Hosting an interview with a perfumer is always a bit like drilling into the mind of an artist, garnering small tidbits that allow us a glimpse into the creation process and the conceptualising of images, memories and fantasies that someone articulate in the field of smell can translate into mesmerising voyages to the unknown. Smelling Manoumalia, the latest fragrance from Les Nez, parfums d'Auteurs, had been such a revelation and one of my happiest discoveries of the cusp of the year; and indeed the latest couple of seasons too! Naturally my interest on the creative force behind it had been piqued and I sought out Sandrine Videault, the perfumer ~a beautiful young woman who is a historical reconstitutions expert and one of the last students of legendary Edmond Roudnitska.
Sandrine was ever so gracious in giving me an interview on this scent and assorted matters having to do with perfumery. Therefore, it is with pride and great joy that I present you the little questions-and-answers we exchanged with Sandrine for Perfume Shrine.
PerfumeShrine: As a historian myself, I am especially interested in your historical installations which reprised themes from ancient civilisations (such as the sacred Kyphi from 2002 for the Cairo museum, the Metopion based on the resinous cones Egyptians supposedly put on their heads and The Song of the Senses based on Solomon's text Song of Songs) as well as olfactory projects for art exhibitions. The Greek writer Plutarch has obligingly handed down a recipe for Kyphi, which the guests at the opening of the Perfumes and Cosmetics of Ancient Egypt exhibition were among the first people since the time of the Pharaohs to smell it. A L’Oreal spokeskman described the reconstitution as revealing "hesperidic head-notes" (mint and lemon grass), a "spicy centre-note" (juniper berries and cinnamon) and a "balsamic base-note" (incense and myrrh).
Sandrine, is the challenge in creating those in the accuracy to the historical context or to the artistic interpretation (Fact vs. Art)?
Sandrine: The Kyphi is a historical reconstruction (reconstitution in French) exhibited at the Cairo museum. The Metopion is a historical unguent reconstruction exhibited at Sephora-Champs-Elysées. (The Egyptian cones are a historical interpretation exhibited at Sephora-Champs-Elysées). Egyptian cones can only be a loose interpretation because many Egyptologists say that Egyptian cones are only drawings; their existence is often called into question. As for the Song of Senses based on the Song of Songs, it is an exhibition full of historical olfactory interpretations of the Solomon’s text. With such a text, we are always in interpretations. The difference between olfactory reconstructions and interpretations has to be distinct. You are right: It is not the same work and the challenge is in both. Historical knowledge is required for both exercices. On the one hand, historical knowledge allows to be more scientific. On the other hand, aiming for an interpretation allows one to be more creative.
PerfumeShrine: Based on the above, what would differentiate your own finished project on a given historical subject from another perfumer's on the same subject, assuming you're both relying on the same sources, the same texts, the same artefacts for reference?
Sandrine: It would be the same as for two chefs. The handling, the treatment would make the difference. Moreover, some handlings are written nowhere and it is only the perfumer's "automatics" that would make the difference.
PerfumeShrine: In Manoumalia for Les Nez I was struck by how completely different the scope of the concept is compared to other commercial and niche offerings on the market: Here there is an ethnographical travelogue between an old culture and a westernized technique of fragrance producing. How did the idea come about and how were the two combined in the extraordinary result we smell?
Sandrine: When Wallisians go to ceremonies they wear necklaces and crowns full of flowers (fagraea, tiare, ylang-ylang….). They wear sandalwood powder in the hair. They wear their ancestral perfume the TuiTui everywhere. Their necklaces, crowns, hair, body are full of TuiTui. It is the marriage of all those perfumes I wanted to translate. It is the memory of all those perfumes together that helped me to author Manoumalia. The only fragrance that I forgot on purpose is the hea seed’s scent. It is quite too rancid for the Western world! Moreover, today and since the 50’s, Wallisians add Pompeïa from L. T. Piver (1907) in their ancestral Tuitui. Therefore, I had to make passing references to this floral bouquet in Manoumalia.
PerfumeShrine: That's an amazing piece of information: a L.T.Piver fragrance in an ancient mix! I didn't expect that! So, the heart of Manoumalia is sketched around Fragrea flower. To my nose in Manoumalia this appears as a powdery, rubbery tuberose almost (a passing resemblance to the equally rubbery feel of classic Fracas) with accents of creamy jasmine-like and tiare tones. How is fragrea different than other flowers we associate with the tropics such as gardenia, plumeria and ylang-ylang?
Sandrine: Fragrea is indeed like gardenia, white plumeria, ylang-ylang, tiare, jasmine, tuberose… Fagraea is a White Flower. They all have olfactory common denominators. As for the difference, Fagraea is spicy. In return, are you sure that the rubbery facet is only due to the tuberose facet and not because of the vetiver?
PerfumeShrine: Good point, which brings me to my next question. I felt that in the development of Manoumalia the brilliance of the composition was in interjecting a very earthy, rooty Javanese vetiver accord to contrast with the lush South Seas flowers heart: It elevates the scent above the usual tropical compositions smelling of too much coconut, too much lactonic suntan-lotion and gives it a very natural, very "raw" feel. Is this something that came about through the proximity with the Wallisians? Do they employ scents in such a way?
Sandrine: Yes. It came about through the proximity with Wallisians and it is also due to the fact that I live in New Caledonia, I presume. It is a very “raw” country. The vetiver is in Manoumalia because Wallisians use it in their ancestral Tuitui. I didn’t decide to use the vetiver by myself. It is in their culture, their habits.
PerfumeShrine: What impressed you most from the Wallisian culture regarding fragrance use?
Sandrine: Their olfactory gluttony!
PerfumeShrine: What did you learn that you will be carrying in your future perfumes?
Sandrine: To invest perfumes with more happiness. Perfume is magic. It is sacred, but it also represents a festive mood.
PerfumeShrine: That's a lovely thought! One which we should all embrace more. On another note, there has been an emerging trend towards "green" cosmetics in the last decade and fragrances are following with a growing niche of brands which abandon petrochemical-derived products and phthalates in favour of "cleaner" formulae. For instance, L'artisan Parfumeur has abandonded those ingredients. Olivia Giacobetti has been collaborating with a new line of not only all-naturals, but organic scents, for Honoré des Prés.
What is your own opinion on those developments: do you find them worthwhile/ restrictive/ misleading ?
Sandrine: Stopping using phthalates and some petrochemical-derived products is a real good thing for our health and creativity can follow. As for using only naturals and organic scents, why not! Creativity can exist, but lacks of technique cannnot.
PerfumeShrine: There have been restrictions imposed by IFRA and the European Union on certain ingredients' levels in fine fragrance, such as oakmoss, bergaptene, limonene, birch tar and possibly opoponax and frankincense as well in the very near future. This has many perfume wearers worrying that their favorites are getting altered beyond recognition (reformulation) and that the upcoming fragrances will be completely synthesized or "bare", with no soul.
If this practice escalates, do you think it is possible to create diversified and nuanced compositions that are on a par with great classics of yesterday ?
Sandrine: Some restrictions are already excessive; especially concerning some natural raw materials. This is also due to the Colipa and the Reach restrictions, you know. The situation will be harder for a perfumer who had known perfumery in a previous era with less restrictions than for a young perfumer who never used or smelt opoponax, for example. The challenge is of course harder to face.
PerfumeShrine: It was with great interest that we learn you have studied under Edmond Roudnitska. His course has been monumental for a simple reason: not one mis-step on the way (Even his commercially unsuccessful Dior Dior has striken me with the beauty of its composition). What is the most important lesson that you have retained from him ?
Sandrine: The most important lesson.....that we know nothing! So many things left to learn, to discover, to live ….
PerfumeShrine: So how can Roudnitska's vision be translated into today's world?
Sandrine: It would have to be another world.
PerfumeShrine: Sad thought, that one. Still, is there a fragrance or a perfumer you greatly admire today?
Sandrine: As regards perfumers, I greatly admire Isabelle Doyen, Olivia Giacobetti, Jean-Claude Ellena and Christine Nagel's oeuvre. As for specific fragrances, I admire today “For Her” from Narcisso Rodriguez and “Terre d’Hermès”.
PerfumeShrine: Very interesting! Sandrine, you’re a Caledonian by birth, residing in New Caledonia instead of some fashionable metropolis such as Paris, Milan or New York city. Do you believe this gives you another perspective concerning your art?
Sandrine: Yes, it does! I am connected with my roots. I feel more beaming or blooming and I am more serene. If something is wrong inside of you then you won’t create with harmony. You can not cheat with perfume authoring. States of mind come to light in perfume authoring. Bad moods are forbidden. Moreover, New Caledonia with its nature and ethnic groups is a mine of inspiration for me.
PerfumeShrine: And a suggestion, more than a question: Perhaps you might be interested in recreating the ancient Chypre recipes of the island of Cyprus and the islands on the Aegean next, as an historical project for the archaeological museum in Greece. What do you think ?
Sandrine: I would love it! I would really, really love it!! Do you think that it is doable, that it can be put into action?
PerfumeShrine: I will certainly try to tag my own end of the strings I can pull, I can tell you!!
Sandrine, thank you ever so much for talking to me and for illuminating your work for our readers.
Related reading on PerfumeShrine: Manoumalia review, Interviews with Perfumers and industry Insiders, the Chypre Series