One of the perfumery world’s most distinguished figures, Master Perfumer Olivier Cresp has composed hundreds of your favourite creations, including Christian Dior’s Midnight Poison, Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling, Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, Givenchy Gentleman and, of course, the utterly legendary Thierry Mugler Angel – a perfume which became all the more poignant this year with the passing of Manfred Thierry Mugler on 23 January.
Named a master perfumer in 2006, Cresp joined the Firmenich team in 1992 and was honoured with the title Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture in 2012. In 2018 he was announced as the Fragrance Foundation’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Perfumer Award recipient, and far from slowing down, he’s now launched his own fragrance house of AKRO with his daughter, Anais.
Suzy Nightingale recently had the privilege of sitting down with this paragon of perfumery and in an exclusive interview originally for our magazine, The Scented Letter (which you can also buy a gorgeous print copy of) and discovering exactly how he works…
When does your day start?
Olivier Cresp: I like to play tennis in the morning, then go to the beach in the afternoon… [laughs] No, seriously, I never really feel like I’m working because it’s my passion, that’s why I’m still working within Firmenich, and then my own projects with AKRO – that’s pure pleasure because we have no limits, we can dare. On a normal day, I get to the office around 9:30. I love that you’re interested in this! The other day I had someone filming me all day long, for a short video that will be edited down to three minutes. It’s interesting that people want to know how perfumers spend their days, now. The first thing I always do is talk to the other perfumers – ask how their evening was, have a coffee. Around 9:45 or 10am I open my laptop and then start working.
Where do you work?
I have a double job, in fact: working for them as Master Perfumer, based in Paris, and working for my own house, AKRO. I have assistants, FDMs (Fragrance Development Managers), sales teams, managers, any number of colleagues depending on the project.
How does your day break down?
My office is open, so I have the FDMs come to see me, followed by the evaluators and the salespeople. After that some customers call me. A new thing is the number of Zoom and Teams online meetings we do throughout the day – a few years ago this just didn’t happen, but since lockdowns, it can be three hours a day of talking to colleagues through this connection. When I’m working on my laptop, I try to concentrate myself on the projects I have open at that time.
How many fragrances might you be working on at any one time?
In the past, when everything was done by hand, I could only work on eight or ten fragrances a day. Now, with computer technology, I can send fifty formulas a day, sending them all over the world. There are perhaps twenty projects I’m working on at once, sometimes more. I prioritise the fragrances by dates and even hours for deadlines. I can be fast. You have to be! Depending on how quick you are, you can win or lose a project. To work fast you must have the experience and use your time well. Instead of doing hundreds of experiments, like I did at the beginning of my career, I now only need to do four or five – then I know exactly what to move in my fragrance formulas and it just works.
Do you compose fragrances mostly in your head? Do you write by hand or use a computer?
It’s a good question – perfumers are like writers, some prefer handwriting or dictating, others like writing straight on a computer. Twenty-five, what, even thirty years ago now, I used to do everything by hand and my calculator. I’d handwrite the ingredients and work out the percentages and the price for them, because you have to know that. Those days are long gone. Now we have special programmes that work those bits out for you. When I’ve written my formula on my laptop I send it straight to the robot, the robot compounds about 80% of the formula. Then I have my assistants who weigh and compound the missing 20%. As soon as I get the idea for my fragrances, I know exactly what ingredients I want to use.
The next step for me is to discover the correct type or best quality for that fragrance. In two or three hours it’s fixed in my head. From that point I think about what else it needs to create the atmosphere I want, so I might think about what could create some smokiness or an animalic note, for example. Sometimes the idea is easy, but then it’s not easy to find the right molecules to match that smell in your head. I try to be figurative, to catch the profile of what I want. The other day I had to create the smell of a marshmallow. I’d never done that before really, but in two or three experiments I had it. I knew I wanted orange blossom, I used some violet and some rose-y elements, then some praline and vanilla to make it smell edible. It must be logical. It’s a chronological story, and then I’m never lost that way – it’s kind of a red thread I’m following.
What kind of other inspirations do you look for, during your day?
I can be inspired by anything, but conversation is really important to me. I buy loads of magazines on all subjects, I really enjoy reading Figaro, but I get lots of feminine magazines especially. I also love walking, being in the forest, foraging, fishing, smelling the seaweed. I always carry blotters with me, so during the day I tend to jot down ideas on those, just in a few words.
Do you break for lunch – or eat at your desk?
After meetings and working on those, I like to meet colleagues for lunch around midday to 1pm. We always go out because there’s no canteen or anywhere you can food in the office. Perhaps a few times a year if I’m in a hurry I grab a snack and eat that at my desk, but that’s not funny to me, I hate it. I could also go to my house for lunch, because my house isn’t far away, so that’s always a possibility. I might walk there and stay an hour, make myself some nice food, have a change of scenery, then I come back and feel revived by that.
After lunch, how long do you work for – and what will the afternoon be spent on?
I always feel more energetic in the afternoons than I do in the mornings – probably helped by the lunch, inspirational conversations with colleagues and simply the change of scenery – so I feel I can tackle more difficult things then.
What time do you go home? Is that the end of the day, for you? Do you continue to think about the fragrances when you get home?
In the past I used to stay until 9pm, when I was younger I’d work at least twelve hours a day, but I don’t do that any longer. So, let’s say after lunch, from around 2pm I usually stay in the office until 7:30pm minimum, then I go back to my house and do some sport. I never work at home, not ever, otherwise my head would explode. Well, okay, sometimes when I’m fed up, I take my laptop and work from home instead of the office, but on these occasions I’m with my wife and we stay maybe a week in Paris and a week in the South of France, where we have a nice flat.
Seeing the sea, the luminosity of the area – being in Cannes, visiting the islands, the harbour, watching the boats coming in and out – it gives me such inspiration. My nose doesn’t switch ‘off’ as such, but we’re not going around smelling things all the time as a perfumer, not in the same way as when we work, I think it would be impossible to have a life.
Do you need to be in a particular mood, to create?
Not especially, but I do need to feel energised I suppose, I must feel passionate about what I’m doing because otherwise what’s the point?
How long does it take from concept to finished fragrance, in general?
I mean my initial concept can be done in two or three hours, but how long it then takes to come out as a finished fragrance might be two or three years! Ideally, a year and a half is enough to create a great fragrance. You see you have to wait until the year after that to be on the market. There’s one project, I don’t want to say for whom [he chuckles], but I’ve been working on it for eleven years. And it’s still going on!
Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what kind – pop, jazz, classical…?
No, I can only concentrate in one thing at a time when I’m working. So I couldn’t even read a book or magazine with the radio on in the background, for example, I don’t do that thing of watching TV while you’re on your phone and half reading something else… I do find most of the perfumers like to have music on the radio or stream it from their smart phone, but for me the key is to focus.
Is a visual moodboard of inspirational pictures / colours helpful for you to create?
More and more clients send me pictures to look through. Before, I’d be sent a few piles of pictures a year, in hardcopy. Now it’s mainly digital they can easily create a moodboard, it’s a visual language. To see on the screen what they want is useful. But often they can turn out the same. You know: it has to be strong but easy to wear, pleasing to the market, something different, long lasting, another unique fragrance…
When I’m gathering inspiration for myself, I read through all the magazines that I buy, I like to first of all flick through in about ten minutes to get an overview and see the colours, colours really drive me. I like to keep my eye in, see what people are interested in. Sometimes I then see these images again in moodboards clients then send me, because they often use images they’ve found in magazines, so I like to know the context. Sometimes the inspiration they send is really good, it helps give me ideas more quickly.
What is the most number of modifications you’ve ever had to do, on a fragrance? And the least?
Some just happen really quickly. Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, for example, I did in forty experiments, but I have some that are painful – the longer you’re working on something I feel it’s the worst for creativity because you can get lost. I’m lost, the client is lost. The entire concept can change, the name, if it’s feminine or masculine in style, literally everything.
How many materials do you have at your fingertips, to work with? And how many tend to be in your regular palette?
Out of 1500 main ingredients I have access to – though it’s what we call a ‘living palette’ and that can always be added to – I’m usually working with the same 400. This means I don’t have to smell them all the time, which might sound strange to some people, but I know them so well I know all the outcomes and possibilities of them. It takes you ten years to get to know them that well – to see, to feel, to touch, then just to know.
How much of your day (or perhaps week) is spent on your own work – creating new accords, working with materials that may have been offered to you by the ingredients houses, to ‘store up’ and use for future finished creations?
I don’t have that time generally. The only trésor time I have, to do exactly what I want, is with AKRO. The thing is, I don’t get to actually smell materials all day, I don’t need to do that anymore to write a formula, I will only then smell them to create a big step in that formula or change it somehow. When we get new molecules or ingredients and extractions to smell, that is always exciting, because I don’t know them!
Is there one fragrance you WISH you’d created, and why is it so special?
[Without hesitation] Shalimar. It’s what I’ve smelled in my family for years, I love the richness of the bergamot with the leather and vanilla, the benzoin. It’s magic! I created Champs-Elysés for Guerlain – with musk, mimosa, you know, very different. I loved it but it didn’t go so well. [He laughs] I created for them, anyway, and it was a great time. For a masculine, I’d loved to have created Dior’s Sauvage. Another all-time classic. What more can you ask for?