Until quite recently, if you had asked me how I felt about the rise of the perfumer-as-star I would have told you enthusiastically that I thought it could only be a good thing. Though some have complained about his omnipresence in the press, I think Jean-Claude Ellena's ability to articulate his vision and his process have done more to raise the general public's Perfume IQ than any ad campaign, as have the varied projects of perfume adventurers like Christophe Laudamiel, Mandy Aftel, Bertrand Duchaufour, and Francis Kurkdjian, just to name a few. I was moved by the passage in Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent where a perfumer recalls drifting anonymously around a launch party, forbidden to claim any part of the spotlight. I assumed Frederic Malle's auteur model would give perfumers a greater share of power along with credit and name recognition.
The recent launch of Belle d'Opium made me re-think my views. The PR campaign featured videos of the talented perfumers Honorine Blanc and Alberto Morillas, but their mark seemed absent from the perfume itself which, at best, hews carefully to market-tested preferences. In the middle of it all, I found myself thinking about the far more anonymous creators of the original Opium. I wondered how they might feel watching the relatively high amount of attention paid to perfumers, while knowing that the launch depended on their original, now reformulated, work. Would it seem like the industry had changed for better or worse?
Recently one of Opium's creators, Raymond Chaillan, was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions by email. Born in 1935, Chaillan grew up in Barrême, a town still well-known for it's lavender industry. He credits his grandfather's lavender and clary sage fields and the town distilleries for inspiring his early love of scent, along with "my mother's and grandmother's handbags" — that wonderful scent of leather, powder, perfume and lipstick. In 1962 he went to work for Antoine Chiris in Grasse in the essential oils department. It wasn't long, however, before he fell in love with "the fascinating industry and bewitching art" of perfume and he slowly worked his way up to perfumer.
In addition to Opium, Chaillan has twenty-seven perfumes to his name ranging from the powdery, aldehydic Parfum d'Hermes, the suave Ho Hang, the classic green chypre Givenchy III, and Cacharel's runaway hit (and the scent of my 1980's summer camp) to the tender green floral, Anaïs Anaïs. "I love wood, amber, spice, and aromatic notes," Chaillan says, "and also mandarin, green jasmine, citrus." Out of this wide range it is Opium — spices, amber and resins leavened with an herbal note that could very well have come from the fields of Berreme — that Chaillan says best represents his style and personality as a perfumer.
Some things in the industry haven't changed. Like today's perfumers, Chaillan created many other perfumes which "never saw the light of day. Many formulas have remained in the drawer." And like today's perfumers, Chaillan often worked as part of a team, or picked up a project that others had left undone, a fact that itself throws into question the value of a perfumer star system. (I wonder how much invisible work still gets done by anonymous junior members? Michael Edwards leaves Chaillan himself out of his history of Opium.)*
Asked about changes in the industry and whether he sees any promising trends, Chaillan is pessimistic and blunt: "No, there are no promising signs on the horizon. Our industry is very poorly defended. It is attacked on all sides: allergens, carcinogens, the alert for potential risks to health and the environment, organics, unscented cosmetics, laws that are more and more restrictive, etc. The industry is not organized or structured; there is no concentrated group action. There is an individualist, not a “think-tank”, mentality."
When I noted that many fans of his perfumes mourn their reformulation and asked about his feelings on the matter, he was similarly succinct: "Sadness, anger, rebellion." He noted that he lectured on this topic not long ago at the Société Française des Parfumeurs.
The fractured, individualist mindset Chaillan describes, along with the internet, has arguably made room for independent, artisan perfumers, but Chaillan is clearly talking about the pressures on perfumers in the more traditional parts of the industry. Chaillan's son, Jean-Marc Chaillan, followed his father into the business and is credited with Estee Lauder's beautiful Jasmine White Moss among many others. But in spite of Jean-Marc's success, Chaillan considers his own career, with its anonymity and long apprenticeship, the easier one.
"The perfumers of my generation were happy," he wrote, "meaning they were lucky. They were free, with no restrictions to their palettes: bases, naturals, synthetics, longer and more complex formulas. One had more time to step back and consider while working."
These days, Chaillan enjoys the smells of his kitchen and garden. "I like to cook…aromatics, herbes de Provence of course, and spices." But in spite of his views on the industry's problems, he doesn't seem to have given up entirely on perfume. He is still an active member of the Société, and keeps in touch with colleagues. "And I don’t forget to stop by Sephora," he assured me, "to smell the latest perfume launches!"
Many thanks to M. Chaillan for his kind participation, and to Patty Schneider (or as you know her here on Now Smell This, fleurdelys) for deftly and patiently translating my questions into French and M. Chaillan's answers into English.
* Update: But he is apparently mentioned in the French version of Michael Edwards' Perfume Legends.
What a great text!!! Different point of view and very well-founded. It resumes a part of the actual perfumery industry development.
Glad you enjoyed it! I was especially interested in his background in raw materials. Would love to have a longer conversation with him about that industry some time. Imagine growing up living among all those fragrant fields!
I forgot to comment the photo: I’d like too much to live a life as the photo suggers. It’s the way I imagine if I could be a perfumer…
Ha! I imagine M. Chaillan spent most of his time in a lab, but it would be great if we could all do our work out on the terrace like that, wouldn’t it?
Oh, I’ve never imagined a perfumist in a lab… In my mind their lifes are just like that photo. What a shame it isn’t the reality!!!! I’m so fool, heheheh.
This is a wonderful interview, and I really enjoyed it. It sounds like he would be an “Outlaw Perfumer” if still active. All these reformulations of classics are harming our art. Ah, to have been involved with the Chiris raw materials “back in the day” and become a perfumer. How lucky!
Glad to see you here, Anya, you are definitely one of those “other” perfume adventurers I mention above.
Chaillan sounds like he is committed to as broad a spectrum of materials as possible, doesn’t he? And I do think he’s still something of an activist within the industry. Love that he felt his own luck.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview – and thank you Patty for translating!
It is disheartening to to see the landscape of perfume become so limited, this world has become so fearful and lawsuit prone that it is amazing we all get up and go outside everyday.
Indeed. Though there is still a lot of beautiful work being done, in spite of it all.
You are right, there are amazing perfumes being created now and I have fallen in love with quite a few.
Unfortunately some old loves have been reformulated (some are barely recognizable) which is heartbreaking when you know how beautiful they used to be.
It really is heartbreaking to lose a beloved scent. And just to know how badly so many beautiful ones have been treated. But I’ve gotten to the point where I try to think of perfume as ephemeral and irreplaceable, so all the more poignantly beautiful for that. Can only believe that part of the time, though, lol.
What a truly wonderful post. Thank you Alyssa, Patty and Mr. Chaillan. Opium was the first perfume I fell in love with and was my signature scent in the 80s. I have such fond memories of that perfume and that time in my life. I wonder if at the time Opium had been overshadowed by a Star Perfumer my feelings about it would have been different. Very interesting.
That IS an interesting question, Tara–whether knowing about the creator and their reputation gets in the way of identifying the perfume as your own. Can’t say it’s worked that way for me in any other art forms–film, painting, music, and so on. I end up feeling like I’m having a kind of conversation with the person’s body of work.
I guess I think of perfume more as something exernal to me that I consume and enjoy, like music or wine, rather than as an extension of myself. So knowing it’s created by someone else and I’m experiencing their vision doesn’t bother me at all.
I’d feel differently, I think, If I thought of perfume as something I project outward to tell people who I am, like … I don’t know, hair color or style. I wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and go “Oh yes, there’s the work of coiffure so-and-so in his late baroque period!” Although I guess that’s just what customers of someone like Vidal Sassoon were paying for, to wear the creation of an identifiable stylist.
What an interesting train of thought, Thalia! You know, I really *do* wear perfume as an extension of my personality, but knowing about the perfumer doesn’t get in the way of that at all for me–mostly I just feel grateful for their artistry. And sometimes knowing the history enhances the dress-up quality of perfume for me–I know, when I wear vintage Mitsouko, that I’m slipping into an era as well as a scent.
Thank you so very much for bringing this extremely talented perfumer to our attention, Alyssa. This was a wonderful and well written interview, posing many interesting questions. I’m so happy to have “met” the creator of one of my very favorite perfumes: Givenchy III. I was also a huge fan of the original Opium.
Thanks, Rapp. Isn’t it amazing to think that the same nose was behind both of those perfumes?
Truthfully, I was blown away when I read the list of what M. Chaillan has composed – to the point that I’m almost embarrassed that I have never heard of him before now!
It’s certainly not *your* fault you haven’t heard of him! That’s part of why Robin and I wanted to profile him. There are so many stories of the old Grasse days that haven’t been told.
I sincerely hope that you (and/or Robin, Angela, etc.) take on the mission of telling as many of these stories as you can!
I second Rapple on that!
I was just thinking about how nowdays being perfumer isn’t so much fun anymore. Launching so many perfumes a year and making flankers…there is no time and space for creativity including all the restrictions to be followed. I am also asking myself do I really enjoy testing all those perfumes instead in having few of them and have fun with just that. But lucky perfumers who had oportunity to work in good old times, because for the new ones all that is impossible.
So do you work in the industry? Because I think the situation you describe doesn’t necessarily apply to artisan perfumers. It’s a much less secure way to make a living, of course, but I suppose that’s always been the way of art…
What a fascinating interview! You did a wonderful job with this, Alyssa. Thanks!
Alyssa, what a wonderful article and so well-written. Thank you!
So glad you liked it, Filomena!
Great topic! You know, I think if companies focus more on perfumers now than before it’s just for marketing reasons and not because they want to honor their art. Have you seen the latest ad campaign by Hermes? It’s all about tradition and craftsmanship. So, I guess (sadly) that the perfumer is just a vehicle to sell their stuff.
I think I am ever so slightly more optimistic that you are. It’s not *always* a lie when the marketing is about craftsmanship. (Don’t know for sure about Hermes, but that seems consistent with their refusal to mass produce their purses LVMH style.) The Belle d’Opium vids definitely felt like a fairly cynical use of the perfumer-as-promotional-tool, but I haven’t completely given up hope on the possibility that the perfumers, once in the limelight, might have enough power to buck the system. A slim chance, but I’m holding on to it…for now.
Sevaral weeks ago, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal indicating that LMHV was attempting a takeover of Hermes and at least some members of the Hermes family resisted, claiming that their form of luxury relied on hand craftsmanship, as opposes (they implied) to the rest of the LMHV empire. It seems doubtful that each batch of fragrance is handcrafted.
I don’t know what happened in the security fight.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Hermes and how they keep up with the tradition of their house. I just noticed recently that a lot of campaigns focus on the “values” and the origins of the brand – which is a good thing compared to the bling, in my opinion!
You’re right – we should hope for the best and take every straw!
Alyssa and Patty – Thank you both for this very informative collaborative effort! I recall experiencing Opium only once in the very early ’80s in a college friend’s dorm room, where she allowed me to sniff from her precious sample vial. It was a real beauty. What a pity Mr. Chaillan has not received the wider acclaim that he deserves. I’m so glad to have a chance to read about him, his views and his work.
OperaFan, I bought a vintage bottle of Opium in the extrait as prep for this interview (sent some to Patty, too!). It’s really gorgeous stuff.
I actually appreciate being able to know the name(s) of the perfumer(s) behind a given scent. I regard perfume as simply a wearable form of art, and other art forms–paintings, sculptures, musical compositions, books–are usually attributed to their creators. I think I can make an analogy with music here. I am an amateur musician, and I have played many pieces of music, some by known composers, and some by that very talented and prolific artist Anonymous. I don’t enjoy playing a piece of music any less if I know the name of the composer. In fact, I want to know so I can compare the works of different composers of look for trends or common threads or see if I tend to have a particular affinity for the work of a specific composer, or learn to recognize a composer’s musical “signature”. It adds an extra dimension of interest to the subject. Playing music is a personal expression, whereby I take someone else’s creation–the printed music on the page–and put my personal stamp on it by the way I play it–expression, tempo, dynamics, and intonation. In the same way, the perfume in the bottle is someone else’s creation, but when you put it on your skin and it combines with your own scent and reacts to your unique skin chemistry, it becomes personalized.
That’s a great analogy, 50.
I like the idea of perfumes having a composer/author, too, for many of the same reasons. But I do wonder sometimes it’s an idea that’s not compatible with how perfumes actually get developed in the mainstream industry. In some cases (not all) it may be more like Hollywood, where seven or eight people may have worked on a script, and the editor and sound guy have a huge impact on the movie along with the director, but we only get the one name, because PR doesn’t have room for that more complex story.
Very nice article! He is so right about there not being any cohesiveness in the perfume industry to be able to rally in defense of perfume. Hard to even know what to do – it is the vocal minority ruling the silent, meek majority yet again.
The best defense, IMO, is information and first-hand, positive experiences. I admit that I, too, was one of those ignorant people who claimed to be “allergic” to perfume a decade ago. This was based on a couple really unpleasant experiences as a waitress, when ever so often, I would lean over to take a lady’s order, and her overwhelming perfume would seem to close up my throat! At that time in my life, THAT was what perfume was.
Now, when I find someone who says they are allergic, I ask them if they can identify which notes bother them. If they answer “perfume,” I assume that they really don’t know more than that they’ve had a bad experience somewhere and have over-generalized it as I once did.
Of course, there are going to be real allergies, but the term is so over-used and misunderstood (and the science/health teacher in me shudders at the confusion!).
Anyway, it really saddens me to think that we would let an entire art form be controlled by ignorance and fear, and I’m saddened to hear an artist sound so disheartened by this trend.
Well, Marjorie, my hope is that people like you will do some of that “educating” and I do think, to both your and Tama’s point, that the even the most official parts of the industry are starting to hear this message. It is disheartening how many opportunities have already been missed, but I insist (to myself and others!) that it is not too late.
It’s such a gorgeous art form, such an important sense. I know that my own attempts to convert, er, educate people are often met with very quick success!
LOL! I’ve been accused more than once of “acting like a teacher” even when I’m not at work! I guess educating people about perfume is better than chastizing teenagers at the mall!
I think the industry has been so closed off and turned in on itself for so long that it really had trouble getting its collective head around a response.
He mentioned an insteresting theme: carcinogens. I’ve heard about some substances in La Male composition that make health damage. I’d like to see more texts about this theme here. As most of the reders of this site I’m a perfume vitiated and this theme is intringuing me. It’s hard to find something conclusive about it.
Yes, it is interesting. I can’t really speak to it, though, since I don’t know any of the specifics.
I learned in College that some aldehydes and benzene circle are carcinogens. I don’t know if changing the chemical structure they still have any carcinigenious potential. But some structures have a chemical instability and it’s difficult to know if even modified they won’t be damage again in the future. If anyone find anythig explaining this theme, he/she could send us.
It is true that benzene itself is a known carcinogen. It does not follow, however, that all substances that contain a benzene (aromatic) ring are also carcinogenic. I do not know which aldehydes in particular you refer to, although certainly there may well be some that are carcinogenic. I can point out, however, that vanillin, which is one of the main constituents of vanilla extract and also produced synthetically to make artificial vanilla flavor, is an aldehyde which contains an aromatic ring. I know of no evidence, however, to suggest that it is carcinogenic. If it were, no doubt someone would have noticed by now, considering how much vanilla-flavored food we consume.
One thing to keep in mind is dosage. Almost anything is toxic if you get a sufficiently large intake of it. Even drinking too much water can kill you (look up “water toxicity” to see what I am talking about). Perfume is typically applied in such small quantities that the amount of any one substance that can be absorbed into the body from it is quite low. As a working chemist, I am frankly appalled by the rampant chemophobia prevalent in today’s culture. There seems to be a desire to eliminate from our lives any substance that could possibly cause any ill effects to anyone at all at any level of exposure. Such a goal is not only impractical, but patently impossible.
The fact is that we all are exposed to carcinogens and toxins every day. Most of the foods that we eat contain known, naturally-occurring carcinogens and toxins. So even those organic, pesticide-free vegetables and fruits at the natural food store contain toxic substances. If you eat anything at all, you are ingesting toxic substances. Yet the alternative–to eat nothing–will kill you far more quickly. At the same time, those very foods that contain carcinogens also contain anti-carcinogenic substances as well, so you have forces working in opposite directions.
The truth is that we all are going to die someday. Every moment of your life brings you closer to the end of your life. Any attempt to avoid death will necessarily end in failure. What is possible, of course, is to postpone death for a reasonable time and to make the intervening length of time as enjoyable and satisfying as it can be. For me, perfume provides an enormous amount of pleasure, and is contributing to making the span of my life, however long or short it may ultimately be, much more joyful and satisfying than it would be without it.
Thanks for providing the chemistry info, 50. And I wholeheartedly agree with you about the inevitability of death and what we should all be doing in the meantime.
Good 50_Roses!! There are also some substances that make us damage in cumalitive doses. That’s my preoccupation. Death is really inevitable, but nobody wants to die early and suffering (that’s what a cancer can do).
Huge thanks to Monsieur Chaillan, you, Patty and Robin for this thought-provoking post!
It’s interesting that he notes the need for a “think tank” approach, isn’t it? I hope the Center of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City that Chandler Burr is directing may make a difference someday.
Unfortunately, his observation that, “The perfumers of my generation were happy, meaning they were lucky. They were free, with no restrictions to their palettes…longer and more complex formulas. One had more time to step back and consider while working” applies to so many things besides perfume!
I really admire that although he sees no promising signs on the horizon he nonetheless makes time to stop by Sephora to smell the latest launches.
Noz, yes, it DOES apply to so many more things than perfume, doesn’t it? Though sometimes I wonder if we’ve all been feeling this way forever. You know, complaining that taking a train gave one no time to get used to being in a different place, and that telephones are so alienating etc. and that the battle between having time and courage and space to make something of quality (a song, a dress, a perfume, a poem) is always a struggle against the urge towards profit and productivity…
He doesn’t seem to have given up at all, in spite of his feelings! Still in their sniffing and fighting!
Raymond Chaillan does indeed keep in touch with the industry — I’ve seen him at a few conferences at the Osmothèque and the Société Française des parfumeurs though I couldn’t attend his own talk… It’s a pity to think, as you say, that the know-how and lore of the older generations of perfumers will never be publicly disclosed. These people are walking encyclopedias of perfume history.
I was wondering whether the French edition of Michael Edwards’ Perfume Legends, translated by Guy Robert, was different from the English one, because my book clearly mentions Raymond Chaillan as having worked on the core accord of Opium. The work was completed by Jean-Louis Sieuzac.
And you’re right to suppose that there is also a certain amount of uncredited work done by junior perfumers. Not to mention the perfumers who composed the bases that were used in all the older perfumes. Or the impact of people like Louis Amic, then his son Jean, who headed Roure-Dupont when Opium was developed and had a clear vision of their products.
Interesting, D! I just went and checked to be sure, and my copy of Perfume Legends (HM Editions, 1996) says only that a team of perfumers worked on it at Roure before Sieuzac finished it. The quote is from Jean Amic. It would not surprise me one bit if they made the English edition shorter. I will ask Robin to make a note that it’s different in the French edition, though. Don’t want to give M. Edwards short shrift!
And yes, we’ve already talked about this some on your blog, but the more I learn about how perfume is really developed the more I wish we could hear, not only about the perfumer, but about the creative directors (especially them) and the people who invent the molecules and all of that. But then, I feel like that about the books I read, too, knowing how much effect and editor, agent and so on can have on the writing process. I suppose it comes down to our ideas about authorship and creativity, and how to amend those while still giving credit where credit is due.
The same thing is true of other art forms as well. Whenever you are looking at a painting by one of the great Renaissance masters, keep in mind that some of what you are seeing was likely done by students, particularly if it is a very large painting. It was not uncommon for the master to have the better students do some of the less important areas of the painting, such as the background or minor figures.
Very true! I remember how shocked I was the first time I found out that Rodin worked that way.
I can imagine that the French edition would be more “sensitive” to publish without mention Mr. Chaillan’s name, since the industry would have most likely read it in French — especially with Guy Robert translating. He’s the man both Jean Kerleo, founder and former head of the Osmotèque turns to when he does’t remember something… And I know Michael Edwarsd consults him regularly as well.
About creative directors, I think it’s quite different when you’ve got someone like Frédéric Malle or Christian Astuguevieille (Comme des Garçons) than when it’s someone from marketing, in which case the notion of “author” may no longer be relevant. Anything mainstream that comes out of a big lab today is designed by commitee. From what I hear, the sea change came sometime between Opium and Poison; that’s when launches became so big and international brands couldn’t risk entrusting their decisions to the head of the perfume division or the designer.
Excellent article, Alyssa! Very well done. It breaks my heart still that art is still being censored, even here in the 21st century. I admire the way he has faced and dealt with this.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see that his son made EL’s PC Jasmine White Moss because I always felt their was a kinship to this with Anais-Anais and now I know why! Thank you!
Glad you enjoyed the article!
Alyssa this is a wonderful interview and I am truly honored to be mentioned in such esteemed company. Please let him know of my gratitude.