Monday morning. The first floor of the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Pré is quickly filling up with chic Left Bank intellectuals. Pierre Guillaume strides in, shaking the sleet off his coat. This man, whose existed I once doubted -- I found him too prolific and way too decorative to be so gifted -- really does have the dark French movie star looks of those beefcake pictures on his Facebook wall, but today he’s fully clothed, and definitely more talkative. As I'm quite a chatterbox myself, it's all we can do not to stray from the purpose of our meeting, his new Papyrus de Ciane.
Pierre Guillaume composed this "vegetal green sheath" as a setting for the legendary Mousse de Saxe -- a de Laire base composed to set off isobutyl quinolin, which is found in Caron's Nuit de Noël. In fact, "Mousse de Saxe", a name that had lapsed into the public domain, now belongs to Parfumerie Générale, and Pierre Guillaume is toying with the idea of launching an "off" line of historic bases, non-IFRA compliant and conceived solely as objects of contemplation... Starting with the Mousse de Saxe, of course (to know more about it, click to Octavian Coifan's dazzlingly erudite post).
Just for that idea, you'd want to smother Pierre Guillaume with kisses. He probably wouldn't object: after all, he says he composes perfumes to be loved...
Talking scents over hot chocolate and the Flore's classic Pouilly Ladoucette...
A Scent by Issey Miyake, Untitled by Martin Margiela, Cristalle Eau Verte by Chanel… Papyrus de Ciane comes smack in the midst of a green wave, isn't it?
I felt like doing green. When A Scent came out, we'd already carried out the dermatological tests. I was pretty worried! But actually, they're very different. Everything I’m composing right now is more green than hesperidic. Just as some time ago, I felt like doing vanilla or oud. We launched L'Eau Guerrière in 2008 and the following year, the market was flooded with oud. I'm glad I came in at the start of the trend, even though I live out in the sticks!
What set you off for Papyrus de Ciane?
I wanted to re-appropriate the Mousse de Saxe, to turn it into a Pierre Guillaume: something that would please me, because when I compose perfumes, I only think of pleasing myself. It's a totally selfish process.
But there were a lot of birthing pains. This base is so invasive, it has so much personality that depending on the dosage, it can dominate all the other notes. In Papyrus, we put in 5%. Even 6% would have been too much, and would have pulled it towards something that's already been done. I really tried to use the Mousse de Saxe for its aura, its cachet, its elegance, the quality it can distill into a fragrance. It is a kind of olfactory multi-plug, like all the other de Laire bases: Ambre 83 or Bouvardia. Or Prunol... They offer so many possibilities.
As Octavian Coifan explains in his post about the Mousse de Saxe, those bases pretty much spelled out the future of perfumery.
They are fundamentals. I couldn't do without them, just as I couldn't do without bergamot. The Mousse de Saxe is a perfume in itself, it's gorgeous. I'm not saying I could wear it, but to contemplate... I'm not sure I could have a Van Gogh in my living room either. For me, the notion of perfume as a work of art raises that issue.
It was while I was trying to find a new cradle for the Mousse de Saxe that the idea of green imposed itself as I was correcting my trials. I'd started out with a slightly ozonic floral, but I completely changed my tack because it was too dissonant: it became contemporary art. I try not to lapse into the conceptual with my perfumes. I want them to please, not to be too intellectualized, and that isn't easy. I'm often tempted to do these beautiful things that are un-wearable. My notebooks are filled with formulas that would delight you as a perfume erudite, but I need to connect with my customers...
I still get the feeling you often flirt with difficult, un-pretty or uncommon notes in your compositions.
Certain types of ugliness can be mesmerizing.
Have you used real Mousse de Saxe?
Yes, because I've had access to the original de Laire bases and I've worked with "old-timers", the seasoned perfumers who worked in the wings… They taught me the tricks of the trade.
I tried not to disfigure the formula while remaining IFRA-compliant. The base itself isn't IFRA-compliant but the percentage at which we've used it is.
The Mousse de Saxe is a very rich, very dark note, with the licorice aspect of quinolins. Geranium brings a freshness, a roundness, it gives amplitude to the note. That's what's so fabulous from the technical point of view. The problem is that in a composition, this amplitude eats up all the other notes. And the high quantity of quinolins makes it smell a bit dated on skin. Using Silvanone, a blend of macrocyclic musks from Givaudan, softened it. It makes it more modern, more immediately likable. Closer to what I feel like smelling on a woman's skin right now. I also tamed it with a captive base called Nevenolide, a white, cottony, very powdery musk to add even more softness.
The "roots" give off balsamic notes that smell a little like benzoin...
There is no benzoin, but you're right, there is a slightly smoky balsamic effet. It gives a base to the fragrance. In most green perfumes, the tail-end of the heart notes act as base notes, rather than there being a real base. I like a fragrance to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. I don't like it when it's just the complexity of the heart that acts as the drydown. That's what I don't like about A Scent: a first burst that determines purchase, a very catchy floral heart, and then, in the base, not much going on, just the heart notes dying out.
A Scent, like Cristalle Eau verte, is deliberately built to be baseless.
I call those "basket-case perfumes": they only have top and heart notes. I wear those when I want to freshen up after the gym -- I work out every day from 12 to 2... Usually, I don't wear fragrance except when I'm testing what I've been working on. I have very tricky skin, everything turns on me. On the other hand, that means my stuff is usually pretty stable.
Like all your fragrances, Papyrus de Ciane is an androgynous creature.
I have that ambiguity inside of me. If I were asked to compose a typically feminine fragrance, I'd be bored to tears because I couldn't enjoy wearing it. Just as I would be with a basic masculine fougère... Monsieur smells of lavender and mint, madame smells of orange blossom and rose, I can't stand that. When I composed Felanilla, for instance, I wanted a non-gourmand vanilla, one that would be different. It ended up being my number 5 best-seller, despite being expensive and having very off-putting top notes. I like it when things get a little messed up, when they get a bit out of hand.
I've often noticed that in your fragrances, whether it's the chocolate musk of Musc Maori or the white beer note in Cuir Venenum…
In Musc Maori, the musk is ethylene brassylate glycol, which has a toasted bread facet. The white musk is a mug of Nestlé Quik! I thought it would be fun to drag musk into the breakfast nook! The ethylene brassylate glycol is there to dilute the chocolate: it's actually a base, lactaine, that brings about this very brief chocolate facet. But the perfume doesn't stop there. Chocolate comes in during the second half of the top notes, lingers a bit at the start of the heart notes and then they turn into an abstract bouquet of linalool and rose oxyde, which create a bursting soap bubble effect. Then it falls back on a classic light amber scheme. But the fragrance doesn't actually leave a chocolate smell on skin.
Chocolate is actually a pretty complex smell, with civet facets…
Cocoa absolute is vegetal civet. When you squish the bean, your fingers smell like ass!
It also smells a bit like castoreum…
That’s the fun of it. It tails off into so many different things, and it’s that treasure hunt that’s so interesting. We had a perfume in the collection, a kind of joke called Haramens. It was an oud accord with a crème anglaise [light custard sauce] tinged with cardamom and it was un-wearable: an unidentified olfactory object, a UOO! You can always do weird stuff, but I’m happier when the girl who doesn’t know much, or the guy at my health club, tell me “When I wear that perfume you gave me I feel like I’m wearing something beautiful.” It’s just raw emotion, a message you’ve put across. I’m proud of that feedback. It’s basic narcissism. It’s « love me ». That’s all !
I get the feeling that Papyrus de Ciane references the history of perfumery – whether this was deliberate or not. First the galbanum, which anchors it to the green chypres of the 70s – N°19, for instance, or Private Collection…
There was something sexual about the perfumes of that decade, but not sexual-dirty. There’s a picture you put up on your blog [Charlotte Rampling as the Venus in Furs by Helmut Newton] that epitomizes what I feel about 1970s perfumery. You can’t see anything, but it’s very arousing. 1970s perfumes had that subliminal power of sexual suggestion which I don’t find in the perfumes of the 1980s. Culturally, I have no perfume references for that decade, nothing that makes me say “If only I could’ve done that…”
The green top notes really feel like dark sap.
The galbanum we used isn’t essential oil, it’s a Givaudan base. It’s an interesting galbanum because it doesn’t evolve into fatty or ugly notes on skin. But it has a bitterness that is emphasized by the vetiver in the base notes. It creates a kind of bitter brightness that really pulls the scent towards vegetal notes.
The heart notes undergo this really weird transformation. They start out with a watery aspect then as they evolve they morph into aromatic-leathery facets reminiscent of Cabochard or Bandit, the second set of classic references of Papyrus de Ciane.
And what do you think produces that leather note?
I’d say mugwort and incense.
Bravo! There is mugwort, and cistus labdanum essential oil, which I always use to obtain the leather note. This is what allows me to segue into the leather note of the Mousse de Saxe: it’s the bridge. With oleoresin incense, clove oil, a bit of lavender and vetiver. The heart is marquetry. A juxtaposition of little notes to go from galbanum to Mousse de Saxe. The watery facet is created with iso-E super and hedione… Hedione is like a ventilator for me, a scarf in the wind, it makes the other notes rise. The mugwort, vetiver and lavender are what give this vegetal sensation, carried by hedione. There’s no calone, no floralozone. It’s all suggested, and that was the toughest thing to achieve. When I was done with the heart, I was so happy with it I was almost tempted to launch it as it was.
The fragrance seems to be built like a fugue. The green axis goes from top to bottom, from the bright-bitter galbanum on top to the dark, mossy Mousse de Saxe…
…which has something damps and a bit cold about it. Its darkness fascinates me, but it’s not an off-putting darkness, it’s not scary. You feel like rolling around in that black moss.
Papyrus is lovely in cold, dry weather. It’s a springtime perfume, but not a summer note at all because of the chypre heaviness of the base notes.
Are those references to the history of perfumery deliberate?
Of course. How can you describe a green scent? I didn’t study at ISIPCA and I never learned the theory on how to make a green scent. My culture arises solely from my olfactory experiences. Classic perfumery is what speaks to me. If I’m a perfumer, it’s thanks to my grand-mother. She bought a lot of perfumes. I’m an only child and an only grand-child, so inevitably, I was spoiled rotten. When I went to her house, the first thing I’d do was to crash into her closet to smell her latest purchases. My references may be dated, but I need perfume to tell a story. I’m not saying today’s perfumery is less beautiful or less interesting, because then I’d be an old fart. I’m just saying that sometimes, it forgets to tell a story. It’s aimed at those modern women who go to the office in a helicopter while swishing their hair around… But it’s forgotten how to tell a story. My perfumes always have a beginning, a middle and an ending. They’re very long, like peplum films, they have a lot of things to say, they’re very talkative. If I were to compare my work to another artistic field, it would be cinema. My inspirations are more visual than olfactory. I don’t give a damn about composing a lily or a tuberose, it has to be an interpretation. A tuberose growing out of the tar of the rue de Rivoli. What I love about those old perfumes is their evocative power. You feel the perfumer is taking you by the hand and taking you on a journey. And depending on your state of mind, it’s never the same story.
If you could draw Papyryus de Cyane, what shape would it have?
[Pierre Guillaume draws a papyrus, with a fan-shaped head, the umbel, the stem and roots.]
The umbel: galbanum for the vegetal facet. Neroli sweetens and tempers the top notes. Bergamot smoothes down the green elements and makes them prickly at the same time. Salicylates for the solar facets. So it’s a green, vegetal, solar and prickly burst. The neroli, bergamot and salicylates act as bridges to the sap in the heart notes.
The stem: a very linear, straight heart with an aquatic feel; a canvas of vegetal notes that “smell simple”; a marquetry of lavender, mugwort, clove and incense…
The roots: the base has a mossy, earthy, rooty aspect due to the Mousse de Saxe; vetiver acts as a bridge to the Mousse de Saxe; plus the musks.
In other words, the structure of the fragrance reflects its name?
It’s a papyrus scheme: with the same structure, a green solar top, a linear heart and a mossy base, you could even compose other perfumes. Just as you have a fougère accord, you could have a papyrus accord.
Papyrus de Cyane is now available on the Parfumerie Générale website, and will be launched at the brand's usual points of sale from March.
Papyrus de Cyane is now available on the Parfumerie Générale website, and will be launched at the brand's usual points of sale from March.
Picture: Courtesy Pierre Guillaume
Picture: Courtesy Pierre Guillaume
I read through this yesterday with my wobbly French, but man, I now know I did okay. But I didn't quite get all its detail...RépondreSupprimer
You had quite the conversation surrounded by the left bank thinkers, didn't you? He's a great perfumer - you know in particular of my love for Coze (sorry for acute failure; can't be bothered to find it on this Yankee keyboard). And whilst not my thing, this sounds phenomenal too.
And no more smoke surrounding your conversation, which must still be odd somewhere like Cafe de Flore...
My French is...all mine. Worse than Steve Martin as Clouseau. So, all I could do was press my nose up against the glass, as it were. Until now.RépondreSupprimer
I am a big fan of the PG line, both execution and concept. Which means that not only is this very interesting reading...but horrible enabling. Thanks for both. :)
Lee, it's been awhile now since cafés aren't smoky and I admit I miss that. But then, the Left Bank intellectuals present weren't quite Sartre and Beauvoir caliber either. Still, the Flore is a good place for interviews, and more than one gaze strayed in our direction, what with Pierre's spectacular good looks...RépondreSupprimer
ScentScelf, Pierre was very sweet and generous in allowing us that peek into his process. He's genuinely passionate about his work.RépondreSupprimer
Well, I was going to write "left bank thinkers" but I didn't want to appear too snarky.RépondreSupprimer
I don't mind that cafe's nostalgia, personally...
Lee, "thinkers" *is* what you wrote? About the smoke in cafés, well, having to pop out for a cigarette if people are going to stay for a while, or cutting down from several coffees/glasses of wine/whatever to just the one certainly cramps conversational styles. Not that it was an issue with Pierre. But it's just not the same: people spend a lot less time in cafés. And spending time in cafés used to be kind of the point of the Left Bank.RépondreSupprimer
I'm with you, Lee -- I waded into the waters with my wobbly French, but I'm glad to get all the detail in this fabulous translation. More than just a translation, really, because Denyse writes equally beautifully in French and English, and what is captured here is both Pierre's and Denyse's erudition, enthusiasm, and passion for this métier. Yay!RépondreSupprimer
Jarvis, your French is pretty damn good, as far as I know! Much of the conversation isn't transcribed here as I turned on the recorder after the "nice to meet you at last" phase and turned it off as we grabbed a bite of lunch. All off-the-record! ;-)RépondreSupprimer
Oh my, what a fabulous post, I have learned SO much just from reading it, and I can't wait to try Papyrus de Ciane! The news about the Mousse de Saxe is wonderful itself, as you said, but what an education it was to read about how this sort of thing actually works, pure enjoyment!RépondreSupprimer
I had just read Octavian's post, and I wondered if the Mousse de Saxe formula was indeed lost, so happy that it and the other old bases are still available! I just got a tiny little bottle of very old Nuit de Noel extrait, and its beauty is truly stunning.
I do wonder now though, does this mean that Caron no longer uses that base? That would be a shame indeed.
Flora, you can do a Mousse de Saxe without giving it the actual name: a lot of perfumers know the formula. Octavian is much more knowledgeable about this but as far as the old bases go, I know some are indeed lost, either because the materials have become unavailable, processes have changed, or the labs that made them were bought out/closed down and the formulas disappeared with them. Some of the de Laire bases are still made though, or can be re-created.RépondreSupprimer
I meant left bank 'thinkers' rather than 'left bank thinkers' if you follow my rather slow, pedantic and failed attempts to make a point with poor punctuation in the first place. I blame two days of heedeous work, rather than any failings on my part, of course... ;-)RépondreSupprimer
And I haven't been a smoker for a loooong time, and I don't miss it at all in pubs and cafes here (it was revolting for some reason), but I do in France and Spain (where it was entirely appropriate). A lot.
Lee, the inverted commas around "thinkers" are entirely appropriate... As for the smoke thing, in Spain some bars allow it, and in France, after closing hours or if a room is "privatized" in a restaurant, there is some leeway.RépondreSupprimer
Old perfumes like Femme really beg to blend in with those smokey tendrils!
Wonderful bit of talking back and forth (and it felt truly like reading a conversation instead of an interview).RépondreSupprimer
I loved Mr. Guillaume's description of contemporary perfumery: "It’s aimed at those modern women who go to the office in a helicopter while swishing their hair around" . . . what does that even mean? It's fantastic, but I'm lost!
And I have a bottle of Haramens. He's right, it's totally unwearable, but I love it anyway -- that weird custard oud.
Nathan, it was more of a rambling conversation that what's actually transcribed but he's the star here, not me, right? I hate it when you have to wade through whole chapters of the interviewer's prose to get to what the interviewee has to say.RépondreSupprimer
As for his image of "modern women", it was more of a humorous take on the "because I'm worth it" brigade.
Now I'm really curious about Hamarens. Pierre said he'd send me a few drops...
Great interview! Very interesting to get a feeling of what goes on in his head (wish-thought: should have been possible to have his scent in the nose/head when reading!)RépondreSupprimer
The (papyrus) plant as a picture of the scent itself felt apt. Perfumes (some of them) as plants - great!
The one thing that never stops wondering me, although, is the strong tendency to use the dichotomy between the sensual and the intellectual, as if those terms stand for something contradictorical, or incommensurable. He said this in the interview: "I try not to lapse into the conceptual with my perfumes. I want them to please, not to be too intellectualized". Of course the intellectualized stuff can please, and that often to the extreme! :)
Stella, the dichotomy Pierre points out is actually the limit of perfumery as a contemporary form of art: at some point, it does have to please a sufficient number of people to be commercially viable, and thus it can't veer too far from being pleasant. Perfume is part of the body as long as you wear it, it's not like a CD you can listen to on your own, a play you can attend or a picture you hang on your wall: it's much more intimately a part of your identity. Something that's too dissonant or strange wouldn't be appropriated by enough people to make it a worthwhile launch.RépondreSupprimer
Ps: I just read Mark Rothko's The Artist's Reality. Here he contrasts the (sensual & intellectual) journey art invites us to take with the sensual pleasantness induced by the spilling of a bottle of perfume. Well..RépondreSupprimer
Stella, that's a common enough view on perfume, isn't it?RépondreSupprimer
Wow! He's not just another pretty face. Terrific interview. Thank you so much.RépondreSupprimer
Rappleyea, definitely not. The gods smiled down on this boy's crib, didn't they?RépondreSupprimer
Oh, okay -- gotcha. The whole L'Oreal shampoo commercial thing, hair flying as they enter some gleaming skyscraper.RépondreSupprimer
Yes, well, that kind of *is* modern perfumery for the most part, isn't it? I think that's what I like the most about the PG line -- it's so anti-commercial while yet managing to feel contemporary and accessible.
Nathan, it definitely is what I'd rather call auteur perfumery than niche, which doesn't mean a thing any more.RépondreSupprimer
Bravo! Thank You!RépondreSupprimer
SO much fun to hear the two of you going round together.
(she says, greedily)
Alyssa, there'll be more to come, for sure!RépondreSupprimer
Oh, Denyse, I was just wishing the interview would never stop! What a terrific job the two of you did in bringing out so many facets of Pierre's work, his vision, his thought processes, his (and your) lovely intelligence. There was such a sweet, respectful, companionable tone to it. I'm sure you've made every single one of us wish we were there with you. (And damn, that man is good-looking. More cause for a little good-natured envy on our part.)RépondreSupprimer
My take on Pierre's comment "I try not to lapse into the conceptual with my perfumes. I want them to please, not to be too intellectualized" is extremely basic. It doesn't appear to me to imply that it is a dichotomous relationship, an either/or scenario.
Of course, intellectualized fragrances are not automatically displeasing (and you are quite clear on that, I see, D) and can in fact be singularly pleasing. But if a perfume is TOO intellectualized, as he says specifically, it can be at the expense of the very quality of being pleasing. It's a balance rather than a dichotomy.
The main thing is, I am now straining at my tether to try Papyrus de Ciane. Thank heavens PG is available here in Vancouver.
Robin, it's true it was more of a conversation (which started before and resumed after I'd turned off the recorder), and we'd been in touch before so that there was no awkwardness -- in any case, neither of us is shy and we're both very talkative.RépondreSupprimer
Re: intellectualized perfumes, I think what he's referring to is that perfumers can do a lot of things that interest them from an experimental point of view, but that are more what I call "senteurs" than "fragrance for skin".
Composing perfumes *is* always a fiercely intellectual endeavour, but ultimately, you have to be happy living with the result for several hours, and many days.
So true, D.RépondreSupprimer
Thank you for sharing some of your fascinating conversation with the talented (and handsome!) Pierre Guillaume. There were a couple of points I have enjoyed mulling over; first that he seems to be self taught in the business (and art) of perfumery and second his comment about loving a Van Gogh but not wanting it in his living room. I want to revisit the PG line with this interview in mind and very much look forward to trying Papyrus de Ciane when the opportunity arises. I wore Nuit de Noel parfum on Christmas Eve last and whilst it is on the powdery side for me to wear often I enjoyed its dark base. I am happy someone is giving the old bases the attention they deserve (though I note your point that many had not gone totally out of use). You sound as if you both had such fun over your hot chocolate! Nicola xRépondreSupprimer
Nicola, I feel the same way about Nuit de Noël -- I don't pull it out often, and didn't this year for Christmas as I was abroad.RépondreSupprimer
Pierre is indeed self-taught in the sense that he attended no perfumery school, though he is a chemist in his family business (which from what I gather deals with cosmetics formulation) so he wasn't entirely clueless about the processes involved.