Last December, Bertrand Duchaufour handed me a small vial from the first batch of his new tuberose fragrance so I could test it -- in fact, I wear it, which is very different. And having worn it frequently, alternating both with other tuberose fragrances and with other recent Duchaufour compositions, I think that his Nuit de Tubéreuse for L’Artisan Parfumeur may be his best work so far in the new, more sensuous style heralded by Havana Vanille and Al Oudh for L’Artisan, Amaranthine and Orange Blossom for Penhaligon’s. In this approach centered on the intrinsic properties of the raw material rather than the representation of the original flower, he seems to have more perceptibly integrated the tension, the asperities, the touch of weirdness that made Timbuktu or Dzongkha so distinctive. Which makes me think we’ll be witnessing another step in Duchaufour’s evolution in the coming months…
Tuberose lovers may be surprised: Nuit is a novel interpretation of a notoriously difficult to handle note, but one on which cult fragrances like Fracas, Tubéreuse Criminelle or Carnal Flower seem to have said the last word, because it tackles tuberose from a very different angle.
While Germaine Cellier dealt with the strident diva by matching her with mellow orange blossom, Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake by amping up the jarring wintergreen top notes to achieve a baroque effect, and Dominique Ropion by precision-engineering the play between her green coolness (injecting a gust of eucalyptus) and her coconutty creaminess, Bertrand Duchaufour has gone and unceremoniously pulled her up by the roots.
He’s teased tuberose absolute apart to push its vegetal, moist earth facets to the fore, then plunged her headfirst into a green mango/pink pepper accord so terpenic it could be mistaken for incense, and subtly sulphurous like many tropical fruit.
This mango is a mutant, slightly venomous, spiky fruit whose greenness, offsetting mango’s lactonic aspect, is grafted onto the flower’s greenness and creaminess. As for the heady tuberose heart – the aspect of the flower most commonly exploited – it is still legible, but only if you read between the lines. Which means, in a way, that Nuit de Tubéreuse bears Duchaufour’s stamp all over: those rooty, resinous smells he’s often been drawn to, his attraction toward difficult notes as though he just had to rise to their challenge, his way of blasting through the clichés of perfumery, not least that a fragrance has to be pretty…
And yet, this ass-over-head – or rather, roots over petals – tuberose is also beautiful, in spite or because of those whiffs of moist earth it seems to want to return to as soon as it’s let out of the bottle. The scent is easier to wear than some of its author’s older compositions – and a lot easier to carry off in the daytime than her sillage-monster sisters, despite its nocturnal reference: this is tuberose lit from the inside, and slightly muted as a result. You can smell it on yourself, but its trail develops as you move rather than trumpeting its presence within a ten-meter radius. That is, unless you drench yourself in it as I’ve been doing for the past four months.
Nuit de Tubéreuse won’t knock Carnal Flower off my tuberose podium (Tubéreuse Criminelle currently ranks second, with Beyond Love in third position). It doesn’t need to. I’m putting up a separate pedestal for it, because as tuberoses go, it brings something totally different to the conversation.
And now, on to mine with Bertrand Duchaufour.
Denyse Beaulieu: How do you see tuberose?
Bertrand Duchaufour: Tuberose is very heady, very suave, lactonic, indolic, opulent, orange-blossom-like, but the real flower doesn’t display all the facets of the absolute. In the flower, you can smell some medicinal or mushroom notes, as you do in gardenia, but they are exacerbated in the absolute, which gives the raw material an almost dichotomous personality, with a very positive aspect, pleasant, sensuous, creamy, soft, rich, dense, and next to that much more negative effects -- medicinal, chemical, antiseptic, wet cardboard, papier mâché, plastery, rocky, mineral -- which aren’t necessarily pleasant and can even feel suffocating. When you smell tuberose absolute for the first time, you’re really dismayed, you find it fascinating, but some people, after a hasty analysis, will say: “No, this stuff is disgusting.”
It was this duality that drew you in, wasn’t it?
Exactly. I’ve tried to analyze the psychology of the raw material as I would’ve analyzed the psychology of Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde. It’s always a captivating challenge for a perfumer to use tuberose as a main theme. It’s so rich and so strange that no one can stay indifferent to it, and at the same time, it’s so hard to use properly that it’s a huge challenge.
How much tuberose absolute did you actually put into the formula?
A little over one percent, with other rich floral notes such as broom, ylang, jasmine, to help build up the floral note and bring out all the aspects of tuberose. I’ve also exploited the orange blossom note and made an accord out of it, as well as the creamy gardenia note, which is another accord. Those are the heart notes. Next to that, there are the negative aspects of tuberose which I’ve also exploited to the hilt in the top, heart and bases notes, by trying to match the green, mineral, root-like, asparagus effects of tuberose with other raw materials.
During the first half-hour, Nuit de Tubéreuse does goes through a very earthy-vegetal, almost mouldy phase.
I wouldn’t say mouldy. Rooty. In the earthy effect, you can have rooty effects and mouldy effects. Patchouli has a mouldy effect. But the root/asparagus effects found in earth – fresh root, cut root – are characteristic of tuberose. It also has mothball effects that should be distinguished from the mouldy ones. I’ve played on the green, rooty, pyrazine effects with angelica, petitgrain absolute and a slightly mushroomy/green accord brought about by the green mango accord.
A friend smelled it on me and immediately cried out: “It’s the third pillar of the church of the Gesu, in Rome!” For him, it smelled of incense.
But there’s no incense in it. Those terpenic effects are produced by mango and pink pepper, which both share facets with incense. I didn’t want to play on incense because I’d already used it a lot. Mind you, I also often play with pink pepper, but here it felt relevant to use it. And I’ve used it in industrial quantities: there’s 4 percent of pink pepper, which is enormous.
Actually, the first time I wore Nuit de Tubéreuse, the pink bay was so huge I missed it entirely.
That’s it, exactly. I matched the vibrant, terpenic effects of pink pepper with mandarin aldehydes and green mandarin effects which suit it well and mask the obvious: the presence of pink pepper.
In Havana Vanille, you centered the scent on the vanilla absolute then rebuilt vanilla in all its facets through other materials which you put in orbit around the core. Have you worked on Nuit de Tubéreuse in the same way?
Absolutely: vanilla is an olfactory theme, just like tuberose, so I proceeded in exactly the same way, even though the notes have nothing in common, which is to say I used vanilla through all its facets, and exploited those facets through all the accords…
Including the more unpleasant or shocking ones.
For me, nothing is ever unpleasant, especially in a natural product, unless it really stinks a lot! You can’t say natural vanilla is unpleasant: it’s contrasted, facetted.
I get the feeling you explore your materials as though they were new, as though they’d never been used… But there are truckloads of tuberoses on the market!
But they’ve always been exploited through the same floral, thick, heavy, lactonic facets! There are lactones, but they’re not used in a way that makes the product lactonic. They’re only there to enrich the floral accord: the gardenia, tuberose, jasmine effect… Don’t you agree?
The fragrance does bring something new to the tuberose palette. I don’t think someone who wears Carnal Flower or Tubéreuse Criminelle will be on familiar grounds here.
True. It’s very present and at the same type, completely veiled. That’s why you can say « nuit de tubéreuse » [« night of the tuberose »]. Night is a mask! We’ve played on the name in many ways, by unveiling the nocturnal smell of tuberose, its Mr. Hyde face, which had never been revealed by existing fragrances. Its strange, nocturnal, dark side, veering on the poisonous, the dangerous.
Hey, don’t forget Tubéreuse Criminelle!
Well yes, now that you mention it, there is that…
But unlike the very expansive tuberose classics, yours feels more internalized, more introverted: it’s almost an intellectual tuberose.
True, it’s not extraverted. But it’s still radiant and sparkling! There are a lot of fresh, zesty, green notes at the top… Does it radiate outwards? No, actually! The effects are so green that it becomes dark green, emerald green veering on blue. If I had to give this tuberose a colour, it would be a totally nocturnal green-blue sapphire…
After Amaranthine and Orange Blossom, you’ve embarked on a floral series.
Only by chance. I did them in completely different contexts.
They’re still quite a change from what you usually do. Don’t tell me you’ve practiced that style a lot!
Solar or white floral fragrances? I’ve done some, but not much in niche.
I’ve often told you, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed it: your style is changing.
It’s changing through force of circumstances. Two or three years ago, I was working in an office and I had an assistant who made all my formulas. I had acquired a very specific approach to perfumery, which is that of all the perfumers in the big labs. By becoming independent, by working in my own lab, directly on my formulas, by weighing them, I’ve developed a different approach to perfumery, another way of building my perfumes. My control over raw materials is getting better and better. I believe I use them more judiciously.
And that’s the only reason for your evolution? Simple as that?
Simply from my direct contact with raw materials. That, I’m sure of. And I’m still evolving. I don’t perfume in the same way at all. And besides, wait a minute! There’s also the fact – and that’s enormous – that before setting up at L’Artisan Parfumeur I used to work with a certain quality of raw material and a certain quantity of that quality. If I had 150 euros [per kilo of oil] to work with, that was monumental! Usually, when you make a product for Dior or L’Oréal, it’s going to cost you between 60 and 80 euros. Now, some products cost between 400 and 600 euros. That changes everything! You don’t make the same perfumes!
Your work has also become more sensuous. Is this also because you use richer materials?
I’d say it is. And also because I was allowed to play, whether at L’Artisan Parfumeur, Penhaligon’s or others, in much more sensuous, floral, feminine registers, in which I didn’t usually work much.
Your style used to revolve around incense, woods, resins, it was rather austere…
I can still work in that style, but I play on other things now, I’m working in more and more registers. In fact, I’m also working on musks, colognes, fresh eaux… I love it! Me, I like to work on everything.
End of Part I. Part II will be published on Monday April 12th.
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Image: Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra (1907)