The most difficult part comes at the end. It is about knowing whether to stop where we are or to continue. Do we have a good result, a good fragrance?
Fragrance writer Clayton Ilolahia interviews Map of the Heart's perfumer Jacques Huclier to discuss his approach to innovation within fragrance.
Jacques Huclier is relentlessly inventive. It is one of the many demands that come with the job of being a perfumer at Givaudan, a global leader in the fragrance industry. After a few emails I was able to confirm an interview time with Jacques at the end of his day in New York, which was the beginning of mine in Sydney.
During the interview he spoke about the creative process of making fragrances. I was curious. Is he an artist, an artisan or something else? Jacques describes what he does as being something between that of an artist and an artisan. When the initial idea for a fragrance is formed, he humbly assumes the role of artist. Refining the idea and perfecting the formula requires the skill and savoir-faire of a highly trained artisan.
To most people, the perfumer’s work is a mystery. After the industrialisation of France’s fragrance industry in the late 1800s, perfumers became ghost-writers for fashion designers, celebrities and brands. Still today, perfumers are mostly invisible; his or her name does not appear on the bottle. When I first became interested in how fragrances were made, getting access to information was a challenge because perfumers rarely spoke in public about their creative process. To be fair to the fragrance industry, the perfumer’s world does not make a lot of sense to outsiders. Schools teach children basic colour theory, how to read music and literature, but I’m yet to hear of a school that teaches children how to smell. As a result, most adults venture through life with a limited vocabulary for describing and sharing their olfactory experiences with others. Many adults would find it difficult to differentiate the scent of a mandarin from a lemon, even though they can distinguish the colour orange from yellow with ease. Instead of opting for education to bridge this gap, the fragrance industry use marketing and advertising teams to translate the work of perfumers into simple words and analogies the public can understand.
Niche fragrances have played a significant role in stimulating public interest in the art of perfumery. These small, independent brands often exist to challenge the status quo and they encourage the pushing of creative boundaries. With a niche fragrance, the focus often shifts to what is inside the bottle rather than all of the marketing and advertising that surrounds the fragrance.
Naturally when you appreciate art, you want to know more about the artist. Since I started writing my fragrance blog six years ago, perfumers have become much more accessible. I have interviewed a number of perfumers and as with any art form, every perfumer is different. They have different opinions on their medium, they have their preferred method of working and different things inspire them. Something they all have in common is the ability to adapt their style to the demands of the project in front of them.
In comparison to visual artists like Warhol and Rothko, who have distinct and incomparable styles, successful perfumers are creative chameleons. It is not uncommon to find perfumers creating fragrances for large commercial projects that require broad consumer appeal whilst also creating for a small niche project that will only appeal to a small demographic.
Jacques has created fragrances for a diverse range of clients. He created fragrances for Adidas as well as Amen for French couturier Thierry Mugler, which became the masculine counterpart to Mugler’s highly influential Angel perfume. More recently, Jacques has created fragrances for niche brands including Map of the Heart. Although he appreciates working with a diverse range of clients, it is projects like Map of the Heart that push him to craft unique and creative compositions. Jacques’ recent move from Paris to New York has also opened his creativity to new influences.
Is there a difference between American and French perfumery?
The perfumery is a little bit different here. For example, the fragrances are fruitier and muskier. The messages are more direct. In Europe, they are more complex or maybe a little bit more intellectual, which I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but they are definitely different. It is a new experience but I like that. Travel is a source of inspiration. I’m happy to be in New York. I can see Central Park, the streets of Soho and Brooklyn. I can smell the streets and go into some stores. I have seen China and India with just a backpack. One of my best olfactory experiences was walking in Bundi, Rajasthan. I discovered a wonderful tea store. The guy made tea with a nice combination of cardamom, pepper, lemon, clove and ginger. With different levels of things, honestly, that tea was very wonderful and exciting. I recreated the smell. I have an accord here. Just in travelling I find a lot of inspiration.
Do you have you a particular style or approach to creating fragrances?
My style is to have a friendly platform while trying to add something really intriguing. I think Amen is a friendly fragrance. At first it was a little bit strange, but more and more people love this fragrance. I try to make a friendly fragrance and after, I push some ingredients to make it more intriguing, interesting and bigger. If you create something completely strange, people are a little bit lost. Even if I put something strange in a perfume, like Map of the Heart, you need to add some elements in the formula, which are a little bit pleasant and not completely new, something that is reassuring.
“Australian sandalwood had to be in all the fragrances. It is something I introduced because Australian sandalwood gives a nice woodiness. It is the heartbeat of Australia. ”
How did you translate their words into the ingredients you selected for the fragrances?
Australian sandalwood had to be in all the fragrances. It is something I introduced because Australian sandalwood gives a nice woodiness. It is the heartbeat of Australia. For the other ingredients, I started from colour and the sentences Sarah gave me. We worked around violet and liquorice because they are dark. What you can see, especially in the last few creations, more and more we have edited with the colours and the atmosphere.
All creative projects have their challenges. What was the biggest challenge working on the Map of the Heart fragrances?
The most difficult part comes at the end. It is about knowing whether to stop where we are or to continue. Do we have a good result, a good fragrance? One day you have to say – Now I think it has a good balance. It is perfectly what we wanted to do and it is a good translation of the words, which were given to me.
Tell me about your new favourite in the collection?
You will see. It is very interesting because some florals can be common and familiar. With narcissus, it was a big challenge and also I like it very much. It is pink but here is a more romantic and narcotic exploration. It is more feminine. I think what is good about this collection is that every fragrance is very interesting and we can touch different people within the collection.
Looking back, Jacques never predicted his career as a perfumer, even though he had an interest in smells from an early age. Jacques remembers being fascinated by the smells of rocks, toys, spices and flowers. In France, a career in perfumery is often a family tradition that is handed down from parent to child. It is a tradition particularly upheld by families in Grasse, the historic home of French perfumery. Jacques did not come from such a family.
Instead he found perfumery by himself. After completing a degree in chemistry, Jacques applied to become a student at ISPICA, a highly respected perfumery school near the Palace of Versailles, home to the famous Perfumed Court of King Louis XIV. On completing his studies at ISICPA and traineeships with Christian Dior Parfums and Firmenich, Jacques was offered a job with another leading fragrance manufacturer called Quest. Quest later merged with Givaudan and 27 years on, Jacques has over 80 fragrances credited to his name.
Despite years of training and decades of experience in the industry, Jacques says he never stops learning. It is the small discoveries, discussions about his work with colleagues and the people he collaborates with that help shape his style as a perfumer.
Colour is another important reference in Jacques’ work. He has classified all of the ingredients he works with by colour. This is often the starting point of a new fragrance, which was the case for Map of the Heart. Each fragrance has a distinct colour. The olfactory themes in the formula align to the fragrance’s colour. Black Heart v.2 features dark notes of charred wood and black pepper, Purple Heart v.5 features notes of cherry, violet and purple ink. Jacques usually begins with two or three variations on his theme, which he presents to his client before moving forward. For more commercial projects, marketing and evaluators are involved to help in the editing process. For a niche project like Map of the Heart, Jacques works very closely with Map of the Heart’s Giovanna Aicardi to determine the direction each fragrance will take, before developing it further with co-founders Sarah Blair and Jeffrey Darling.
Getting Jacques to select a favourite fragrance from the Map of the Heart collection is also a challenge. Like a father being asked to choose a favourite child, he is reluctant to choose a favourite fragrance but admits he likes Gold Heart v.4, which is milky and resonates with his love of spices and travel. Another favourite is Map of the Heart’s most recent release, Pink Heart v.6, which is based on the narcissus flower.
Interview by Clayton Ilolahia