The perfumer shares the secrets of her scent-creating day

We’re lucky enough to sit down with many of the world’s leading perfumers, in the line of duty. Few encounters are as pleasurable as when we get to catch up with Ann Flipo, truly one of the world’s ‘greats’ – and a hugely inspiring woman, one of the very few to bear the official title of ‘Master Perfumer’, endowed by her employers, IFF [International Flavors & Fragrances].

Her roll-call of fragrances stretches into the hundreds, and includes Paco Rabanne Lady Million (with Beatrice Piquet and Dominique Ropion), Jo Malone London Basil & Neroli, Jimmy Choo Illicit and Jimmy Choo Man, and recently, the fabulous Coach for Men.

At one point, Anne Flipo was a rarity: a woman working in a man’s world. Today, happily, many of the ‘rising star’ perfumers are women – and female recruits to ISIPCA, Paris’s elite perfumery school, outnumber males. But to celebrate International Women’s Week, we are delighted to bring you the latest in our series ‘A Working Nose’ – in which the world’s greatest perfumers share how they go about creating perfumes.

I often ‘dream’ my compositions. I’ve been a perfumer for 30 years and I definitely have a routine. An important part of my creative process happens overnight. Before I go to bed at night I think about all the projects I’m working on – and when I’m asleep, my brain processes those; I wake up and know exactly what I have to do next, with a fragrance. I always say to people, e-mail me at night – send me instructions just before I go to sleep, because I literally sleep on it.

First thing in the office, I make the modifications to my creations. I take those ideas that have come to me overnight, I write them down on the computer – perhaps three or four studies for what I’m working on – and I give the modifications to my assistant, who compounds everything. [Compounding = making up the formula.] After that, I’ll go to the coffee machine, talk to some of the other perfumers in the Paris office, and smell the modifications with the evaluator. [The evaluator is the company’s ‘bridge’ between the perfumers and clients, with an important ‘editorial’ role, often deciding when a fragrance meets the brief well enough to be shared.]

I always lunch alone. It’s another important part of the process; I need to continue to think. I have my lunch in the same place every day – just a salad – and I come back to the office. I might make some more modifications at that point.

Between 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., I like to do something different. I don’t work at my computer; I might look at magazines, stare into the garden in front of my window; it’s like a meditation. I am thinking, I am focusing. Maybe on another day at that time I’ll have some meetings – but I’m most definitely not sitting in front of the computer. I need to have a lot of time for just smelling and thinking.

Nowadays, several perfumers often collaborate on a single fragrance. We might be responsible for different accords – one of us might do the top notes, another the base… For Coach for Men, for instance, I worked with IFF perfumer Bruno Jovanovic, who’s based in our New York office. That’s not as difficult as it sounds; he will send formulations to the office in Paris, my assistant will compound them – and I’ll smell them.

So it doesn’t matter if we’re in the IFF office in Mumbai, or Paris, or Singapore, Shanghai or São Paolo – they all have the same materials, and we can smell exactly the same things wherever we are. In the case of Coach for Men, Bruno worked more on the masculine sensuality – the suede accord. These collaborations with other perfumers around the world work well – and he’s a nice guy, too.

I try to leave the office at 6 p.m., but sometimes it’s 7 or 8 p.m. In this job you never exactly switch off. It’s surprisingly tiring, because your nose is pretty much ‘on’ all the time.

Nowadays, some of the time, I’ll work at my house in Pas-de-Calais in the North of France. I have set up an office there. I have exactly the same routine. I don’t have my materials at home – but that’s OK, because I compose in my brain. My children are older now – 29, 27 and 20, so I can have a space in the house to work, and I love being able to work at home. I’ve been talking about working from home for years, and last year one of my friends said: ‘Stop talking about it; just do it.’ Perfumers aren’t machines; we’re very busy with a lot of different projects – and to do that, you need peace and quiet.

I have 1200 raw materials that I can play with. I tend to focus on around 40o of those in my own personal ‘palette’. I guess my signature is that fragrances are often very ‘luminous’ – and often with very addictive notes. My key ingredients – orange flower, and gourmand notes – go back to my childhood. One grandmother was a keen gardener and I remember smelling orange blossom in her garden. And both my grandmothers were big cooks, which I think is where the love of spices and vanilla comes from.

Part of my day is spent simply creating things for myself. As a perfumer, you need your ‘secret garden’, your treasures, which you can share later. I do this every day. It’s vital to have your own projects – although always a challenge to find the time.

If a client wants a particular ingredient, I can work with that. But I do have a problem with one particular family, the Pyrazines; they were introduced after my training and I get confused with which is which. These are ingredients from the flavours industry, giving strong notes of coffee or chocolate – and they have to be used with a very light touch. I always have to remind myself which is which…

The first evaluation is always on a blotter. That allows us to make an initial selection. But then we ask for ‘skin’ – this is what we call those people working in the office who have good skin for perfume, which gives a true representation of how the fragrance smells. You’ll walk into our office and see people with their arms out, and perfumers clustered around smelling them. We’ll stand there and discuss the fragrance – and sometimes forget that there’s a body there!

From brief to finished fragrance averages around 18 months. The quickest might be around nine months, whereas with Lancôme La Vie Est Belle, it was three or four years. That fragrance, which had three perfumers – and Invictus (four perfumers) – required around 5,000 modifications, to get right.

A moodboard is useful – but for me, words are even more useful. It might be a piece of text, shared by the perfume house, or it might be sitting down with that client and listening to what they say. Sometimes, it’s about reading body language as much as anything; as a perfumer, I am very attentive to detail. It’s easy to work with a client who knows what they want – but if they don’t know what they want, that’s part of our job: to listen and to guide them.

Sometimes you’ll work on a project and not get the job. But if your idea is strong, you have to battle. And if it’s not strong enough, that’s the reason you didn’t get the go-ahead. But it’s not a drama.

It’s amazing to be walking down the street and smell one of my creations on someone. Often it’s La Vie Est Belle, because it’s such a bestseller – and that’s such a ‘wow’ moment, every time.

I am excited that my ‘musical instrument’ is integrated into my body. I really love that I get to work with my nose – I consider myself very lucky to be able to do that.

Interview by Jo Fairley

Photo credit: L’Attitude