Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Perfumer Portrait: Carlos Benaim ~A Sephardi Jewish Perfumer in New York Speaks

“Smells are things you treasure for a lifetime,” [Carlos Benaim] says. “As a young boy I would often accompany my grandfather to the marketplace in Tangier, and I remember the smells of the spices and fruits, oranges, peaches, melons and apricots — they are engraved in my memory.”

The Moroccan-born, Jewish Benaïm thus reminiscences of his childhood in Tangier before the Six-Day-War of 1967 made him move to Paris, then to Amsterdam and to Buenos Aires before finally settling in New York where he's still working today for International Flavors & Fragrances. His latest foray into cult fragrance is A Lab on Fire's "Liquid Night".

His appreciation of fragrances coupled with his knowledge of chemistry helped him establish himself early as one of the world’s leading perfumers with the classic masculine "green" Polo by Ralph Lauren bring his first breakthrough and popular commercial successes following; Flowerbomb for Viktor & Rolf, Giorgio Armani’s Code for women, Helena Rubinstein Wanted, Bvlgari Jasmin Noir and Yves Saint Laurent’s Saharienne among many many more.

An article by Jeremy Josephs which appears in The Jewish Chronicle online stresses his heritage: "He never has forgotten his Sephardi roots or the plight of Moroccan Jews who made their way to Israel rather than Europe or the United States. “They didn’t have the same opportunities as we were given,” he says. “To put it bluntly, Sephardi Jews in Israel were discriminated against in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.” "Benaïm’s response is to have become first a donor, and now chairman of the ISEF Foundation, which attempts to combat social inequality in Israel by offering funding for higher education to gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has awarded over 18,000 scholarships since it was set up in 1977. “Israel’s greatest resource is the minds of its young. Our approach is a way of protecting Israel — by developing its brain power,” he says.

Carlos Benaim has also received the Leon Levy Leadership Award during the events honoring Moroccan Jewry and their heritage as seen at the American Sephardi Federation.

 photo of mr.Benaim thanks to A Lab on Fire found with links via Facebook


  1. Miss Heliotrope01:59

    It is always interesting to learn where perfumers' interest in scent, and their pleasure in it, comes from.

    As a vague wonder, is there any noticeable leaning towards people from warm climates being more likely to be a perfumer than those from cold? As Melbourne is becoming spring-like, the scents (good & bad) are far more obvious all around, and when living in an icy climate (not Oz), smell just wasnt as enjoyable - stuffiness means eveything hangs around being stale.

  2. C,


    Well, interesting question!! Heat does bring on more of the scents of things (it both expands them in volume & nuance and makes them more projecting as well, which is why southerners are more sensitive to cloying stuff and big bear hug ambers & sweet stuff in warm weather and why northern people appreciate those latter more and abhor citruses for instance) and therefore makes one more aware of them from an early age on. Heat makes people more sensuous as a principle (in other senses as well, touch, taste etc.) from what I have seen and discussed with many people from different nationalities. Of course it's also dependent on the individual and the exposure they have in stimuli. I'm just talking generally here.

    But speaking of the Western world, I also think it has to do with something else as well: a difference in disposition brought on by the way of living (sunny climates bring on an optimism & joie de vivre in people, inviting outdoors experiences and mingling with nature in a more over way, much less of a suicide and depression rate etc.), an influence by the religious moral code instilled in a given culture (protestant cultures are stricter and more "sanitized", catholic/orthodox/jewish are more sensual by default ~sometimes with pagan/Dionysian aspects kept in their makeup!) and finally with the pattern of the sun: when it rises in 4am and it's down by 4pm one tends to become a working machine rather than a party animal, doesn't one? :-)

    I think you can perfectly see that divide mentioned above (in part) in Oz: British-born people originally changed significantly by the sunny & arid climate of the country into something else: Australians.

  3. Miss Heliotrope has brought an interesting topic. Yesterday a friend of mine wondered who was that German that "invented" Kölnisch Wasser. When I mentioned he was Italian, she nodded: "That explains it".
    I ask myself is it a bit of a prejudice or a useful generalization. Also it seems to me that a change of setting (a journey or changing countries and climates) expands the sensitivity - apart from Farina and Benaim, Sophia Grojsman comes to mind.

  4. Idomeneus (with the beautiful alias),

    that's a great example you're bringing on the discussion!! Thanks for both mentions.

    Yup, I think it is a bit of both: a cliche/prejudice usually comes handy for quick replies (which is why they're so perpetuated, I suppose) because a nugget of some sort of truth might be hiding inside (careful, subject to change through the centuries or according to sub-groups) but at the same time one can't knock the individual's specific experiences that shape them into individual human beings!
    Grojsman for instance being a Russian has an expansive liking for "glitz" (a tradition of the imperial values, as well as a revolt against the restraints due to the Soviet past), but at the same time she manipulates this desire into a very American sensibility: clean, athletic, mega-voluminous with no dark secrets but plenty of optimism, the pioneering spirit. Her fragrances reflect a joy and a bigger than life persona that is surely the amalgamation of two distinct directions.

    In my humble opinion: A passport comes a long way and there's just no better education than being inquisitive about the world around and that includes getting to know foreign cultures and foreign mores/habits (one is always free to disengage themselves from them if not to their liking, right?).

  5. brie00:39

    Jasmin Noire-loved it very much and did not know the perfumer behind it. I gained some more knowledge from this article regarding Sephardic Jews in Israel. I assumed that all Jews were welcome and given equal opportunity. Your info was an eye opener

  6. Miss Heliotrope01:05

    Thank you (& others) for responding.

    I know religion works as a short cut as well (Fiji is mostly Methodist, and you dont get much more Prot. than that, yet obviously it is warm & sensual in general perception anyway), yet it also seems to plug into a cultural allowance for scent & smells.

    One seems to need people either to value scent, or to have cheap access to it. In warm climates, there are more plants & so on (yes, I'm ignoring bad smells) so even the poor can have something, yet once you have to pay for something so frivolous, say in a northern Euro or US winter, then it starts becoming decadent.

    When you go from country to country (or just place to place), without being overtly aware of it, smell is something that changes & becomes part of that experience - & I suppose we dont notice our own home smells as much...

  7. B,

    I also love Jasmin Noir, one of the better mainstream releases in recent years (very well crafted and non condescending to its audience at all). :-)

    As to the political issue, well, there are minorities even within people who have felt like minorities all their lives I guess! I attribute it to the strong cultural influence of the Arab surroundings the Sephardi grew up in. After the enmity with the Arabs, Israeli might feel a certain way about some things? I'm sure I'm not the most proficient person in this to elaborate further, though it's an interesting discussion.

  8. C,


    Well, I only mentioned religion as a influencer in the western world. Those Polynesian islands are a world apart (just smell Manoumalia by Les Nez!!) and yes, the sensuality around defeats the morality and strictness of protestantism I'd wager. So, my point shouldn't apply there by any logical means.

    Very good point about the poor having access to so much fragrant stuff, making smelly things an everyday thing rather than a decadence/luxury. Very astute observation! (and one of the prime reasons perfume is frowned upon in strict moral cultures, as it's so frivolous and...unnecessary!)

    Getting to know the smells and tastes of a places one visits greatly adds to the experience. One does tend to abandon themselves in the familiar when at home.

  9. Are you familiar with Reina ben naim R.I.P? Daughter of Leon and Luna? Also a moroccan jew.

  10. Just finished reading an article about this guy's work on NYT. I actually from one world over (distillation of spirits) and have never done any professional work in the field of perfume, but his work to capture the smell of a library in a bottle was really fascinating and gives me further understanding on how the results of my area of work can be appreciated, and overall has made me much more interested in the perfume world.


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