Nose-to-nose with Thomas Fontaine – the perfumer who’s revived Jean Patou for a new era

This charming, Paris-based perfumer has in recent years been responsible for the revival of the house of Jean Patou – a legend, in fragrance terms. (He also works on fragrance development for Worth and Jean-Louis Scherrer.) Thomas studied perfumery at the ISIPCA Fragrance Academy in Versailles, and went on to work for leading aroma companies including Mane and Chariot.

He definitely seems to specialise in ‘reviving’ heritage brands, having worked for Lubin (with Black Jade, Gin Fizz, Figaro, among others), Grès (Cabotine Floralisme and Miss Cabaret) – and lately, created three absolute stunners for the stunning ‘phoenix’ brand Le Galion, including Snob, Tubereuse and Eau Noble. (Do sniff them out at Liberty, if you get the chance.)

We caught up with Thomas for breakfast in Paris at The Lancaster Hotel…

What is your first ‘scent memory’?
My mother’s perfume.

When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer?
At th age of about 11 when  I smelt Chanel Pour Monsieur on a friend of my parents.

What are your five favourite smells in the world?  
Of course I love smell: it’s so varied and rich, and so difficult to pick just five. But if I must…

  • Orris
  • Rose
  • Patchouli.
  • Sandalwood
  • Galbanum

Do you have ‘signature’ ingredients that you like to include in fragrances?
I certainly use some ingredients more often, either through knowing them or like them more. (See above.) Generally it is more instinctive than conscious…

What’s the worst thing you ever smelled.  (Honestly!)
Rotten potatoes or animals; in some ways it’s the smell of death.

What are the fragrances you wish you’d created?
Hermès Bel Ami, Jean Patou Joy, Davidoff Zino Davidoff Cologne.

If you could have created a fragrance for a historical figure, who would it be?
Marie Antoinette.

What’s the first fragrance you bought.  And the first bought for you…?
I bought myself Chanel Pour Monsieur – which I was so inspired by, at that first encounter.

Can you ‘switch off’ your nose?  How do you do that?
Yes, to a certain extent on vacation – but it is always on the alert, especially when something new or nice is around.

How long, roughly, does it take you to create a fragrance?
It really depends of the project and the inspiration – from a few weeks to several years.
Is creating a fragrance ‘visual’ for you, as well as something that happens in the nose/brain? If so, are you able to explain in what way…?
In a certain way when I associate odours with colors or shapes

What can each of us do to enhance our appreciation of fragrance?
Mental concentration is very important to understand a fragrance. You really have to focus on what you’re smelling.

How does it feel to be asked to work on an iconic fragrance like Joy? Is it scary? Exciting?
Scary definitely because it is a huge responsibility because you can’t make any mistakes – and of course exciting as you are touching a part of fragrance history.

How have you immersed yourself in the history of Jean Patou – and how do you move on from that, as a perfumer, to make your creations relevant to the 21st Century?
I feel like I’ve had a relationship with the perfume house for a long time: when I was studying perfumery at the ISIPCA school because my class was under the patronage of Jean Patou. Secondly, Art Déco is a favourite period for me in history because of its minimalist approach – and my creations fit in with this aesthetic…