Alienor Massenet studied perfumery at Cinquième Sense and Firmenich before beginning an internship at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), where she has worked since 1995. Her fragrance creations include Liz Earle Botanical Esssence No. 15, Chloé Eau de Fleurs Neroli (2010), and many key fragrances for MEMO, including Italian Leather, Lalibela and Sundance.
What is your first ‘scent memory’?
I was five years old and I smelled my skin under the sun. The skin, bathed by sunbeams, produces a warm smell: I was addicted to it. And during all my childhood, I used to smell my food before eating it. My parents actually got angry at me, because it was a “bad” habit, but I couldn’t help it.
When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer?
At 20, after a training in the industry (at the fragrance houses IFF and Firmenich), I started to learn olfaction, I discovered I loved to create smells. I created my first scented candle then, and I am still asked to reproduce it by friends. But I don’t know where the formula is – I would love to find it.
What are your five favourite smells in the world?
• Vanilla bean oil is my favorite smell ever, I love to compose fragrance with it.
• The smell of a newborn, when he or she is delivered from the womb. It has animalic and strong musky notes.
• The powerful smell of the Atlantic Ocean. Standing on a large and windy beach, when iodine and salty smells come to your nose. It is a cloud of freshness and nature.
• Incense and myrrh are deep and spiritual; they evoke a lot of memories.
• The smell of the lotus flowers on the lakes in Asia; it’s almost synthetic. I would love to reproduce such a smell. But once it is picked, the flower does not smell anymore.
What’s the worst thing you ever smelled? (Honestly!)
When you are in a mountain hut, after a long trek in the snow and when you enter the restrooms, the smell is awful (fermented ammoniac!) Better go outside. But, usually as a perfumer you analyse smells, even bad smells; for instance civet, at small dose, gives character to a fragrance…
What is the fragrance you wish you’d created?
This question is very difficult. But I must confess that for me, Shalimar is one of the most beautiful fragrances. It represents femininity and warmth, it is one of the first Oriental perfumes. And yet it is very simple, it keeps a coherent identity from top to bottom notes. The magic is that it evolves from one woman to another.
Still there are a lot of fragrances that I admire: Cartier Le Must, Dior J’Adore, Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir, Calvin Klein Eternity, Lancôme Trésor, Carolina Herrera for Men…
Do you share our feeling that this is one of the most exciting times in fragrance history, because of the creativity being expressed by perfumers? Why do you think that is?
In the niche perfumery there are a lot of nice and interesting creations. Many new brands are being launched. In the more mainstream and commercial perfumery, the money goes first to the packaging and less to the perfume in itself – but hopefully it will change.
If you could have created a fragrance for a historical figure, who would it be?
I would have loved to create a fragrance for Cleopatra; because of her beauty and will, she tamed strong male figures like Julius Cesar or Marc Antony. In the same spirit, Jeanne of Arc raised an army thanks to her strength and faith.
What’s the first fragrance you bought. And the first bought for you…?
The first olfactive object I bought was not a fragrance but a vanilla tincture in a small bottle – I was seven! As a gift, I received Cacharel Loulou. I still remember its power. I used to make my own mix, by combining it to a few drops of Chanel Cristalle or Eau de Givenchy.
Do you have a favourite bottle design, from those that have been used for your fragrance creations?
This is hard to answer, but one of my favorite is the bottle and design of Liz Earle Botanical Essence No. 15. The pack is very soft to touch. All the botanical pictures of the ingredients are printed on it. It is very pure and elegant.
How many perfumes might you be working on, at one time?
It varies from nine to fifteen. To have a variety of brands and fragrances to develop makes me more creative.
How long, roughly, does it take you to create a fragrance?
There is no rule. From three months to four or five years; the pace is decided by the clients. Besides, some fragrances are in my mind for a very long time – and then, if there momentum is good, I may write down the formula.
Does your nose ever ‘switch off’?
Yes when I have a cold. It is the only time I am on full vacation.
Is creating a fragrance ‘visual’ for you, as well as something that happens in the nose/brain? If so, in what way…? Is a mood-board helpful?
A fragrance is visual for me because when I create a fragrance some ingredients are vertical; other horizontal (they vary from time to time). So I literally conceive fragrance as a geometrical figure. It is helpful for me to construct a fragrance this way. I also often associate raw materials to colours; some create strong emotions – for instance, aldehyde is blue and cold.
What can each of us do to enhance our appreciation of fragrance?
First take your time to discover fragrances. Improve your knowledge by enlarging your scope of perfumes. The more you know about perfumes, the more you distinguish the tiny details.
What is your best tip for improving a person’s sense of smell?
It is better to smell in the morning; the room must not be “polluted” by other smells or fragrances. Train your smell memory by smelling three or four different fragrances per day, and learn to recognise them. Then increase the number each day.
If you had one fragrance note that you love above all others, what would that be?
I love ‘gourmand’ fragrances – first because I am found of vanilla, but there are also lots of different possibilities in the gourmand family. It is very exciting to explore that family and invent new combinations.