Julien Rasquinet is the brilliant perfumer for Elegantes London, and here we interview him as part of our Working Nose series. Privilleged access means we get to discover not only the ways perfumers train, but the way they think and learn – and Julian’s apprenticeship was more incredible than most…
What is the working process for creating a fragrance for a brand like Elegantes London? How do you begin?
The process of creation always starts with an encounter – with someone or a new culture, a new system of thinking within that culture – this what creates that spark of an idea for me. But I think something that’s so important, and so often overlooked, is being able to work as a team on the project. Together we have to be able to re-transcribe that initial encounter into something that really evokes a moment of truth. Being figuartive and being able to create something logical from this – that’s how I love to work.
What was your training like, and how did a career in perfumery start for you?
Well in the beginning I didn’t even know the job of a perfumer existed when I was young! I always wanted to work in perfume because when I was a teenager I fell in love with fragrances, and they totally became part of my life. You can say they were my first love, and I think as a perfumer now I’m always trying to recreate that same feeling of first love, and also hope that what I’m creating is going to light that spark, create that magic for someone else.
I knew I wanted to work in the industry but didn’t know exactly where. I did a business course, because that’s what you do when you’re not sure which direction you want to take in life! I did an internship at Firmenich and as part of my marketing course I met with some perfumers there who gave me the sickness for creating perfume. But I didn’t have the chemistry background required to even apply to ISIPCA [the famous French perfumery school]. My chance came when my father met with Pierre Bourdon. In an airport, of all places! They exchanged business cards, and that evening he told me he’d met “some guy who works in the perfume industry” but had no idea how significant Bourdon was!
You know, in my mind he was the greatest perfume ever. He created YSL’s Kourous, Dior’s Dolce Vita, Davidoff’s Cool Water masculine and feminine (which are still best sellers)… so many greats. So when I saw his name on this card I jumped to the ceiling, and continued jumping all night long! The next morning, after no sleep, I called him and basically harassed him for the next few months. But I never once asked him to train me, because I just assumed without the chemistry background I had no chance. Then one day he called me and said he was going to retire soon, and wanted to train his last student to pass on his knowledge and techniques. He said “I want you to be this guy.” It was amazing.
So he must have seen something in you, despite not having had the technical training?
Yes I guess so! I suppose part of me thinks it was fate, but yes he made a connection with me and saw how seriously I took this, how much I wanted it. It all goes back to connections. Like when I first met with Thomas and Dagmar Smit [the husband and wife duo who founded the house] from Elegantes, and I knew they travelled a lot – that’s something that’s really important to me, it broadens the mind and your expecations. We just clicked. So much of perfumer’s life is about these connections – from who they are working with in their team, to the house the fragrance is for, and of course from the fragrance to the person wearing it.
What testing process does a perfume you’re working on go through?
For me there’s a lot of similarity between music and perfumers. We know the raw materials, like a musician knows the notes so well, and so you can imagine how they blend well together and what the melody of the fragrance will be like. I like to wear a fragrance on my own skin – it’s very important, because there are always some surprises. I need to smell on other people, too, so always in the office we are asking “do you have skin available?!” We want to evaluate on lots of different people’s skin. I don’t personally wear it during the day, but at night I take it home with me, and everyone ends up wearing it. For Elegantes it was very important for their fragrances to be powerful and diffusive – that meant trying it on my wife as she was cooking, seeing if I could smell it as she walked down the street. There’s no escape if you are married to a perfumer you know!
I know it was part of the way Thom selected the final fragrances for Elegantes, too. You know when people stop you in the street to compliment you on your fragrance, you’re on to a good thing! This is the only form of market testing that really matters to me.
Do you insist on strict laboratory conditions at all times when you’re working, or can you allow yourself to be more relaxed and work on things outside the office as well?
Well I strive for excellence at all times, of course, but I’m not slavish to strict conditions, For instance, a lot of perfumers smoke you know – Pierre Bourdon was always smoking when I trained with him! One thing that is important is not to have too many disturbing smells around you as you work though. I know many perfumers who refuse to even allow people to drink cups of coffee in the office, but Im not like that. You have to live.
What’s the most imporant skill for you to have as a perfumer?
For me the job of a perfumer is not only to smell well, though of course that’s very important, but it’s more about the ability to create new olfactive forms. You could have a brilliant sense of smell, but not the creativity to put it together.
How does the fragrance go from formula to being finished?
I work in front of a computer in my office, and I have a lab assistant, one in Dubai and one in Paris. I give my formula to the assistant and we even have a robot who helps with measuring exact amounts. Then the lab assistant give me back the mixture in a very neutral environment to smell. At this point, with many brands, one of the main features to focus on is the cost. For Elegantes luckily this was not a consideration, which gives you much more chance to fulfill your creativity. We never discussed price, and that’s so freeing. Not being limited in the cost means you can use everything you have. If you are limited, the palette of raw materials becomes more and more tight.
Are there particular materials you like working with?
This is something we’re often asked, but to be honest it’s not something I like answering, because for me it’s vital that I experiment always, and start with a blank page for each perfume, with no preconceptions about ingredients I want in it. It’s like if you always used the same words, you’d always end of telling the same story. Each one of my perfumes, I hope, tells a different story. I mean of course I am drawn to some more than others, naturally – I love cistus labdanum notes – but I don’t let this guide me.
Julien Rasquinet interviewed by Suzy Nightingale