Behind the scent: Inside the mind of the female perfumers behind Amouage’s new scents

Amouage has long earned its stripes as a niche luxury fragrance house that embodies the fabled art of Arabian perfumery.

Rich, opulent and intoxicating, its spice-laden scents are handmade with precious and premium essences and housed in bottles as ornate as the potions themselves. Founded in the Sultanate of Oman in 1983, the house has built an impressive legacy and international clientele that includes royals and revered leaders.

Its latest scents of Boundless and Material – both woody, spicy, and ambery – are reminders of the brand’s footprint, and symbolise freedom. The respective perfumes are concocted by perfumers Karine Vinchon-Spehner and Cécile Zarokian, under the creative direction of Renaud Salmon, and are bottled in packaging designed by British designer Bill Radzinowicz.

So how exactly do these scents represent liberation? As the nose always knows best, we speak to Karine and Cécile.

A Perfume Is Your Best Friend..." | ParfumPlus Magazine
Karin Vinchon

How did you become a perfumer?
Karine: When I was a child, I used to go to my grandfather’s biscuit factory. I will never forget the smell of the madeleines; a blend of vanilla, almond, and lemon notes. When I was little, and whenever I had pocket money, I used it to buy perfumes. I very quickly understood the impact of a perfume in our life and the image that it helps to convey. Later, I studied chemistry in Nice, in the South of France, and then as a post-graduate at the ISIPCA fragrance and cosmetics school in Versailles. I started my career in Grasse at Robertet, where I learned all the incredible things about natural raw materials under the supervision of my mentor, Christian Rostain. After that, I became an assistant and trainee to the Master perfumer, Michel Almairac, in Paris.

You know how the perfumer’s assistant weighs the formula? I did that. I used to smell with him, and we would talk about how we could improve the fragrance. Michel was very generous to pass on his knowledge. As a young girl who dreamt of becoming a perfumer, can you imagine what it was like to work under a Master of perfumery? It’s like wanting to become a painter and then have Picasso paint and explain his art to you every  day. It was incredible and gave me an amazing foundation. I returned to Grasse in 2006 to begin working as a junior perfumer. Today, I am lucky enough to have had the chance to work with many niche brands.

Cécile: When I began my studies, I had no idea this job existed. I was always sensitive to scents in general, not only perfumes, but I never considered it as a future position so I started med school to become a paediatrician. One day, I met a girl who was studying at ISIPCA, the reference school for perfumery training worldwide that was founded by JJ Guerlain. I immediately knew I wanted to do this so I passed the tests and was lucky enough to enter the school.

Cécile Zarokian Perfumer - About
Cecil Zarokian

How would you describe your olfactory process?
Karine: I choose my raw materials as a function of storytelling. Pictures, music, colours (I like to paint, too) are very inspiring for me. I like to use as few raw materials as possible and each must be absolutely essential to the perfume. It’s often more difficult to remove a raw material that is not necessary than to add one, but we lose in terms of substance in this case. Moreover, I’m always very attentive to the evolution of the perfume on the skin and on a blotter. A good fragrance mustn’t only give a good first impression, but leave a lasting memory.

Cécile: In my eyes, the main task of this process is to understand what the brand wants, to understand their brief in-depth through the lens of their vision, their artistic direction, their DNA, their universe, their strategy, their collections. My clients put everything that can inspire me into their brief. I’m even happier if the brand shares with me its creative direction on other aspects that could feed my creative process: the bottle, cap, colours, name, the visuals, music etc… all these statements in addition to the story help me to create a fragrance that will be more coherent, because it’s all connected: what is inside and outside the bottle. My expertise is to translate all that into a scent.

What’s your first scent memory, Cécile?
 It might not be the very first one, but it is a very strong memory from my childhood: the perfume of my mom, Femme by Rochas. She’d wear it every day but it was so powerful during long car rides, the air was filled with it. I actually had the chance to smell a sample from the eighties, in perfect condition, and I was completely overwhelmed./

Karine, Boundless is your ninth collaboration with Amouage. What did you do differently this time?
 Every creation I make for Amouage is completely new. A niche perfume has to be unique and even the process of creation is different because each perfume is a new story to be told.

Cécile, it has been 11 years since your last Amouage creation, Epic Woman. What is the difference between your creative process behind Epic Woman and Material?
Cécile: It’s been 12 years actually! The creation of Epic Woman was very different from the Material experience. It was more of a ‘classical’ fragrance house creative process.

The brief was a unisex perfume that would tell the story of the silk road, and many perfumers from Symrise and Robertet started working on this. At that time, Amouage was not as well-known as it is today. I was still a trainee at Robertet, and I was lucky enough to be able to work on briefs, thanks to my mentor, senior perfumer Daniel Maurel, as I was never in direct contact with the brand. I was beyond thrilled when I heard I beat the competition. I could not believe it! It is not common for a trainee can sign a win, so that makes this ‘classical’ fragrance house experience quite special in its own way.

For Material, the new Creative Director of Amouage reached out to me, 12 years after Epic, as I am an independent perfumer now. To be trusted enough to compete with the top five fragrance houses – it’s a first for Amouage – meant a lot to me. I would say it was even more challenging since Epic is one of the brand’s bestsellers. This time, I worked in close collaboration with Renaud Salmon during the whole process.

Tell us about working under Renaud Salmon’s creative direction, Karine.
Karine: It’s extremely stimulating to work with Renaud. It’s a real partnership and we spent a lot of time exchanging ideas. He gave me a lot of creative freedom but at the same time, he had a very clear vision of what he wanted at the end. I’m very proud of the result. I appreciate the way he coordinated his entire creative team. It’s a pleasure to be involved in the whole process, from the development of the bottle design, to the music, and the story, while I worked on the fragrance itself.

What does perfumery mean to you Cécile?
Cécile: Perfumery means work and excitement. Every day is different from the day before I create perfumes of course, but I also deal directly with my clients, develop the business strategy part of my company, and offer consultancy services everywhere in the world (conferences, trainings, masterclasses, workshops…). I’m even an in-house perfumer for fragrance companies that manufacture their own perfumes, and work for fragrance houses as an external resource.

Can you walk us through the process of creating the perfumes? Let’s start with Material.
Cécile: It all started with one phone call one evening. Renaud Salmon was calling from Muscat. He mentioned that he had been searching for a grand classical oriental idea but had rejected every single proposal he received for the past six months as the vanilla note was never right: too foody, too sweet, too cheap, too “vanillin”. He shared his creative references going back to the mid-eighties when fragrances were complex, rich and attention-seeking; the idea to tell the story of the meeting of two musical hits of 1985: “Material Girl” by Madonna and “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora.

I got motivated and worked on a few ideas. One of them was a bit of a wild card: an overdose of vanilla absolute (one of the most expensive ingredients) blended with other high-quality materials like natural oud, tonka, benzoin, osmanthus, etc. I was scared that it would be too expensive but, weren’t we talking about a ‘Material Girl’? This is the idea that Renaud fell in love with. We spent the following months fine-tuning it and improving it through maturation and maceration, a process that is often overlooked but important for creations with a high amount of naturals.

And what about Boundless?
Karine: With the brief all about liberation, Renaud sent me pictures of rainbow eucalyptus trees and “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora, a pop song from 1985. The trees gave me the idea of creating a ‘golden wood’ and the impression of entering a dense jungle. I represented the sun rays piercing through the branches with raw materials evoking the light and the golden colour (spices, balsams and vanilla). The combination of the eighties theme, a time when people wore big hair and shoulder pads, along with the trees, suggested to me a vertical perfume: the top notes represent the flashy colours, the middle notes are intriguing, and the base notes are woody.

What is the impression you would like the scents to leave on its wearer?
Karine: Liberation of course! I hope Boundless brings confidence, elegance, energy, and character to its wearer.

Cécile: Material is a typically unisex perfume. It is all about vanilla absolute, which is as joyful and comforting as it is mysterious and leathery. Material is sensual but in a soft and subtle way, it is rich and opulent but not in a tacky way. You will be noticed for your elegance, an olfactory invitation to come closer.

What is next for you?
Cécile: I’ve been pretty busy with the launch of Material lately, but we’re already working on a new project. My trip to Oman in January was the occasion for me to get familiar with a very specific type of Amouage product. I have been working closely with Renaud on some ideas but it is still a bit too early to reveal more.

I have dozens of dreams for the future and new ones keep coming. That’s what keeps you going and make you go always further. If I had to choose one right now I’d choose to create a fragrance for a fashion designer, an haute couture brand.

Karine:  Some of my creations will be launched in 2021 but I will keep them as a surprise. One of them is a collaboration with Michel Almairac. After being a perfumer in Grasse, the capital of perfume, I will certainly be spending some time in Paris. I’m sure it will present many new challenges for me, and I love it! I also hope I will get the chance to put my signature on some other Amouage perfumes because it’s a brand which is very dear to me.

Amouage Boundless and Material are available at escentials stores and online. 

This article was first published on Prestige Online Singapore.

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