The Act of Creating is an Adventure


Not long ago, I was invited by the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiersa in Paris to take part in a conference on the theme of “Le Travail Créateur.”

In other words, the theme explored the creative work, or the approach to, and the work involved in, creation. I took this invitation as a form of recognition of our profession in the realm of the arts, which filled me with joy, so much so that I imagined that the profession of perfume composer would one day become part of the curriculum at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers de Paris.

The real reason for the conference, however, was to establish creation’s place in the context of economic production, to assess under what conditions creation was a source of added value, and whether it could be rationalized—even standardized—without becoming sterilized.

And to answer these questions, I was invited to talk about my work as a fragrance creator. The invitation began with this admonition: To work does not mean to execute.

I liked that caveat. It implied that creation is not limited to the execution of an act or object, nor to an apprenticeship and thus knowledge, nor to practices, nor to savoir-faire of greater or lesser complexity developed over a given amount of time, even if that is essential to bringing about excellence. I liked this admonition, because the act of creating is an adventure. The unforeseen, the obstacles, the difficulties met along the way all serve as catalysts to invention and contravention.

Blazing the Trail

After fourteen years at Hermès, which intended to be a house of things and not of fashion, I learned to respect the work of artisans and artists.

Metaphorically, the act of creating is a journey, sometimes a laborious one, for which one does not always know the endpoint or destination. In fact, I rarely know where I’m going, but I’m going anyway. I’ve created some fragrances in three days; others have taken 10 years. In three days, it means that I know what I’m going to create and I know how I’m going to get there; in 10 years, it means that I know what I want to create, but I have to blaze the trail myself. As you might have guessed, the difference between the two is the time it takes to blaze that trail.

So, I move forward, test by test, and sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. Which means that, somehow, I know what I want to create, but I’m having trouble defining it, conceptualizing it, putting it into words. This is a noteworthy admission for a perfumer who calls himself a writer of smells. It is thus more by a process of elimination that I discover the endpoint. I move forward with thoughts like “No, that’s no good” (translation: the result is worthless), “No, not with that” (translation: these aren’t the right materials), “No, not like that” (translation: the form isn’t right), and I only keep the test version that points in the direction I have in mind, towards the meaning I have in mind – one that can be challenged and changed.

At first, I don’t compare the current test with the previous one; I’m only looking for the form, the right idea. The test only serves to explore a hypothesis. If the hypothesis isn’t right, I start again from scratch. Working in this way implies that my first objective is to find resonance in the materials without worrying about the proportions. Yes, I said, “without worrying about the proportions.” Once I find the accord, the idea, I take possession of it, it becomes mine, and I can take the next steps by comparing the tests, to improve the contour, the outline of the perfume, to specify its shape, story, while bearing in mind the technical aspects, like how it spreads, how long it wears.

I was asked a number of questions during the colloquium:

    • How does one get started when it comes to creative work?

You must jump right in. It doesn’t matter if it’s clumsy or poorly expressed; the important thing is to put a few words, a few ideas, on paper. Five to seven ingredients structure a perfume, the rest is just variations, décor, nuances.

    • What are the intellectual resources needed for it?

Knowledge, savoir-faire, cultural savvy

    • What obstacles does one encounter?

The biggest obstacle is the fear of choosing, because choosing is creating.

    • Does creativity require freedom, freedom from conditions?

I can have freedom of place, freedom of time, but I am a prisoner of conventions—social, moral, religious, family—which form the framework that made me who I am and in which I exist and evolve.

    • In the real world of professional practice, can one exercise unfettered creativity?

No. There are constraints – production time, delivery, costs, material availability, regulations, legislation.

    • What things foster or facilitate creativity?

The essential prerequisites are:

Other’s confidence in you.

Your own self-confidence.

Doubt and certainty. Doubt is as necessary as certainty: Certainty makes it possible to move forward, doubt leads you to ask questions.

    • Is it possible to establish environments that are conducive to creative expression?

Yes. Being away from the decision-making center.

After such words about philosophy, aesthetics and ethics, I have yet to speak to you in concrete terms. I suppose you were expecting that, too? When I joined Hermès in 2004, the company didn’t have an in-house perfumer and I had to define the creative framework, which I did in four assertions:

1. The choice of the creation and its placement on the market will be up to the company’s CEO and perfumer.

2. The creations will not be tested.

3. The cost of the creation will depend on the perfumer, particularly with regard to the choice of materials.

4. The place of creation will be Cabris, France, 560 miles away from the decision-making center.

Creating for Hermès

The first creation dates back to 2003, when I designed Un Jardin en Méditerranée (2004). I’m telling you about this Jardin fragrance because this was the scent that actually led to my joining Hermès in 2004. The Mediterranean was the theme chosen by the Hermès company for the year 2004.

The notion of an annual theme was developed by Jean Louis Dumas in 1987, more than thirty years ago. Every year, Jean-Louis Dumas gathered the house artists around him and presented a theme, concluding with this marvelous statement: “If the theme doesn’t speak to you, by all means don’t make anything, the result would be disappointing.”

The creation was preceded by an interview with the woman who oversaw the display window decoration for the store at 24 Faubourg, who was also the owner of such a wonderful garden in Tunisia that I had to find a way to capture in a bottle.

"I was looking for a raw, unvarnished smell, a simple smell, something that would rivet the nose’s attention."

In April, I left Nice with a small suitcase, a sketchbook, a box of eight watercolors, and a work by Giono – which one? It mattered not. I know that when I open myself up to the unknown, reading his words reassures me. I had purposely avoided reading anything on the gardens in the Maghreb – out of laziness – but also as a challenge of sorts: I wanted to go into this experience as an ingénue, a virgin, to experience this place by my senses only; for it was through them—my senses—that I was going to compose.

In the afternoon, I met up with the perfume team at the Tunis airport. From there, we left to visit this marvelous garden. It was a vast property, enclosed by a white wall. Before me and around me, the garden was a symphony of light and shadow, dark mystery and brilliant clarity. It was a garden in which roses, peonies, irises, daturas and lilies could only bloom beneath the protection of eucalyptus, fig, paulownia, cypress, and other trees I could not name; a garden straight out of One Thousand and One Nights. After our visit, while enjoying a pitcher of orangeade tinged with orange blossom, the evening was dedicated to redefining what we were going to do and what we would like to do. My work would start the next day. Anxious that I might experience perfumer writer’s block, it was a sleepless night.

Though I was happy and free by day, alas, that was not the case by night. I had no idea whatsoever for a perfume. My anxiety was turning to dread, and that dread paralyzed me. In my dreams, the garden drifted past my nostrils in scents of orange tree, oleander, sea daffodil. But I saw those odors as olfactory traps. I was looking for a raw, unvarnished smell, a simple smell, something that would rivet the nose’s attention, and all those isolated smells weren’t what I was looking for.

In the morning, I spoke to the property’s owner about my utter lack of ideas. She was an artist, so she could empathize with my suffering. “You reassure me,” she said to me. “You’re an artist, ideas cannot be summoned – you simply have to seize them.”

So that’s a brief notion of the context. I was confronted with what I must do and, in that moment, nothing was coming to me.

But it wasn’t actually that I lacked ideas. In truth, there were too many options at my disposal. What was hardest was the choice. I was afraid of choosing, and to choose is to create. The owner, in telling me, “You reassure me,” dispelled my personal fears. And, in adding, “Ideas cannot be summoned – you simply have to seize them,” she showed that she trusted me. The fear of the unknown vanished.

Two days later, with all my senses awake and alert, I set off to find what I was looking for. It was by watching a young woman tearing a fig leaf and holding it up to her nose that I chose the smell of the fig tree to express the Mediterranean. In my imagination, this smell was a sign. The Mediterranean is surrounded by fig trees. I created that perfume in three days.

The second example is Terre d’Hermès (2006).

The house had trademarked a name, “Terre,” for earth, the original material of the potter, the first craftsman. The management team was divided about the name’s strength, the name that was the gateway to the fragrance. I liked the name and viewed it as the title of a novel. It was now up to me to write the story, invent the scent.

Ovid’s epic, 15-book poem, Metamorphoses, was the impetus for the first draft. In reading it, I found the creation of the world, the creation of man by the son of Iapetus, son of the goddess Gaia who emerged from Chaos and was mother of the earth, all fodder for my imagination. Through free-association of ideas – mother earth, milk mother, milk of the earth – I composed a patchouli accord with the smell of hummus, of vetiver, the smell of wet earth and a chemical molecule that smelled of milk, a pungent, even acrid, creamy milky wood. The accord was unique, but disturbing.

The house wanted a “grand masculin” – a “great men’s fragrance.” The word “great” meant nothing from an olfactory perspective, other than creating a “masculin” that would make its way into the market’s top ten fragrances. The request was legitimate, but the act of creation is not an exploit, some feat to accomplish – those words are reserved for sports, competition, where the objective is the challenge itself. And, though our era is one of challenge, I wanted to emphasize the distinction. This was not about making a “blockbuster” by assembling the common elements of what the market produced: Wasn’t this about doing things differently, being unique, but without shocking the public? Using shock to sell is simply lazy.

After a month of working on this milky wood note, I began to have real doubts. I thought it was too innovative to appeal to a wide audience and I decided to stop. I reached for an idea that I had put aside earlier and began working on it again – a vertical smell. I presented it, surprising the CEO and the development director of the perfume collections. I set aside Ovid’s Metamorphoses, taking up my own personal story instead. As an amateur watercolorist, the landscapes of Ireland have inspired me, more than others, to honor this technique in which sorrow has no place, swiftly drawn lines are expected, and suggestion and allusion help shape the story. The verticality was born of the memory of a stake planted in the moor which marked the presence of man and his hold on nature. Without such stakes, nature returned to its primitive, wild state. The stake, verticality, man – I could now sense a path unfolding before me.

The smell of cedar wood would suggest the verticality and become the main theme of the olfactory story. Half the formula was going to be woody notes. Seeking other allusive mechanisms, I remembered that, as a child, I loved to strike rocks together in an effort to create the slightest spark. I associated a smell with this typically male act. Traces of aldehydes and other synthetic bodies with mineral odors would serve to illustrate this olfactory memory.

One firm rule I set for myself was refusing to use musks. Most fragrances on the market contained – and still contain – too much musk; I see their use as a sign of laziness, weakness, unless they really contribute to the olfactory discourse. Figuratively, musks – those inaptly named – have no animal odor; instead, they are a sweet smell devoid of character, similar to the sugary syrup too often added to a pastry recipe at the last minute to disguise flavor flaws. Here, the animal quality comes from Atlas cedar, another wood with a grimy smell of sweat – not all perspiration smells are dirty, but this one was particularly suited to my objective. So now I had the outline, but I still had to find a hook.

Hooking the Nose

Perfume, on a fragrance display, has three seconds to grab your attention, so the hook must be convincing. I spent weeks on “astonishment,” because the sternest constraint to be met is the one that dictates that a fragrance be loved at first smell. In the space of a month, I finalized the “nasal impact” with the odor of grapefruit, without actually using any grapefruit. The effect was created with an accord of the essence of sweet orange (custom-distilled) and Rhubofix®, a molecule with the bitter, smell of vetiver. With this hook, I found the way to capture attention. Now entirely absorbed in my olfactory work, I sought simplicity in the writing of the fragrance, to emphasize a human character. You might not agree with me, but I feel there is something sacred about complex forms: they inspire respect, create distance – which was not what I wanted.

That creation took nine months’ work. I didn’t count how many test versions I made, but I was cautious, because if I did too many tests, that meant I was lost. I often returned to the initial idea, to get my feet back on the path.

With Terre, the first Jardin fragrances, and the Hermessence collection, we established new territories of expression that I envisioned as being on the shelves of a perfume library, in sections reserved for novels, short stories, poems. The framework was now in place, all that remained for me to do was play. I played for 14 years.

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