,
The nape of his neck bathed in cool blue watercress,
Sleeps beneath a cloud, stretched out on the grass,
Pallid in his green bed drenched in the light of the sun.

Feet among the lilies, he sleeps, pacified
And smiling as a sick child might smile--he needs his rest.
Rock him warmly, leafy world: he is cold as the river.

No more will your deep scents make his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in sunlight, one hand resting on his chest,
At peace.  And two small red holes in his right side.

Do you enjoy poetry?  Are there any [other] poems or poets that are particularly special to you?

Funny, I hadn't read this question before giving you one of my favorite pieces above, and it is a poem.  I love poetry.  I like Rimbaud and Baudelaire (who doesn't?!) and have just met Jesus Papoleto Melendez, who is fighting for poetry in America.

Funny enough, it was only yesterday when I copied "Le Dormeur du Val" for you that I realized that the word "perfume" is in it!  This poem has always struck me, and only now do I realize that it even mentions scent! (In a dramatic way, of course.)  It fits perfectly.  This poem is both very peaceful, idyllic, Virgilian, which is very "me" in terms of always chasing an ideal much more than money. And at the same time the brutal pitch at the end creates such a drama. Each time I think about it, I get shivers. I can't  believe the world can be so mean at times, or that nature can also be so cruel at times--like you could be eaten alive by ants or by cancer (knock on wood).  Or more exactly, I can believe it, this is reality, but I can never understand why.  And no one probably can.  Yet at the end, I still love the world and nature.  And by the way, my choice of poetry has nothing to do with the current military situation, the first time I read this poem was in the 80s when I was 14 or so.

Translation is always a tricky matter and I see the same problems in perfumery: there is an idea that the perfumer has that is not about scent but must nonetheless become scent, and it is in transposing the thought from the mental language to the language of scent (chemistry, emotion, and art) that all the real magic happens.  And it can fail very badly (as some translated poems do) but it is always a fascinating process, and no two people do it alike, I suspect.  How do you think the problems of translation fit with the challenges of perfumery?

Another area of translation in perfumery is when the perfumer creates something (or created something 100 years ago), and the perfume needs to be translated into the materials currently available or into the materials accepted by such and such company or such and such country. The materials in perfumery are the words in language or the notes in music. Certain companies or certain geographies see their vocabulary shrink every year, yet they don't create academies to protect it. This is a real struggle, and often results in the destruction of certain beautiful or longer lasting aspects of the fragrance, when not its signature altogether.  Materials come and go.  Many are going at the moment because of excessive, totally unreasonable regulations. A few materials are not produced any longer by farmers, and a few still need to be approved by the authorities. All in all, it is a big shambles at the moment. This is for me how I see a translation disfigures parts of a fragrance. [Reader: for an excellent perspective on the importance of the "signature" in great perfumes, please read Michelle Krell Kydd's essay "A Return to Signature in Fine Fragrance," published on her blog at Glass Petal Smoke and featured in this month's Perfumer & Flavorist Magazine newsletter.]

Poets frequently find that they are challenged by the forms of poetry, but sometimes, working within that form can be freeing because it can force the poet to seek solutions that might not have been obvious at first.  Do you feel that this accurately describes the process of creating a scent for a client?  

Yes, this is totally true.  I want to be able to create just what I want, "no question asked."  People have to trust real creators and real inventors and as such you make yourself go into areas that are not obvious (and this requires self-discipline and perseverance). But I also like to create on command because it does make me also explore other things.  Like for instance, creating for fragrance designer Raymond Matts--it makes you feel you're going into other parts of your brain.

I'm fascinated by the absinthe fragrance that you created for Slatkin & Co.  Many authors, such as Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Dowson, Alfred Jarry, and Ernest Hemingway, have visited the "green fairy" in their works. Baudelaire enjoyed absinthe and though he didn't write about it directly, he did write very eloquently about fragrances, perfumes, and scent memories in other works.    Slatkin_absinthe

You have to mention Emile Zola as well!  And on the subject of "the green fairy": write me again in a few months about Green, and you will be surprised!!!

Can you tell me anything about how the Slatkin Absinthe fragrance was conceived and what you most enjoyed about the process of creating it?

First, I have to say that Harry Slatkin gives the perfumer a lot of freedom to create something of high quality.  You just have to know the few things he does not personally like, but otherwise he likes to be surprised.  Also, he makes decisions on different levels and likes to be involved in the direction of the fragrance but doesn't dictate the details, which should actually be the call of the perfumer. 

For this fragrance the goal was to have the narcotic, strong-personality effect of absinthe.  (It was like creating Nuits Napolitaine, compared to Amor & Psyche, in the [Le Parfum] coffret.)  Had I taken the whole absinthe recipe per se, people today (especially in the US) would say that it's too medicinal and that it has too much anise/licorice.  People have to relearn that taste.  However, if you pay attention, you will see the anise effect in the Slatkin Absinthe fragrance.  By the way, the anethol is not coming from natural anise in this fragrance (because it is not strong enough) but from natural sweet fennel. 

By the way, do you know that it has now been confirmed that good-quality absinthe as a drink is not toxic; the toxicity was coming from the amount of alcohol people were drinking, not because of the levels of Thujone in the Absinthe!  So absinthe liquors are coming back.

When you create scents or accords just for yourself, do you find you are usually working within a "form" or an "idea," or are you more comfortable simply experimenting without a set "perfume concept" in mind?

I never have a set perfume concept in mind but I always have an inspiration, of course.  The inspiration is rarely an odor.  An odor is for me too unidimensional and direct.  I need a bigger cause.   However, I will take an odor as a challenge to see if I am able to recreate it in the lab and put it in a bottle.  That excites me as well.

---

Christophe currently lives in New York City and works as a fine fragrance perfumer for International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) but also works with a wide range of artists and inventors.  He and Christoph Hornetz were recently engaged to scent the Global Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  His creations include projects for Clinque, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Michael Kors, Estee Lauder, Tom Ford, Theo Fennel, S-Perfume (Shaping Room / Sacre Nobi), Harry Slatkin, and many others.

His numerous awards and accolades include:

"First Prize and the Special CNRS Award at the National Chemistry Olympiads (Paris 1986), a Bronze Medal at the International Chemistry Olympiads (Helsinki, Finland 1988), the Special Recognition Award from Procter & Gamble (1999) and the Perfumers’ Choice Award in 2003. He gives perfumery lectures at the Royal College of Art in London and the University of the Arts in Berlin and has introduced Perfumery at the World Economic Forum. He is a member of the American, the French and the German Societies of Perfumers, the Osmothèque, the Leadership and Innovation board of the Fragrance Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Wildlife Fund, and French Birdlife." (Quoted from MIND08 Symposium Web site.)

Thank you, Christophe, for taking the time to share your thoughts and your passion for literature and perfume with us. 

---

Credits:

  • "Le Dormeur du Val" by Arthur Rimbaud, from Poesies, 1870.
  • "The Sleeper in the Valley" by Robert Mezey, after Rimbaud's "Le Dormeur du Val."  From The Pedestal Magazine.
  • Photo of Christophe Laudamiel provided by the artist and used with his permission.
  • "Tulpen foto" by Elke Klefisch, Norbert Schikowski of KUSTeam Fotodesign.
  • Photo of Thierry Mugler Le Parfum: Le Coffret from MSNBC.com article "Perfumes tied to film do not all smell well" by Coeli Carr.  Photo credited to Juergen Schwope / Thierry Miller.
  • Photo of Slatkin Black Fig & Absinthe (also known simply as Absinthe) via The Perfume Site
  • Photo below by Marcus Gaab from the November 19, 2006 New York Times article "Smellbound" by Chandler Burr.

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Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (memoryanddesire.net).

Comments

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M. Kay Aldstadt

Hello!

I cannot find the absinthe perfume anywhere anymore & am going through a "severe scent withdrawl".....any ideas on where one might find her favorite perfume....???? Or....like eeverything else I've fallen in love with.....is it gone.......???

Debbie

Oh my goodness, to have been chosen to scent that forum! That is an honor. I would dearly love to own the TM Coffret. I think the very idea of it is incredible.

Heather

Nathalie: I've been stopping for tulips, too, everywhere I see them. It's a fascinating scent, which I never realized before Christophe pointed it out. I also came across a fragrance at Henri Bendel in NYC, called Tulipe Noire by Memoire Liquide. It actually does smell a little like tulips. If only Christophe would create a tulip scent for us. I wonder if he's been working on one...

Nathalie

Now I always stop to smell tulips... They do smell lovely and differently depending on their colors.

Great interview!

perfumeshrine

Ooops! Sorry about that!
It's really a work in progress though as I could be adding scents as I go along (who can say they have compiled the definitive guide?). I am open to suggestions!
Researching for these series is always very educating for me as well.

Heather

perfumeshrine: Helg, I've been enjoying your absinthe series very much! In fact, I was working on (and struggling with) a "fee verte" essay of my own. Your articles have absolved me of the urgency I once felt; I'm simply enjoying yours more fully.

perfumeshrine

Very interesting interview! Enjoyed it a lot :-)
I especially love the illogical association of tulips and Easter eggs, which of course once explained makes perfect sense.

And what a coincidence: not only have I been devoting time to absinthe-themes perfumery (and all the collateral matters around it) lately, but I had also cited the exact same poem by Rimbaud which Christoph loves, way back in 2006 when I was writing about Fleur de Narcisse:

http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2006/10/sleeper-in-valley.html

It's as if some things have a universal resonance.

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