Tuesday, March 20, 2012

People Have Nothing Else To Talk About: The Final Part Of The Kurkdjian Interview


Many thanks to all of you who've left comments and sent emails about part 1 and part 2 of my interview with Francis Kurkdjian. Here's the final chapter, in which the perfumer has a few insights to share about the mystique which surrounds his industry.

Persolaise: As you know, nowadays many perfumes are sold on the basis that their ingredients are of an extremely high quality. How is an ordinary customer supposed to be able to recognise high-quality materials?

Francis Kurkdjian: But why do you care about that?

P: Well, maybe some people would like to know the difference between high-quality and low-quality ingredients.

FK: What makes the difference?

P: I don’t know. You tell me.

FK: When you buy a collage by Picasso, do you check each ingredient to make sure that what he’s put in the collage is expensive, or do you buy it because it looks good overall? What does ‘good quality’ mean? This isn’t even a question that should be raised. It’s raised because people have nothing else to talk about. If you think about painting, does the value of the paint have anything to do with the value of the painting?

P: So basically you're saying that people shouldn’t be worried about, for instance, whether a jasmine used in a perfume is a good jasmine.

FK: But who knows that anyway?

P: That’s what I mean. How are people meant to learn the difference between a good jasmine and a poor one?

FK: If you could find ten people within the perfume industry who can differentiate between a jasmine from Morocco, a jasmine from Egypt and a jasmine from India, I swear I’ll give you a bottle of champagne. Ten people.

P: Could you differentiate between them?

FK: No. I might have an idea, but I wouldn’t get it right each time.

P: So it simply doesn’t matter?

FK: It’s not that it doesn’t matter. It’s like the whole thing of the number of raw materials a perfumer is supposed to know. People are fighting over whether it’s 500, 600, 300.

P: Some would say thousands.

FK: Who’s got time to waste to count how many materials they know? In twenty years of being a perfumer, I’ve never seen someone counting how many ingredients they know.

P: How many did you have to learn to graduate from ISIPCA?

FK: 350. But I had to know them extremely well. When I made Le Mâle, all I knew was the palette from ISIPCA. That was enough.

P: That’s quite a different number from the one that’s normally quoted.

FK: Yes, yes. I don’t know how people can pretend they know 2000.

P: Well, Jean-Claude Ellena has stated he uses only around 200.

FK: Yes, but maybe he should use more, because his perfumes are always alike. He’s a very good perfumer, but I think, at some point, it’s like he became anorexic. It’s a kind of anorexia. But this is why we need good critics, because no-one has told Ellena, “We don’t give a f*** about how many raw materials you need. What counts is the result.” So what if someone uses only 200 materials? I don’t care. It’s like asking Picasso how many colours he used. I use what I need to use, to achieve my point and my goal.

This is what I don’t like with Ellena: he’s trying to do exactly what Roudnitska did in his work. Roudnitska started with things like Femme De Rochas and then, at some point, there was a shift in his creations, because he thought he was using too many raw materials, and he tried to do less and less and less, until he made Eau Sauvage, Diorissimo etc. At some point, they all smell alike. In the same way, Ellena is shrinking.

Why would you need to shrink your palette? I don’t see the point. It’s like shrinking your piano.

[For my review of Kurkdjian's must-try, new Oud, please click here.]

---
In brief... I'd be very interested to hear how many (if any) of you are planning to head to Milan next weekend for this year's Esxence. Those of us who can't make the trip will have to console ourselves with the videos which the organisers have promised to post on the Net. One of them will be of a panel discussion featuring Grant Osborne of Basenotes. Should be worth watching.

Please don't forget that you've got until 10 pm this Thursday (UK time) to enter the draw for some samples from Neela Vermeire Creations.

Persolaise.

46 comments:

  1. Very interestng. I agree with overall views. It's the same with music; the number of notes or instruments is not the point, the quality of music playing and quality of instruments is not the point - the final result, character and soul of the piece is what counts the most.

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    1. In simple terms, I'd say I agree... but is the final result not affected by the quality of the tools?

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  2. If perfumers don't want to talk and don't have anything interesting to say why interview them?

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    1. I couldn't find a way of deleting my comment above because I have Have Nothing Else To Talk About (as does Mr Kurkdjian!)

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    2. Kev, I'm sorry you didn't find anything worthy of interest in FK's responses. I'm not defending him just for the sake of doing so, but I did genuinely find many of his replies intriguing and honest.

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  3. I have to say something to this latest part of M. Kurkdjian's opinions.
    It is a bit shortsighted to state that there is no difference- or that the difference doesn't matter - when it comes to raw materials. I'm in no way very olfactorily gifted, but my nose is absolutley able to distinguish between a synthetic jamine accord and jasmine from Grasse for example.
    A painter sees to it to use high quality paint so his art is showcased and preserved in the best possible way. A musician seeks out a great instrument, and talent aside, it sounds definitely different if one plays a Stradivarius or a piece of wood with strings that some very cheap learning violins are. The materials an artist works with does have an impact, that, to me, is a fact. What to do with that material is a completely different story, but to state material is irrelevant is just not true.
    Okay, mini-rant over. ;)

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    1. I don't consider that a rant :-)

      And I'm no musician, but I'd say your point about high-quality instruments is well made.

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    2. Thank you, Birgit, well said - my feelings exactly.

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  4. I have to take issue with his comments about painting. Some of the abstract expressionist painters used house paint. Their work is now falling off the canvas.

    It's art vs. craft, of course, but if there is no reason to differentiate between materials, then I guess you could use cheap student grade paint, which contains much less pigment than even ordinary artists-grade and a whole lot less than the high-end paints like Old Holland. The "value of the paint" comes into play when longevity issues arise. The Old Masters were masters of their craft -- preparation, proper pigment grinding, better varnishes, etc. Their paintings are still around after hundreds of years.

    I think FK is showing a lack of respect for his customers here. Or perhaps just rationalizing being forced to use substandard ingredients to meet a budget. I'm sure that happens from time to time!

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    1. Olfacta, another good point about 'tools' vs 'final result'.

      However, I'm not sure I'd say that FK doesn't respect his customers. In another part of the interview he actually says that the 'judgement' of paying consumers is the only judgement that counts.

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  5. I certainly agree with FK that I couldn't tell the difference between a jasmine from India, Morocco, or Egypt. I feel like I can tell the difference, at least many times, between a synthetic floral and a natural floral. But I do agree that it's the entire composition together that really matters.

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    1. I'm very curious to know how other industry figures would have responded to his claim about different types of jasmine.

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  6. I found the interview quite refreshing and funny. He does have a point of view - don't take it all too seriously and don't believe half of the hype that is supposed to make us feel better about spending hundreds of dollars for a bottle.
    Blind test and let the work speak for itself.
    I enjoy fragrances as a hobby and while I respect everyone who takes this more seriously than me, I am having just as much fun not knowing the difference between Indian and Moroccan jasmine.

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    1. Antje, good point. And yes, I found many of his responses refreshing too.

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  7. Oh my god. This guy is so funny. Although once again I think he comes off sounding really hostile, whether or not it's all in good humor, and self-contradicting (now we *do* need critics?) ... I agree with him about Ellena. His recent perfumes do all smell alike and I find them grievously boring.

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    1. Elisa, FK certainly doesn't allow himself to be pinned down. But he did actually say in Part 1 that he thinks we need perfume critics.

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    2. You're right, I went back and checked. He says we need them but they are all doing it wrong. :)

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    3. Which brings us full circle!

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  8. I LOVE that he is saying it like it is. So much idolatry and snobbishness in this business. Amazing. Breath of fresh air. Great series! Thank you!

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    1. Daly Beauty, you're very welcome. I'd certainly jump at the chance to interview him again, should an opportunity arise.

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  9. This was the best part of my day! I LOL'ed at the part about Ellena's 200 materials! I've privately thought before, why should a perfumer want to limit himself to a small palette? But FK put it better (and funnier) than I could.

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    1. Krista, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Although I can also see why JCE might want to restrict his palette. (Oh dear, am I the one being contrary now??)

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    2. Now that I think about it, I can see why JCE would want to as well. As a perfume fanatic, I find the more I smell, the less I want to smell. Crazy but....

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    3. Daly Beauty, I'm pretty sure JCE has been quoted as saying that when he makes a perfume using only two ingredients, he'll retire. You can see the stylistic direction in which he's consciously aiming, even if his results don't always please.

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  10. Although on one hand I find Mr. Kurkdjian's candid comments to be refreshing, on the other I'm shocked at how brutally honest - to a fault - he was in your excellent interview, Persolaise. (Thanks for being persistent with your questioning.)In the end though it makes me wonder how truly good a fragrance can be when created by someone as cynical as Mr. Kurkdjian. Call me a romantic, but where's the love and passion and respect for his own profession, not to mention all of his peers and those who have gone before him? Interesting, too, how he dismisses the role of the perfume critic, yet in the same breath criticizes Ellena. Still, have to respect F.K.'s honesty, blunt as it may be.

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    1. Leslie, thanks for writing. FK's passion when talking about his own work (and that of some of his peers) was very plain to see. He is definitely passionate about perfumery... although he doesn't wear perfume... but that's another story!

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  11. I guessed right about which perfumer he thought had become anorexic. :-)

    He makes a good point - why is minimalism a goal? Of course, it isn't his goal, and just because it is Ellena's goal (or was Roudnitska's goal), that doesn't make it his goal or The Goal Of Perfume.

    Reading a bit into his comments I wonder if he is reacting to the way 20th century perfume became an activity of minimalism. Compare the things he is reacting to (he mentions Diorissimo, which we all know was highly dependent on one key ingredient and has suffered for that) with the things that came before, things like Chanel No. 5 or Shalimar, formulas much more complex and much less frames for one great ingredient. In that sense, I can see his point - he would never have made Cool Water because he doesn't worship Calone, and he doesn't want to be responsible for making perfumes that way.

    OK, fine, but that said, I absolutely adore Indult Tihota, which I believe is just as minimal and is an excellent composition. And a work of Mr. Kurkdjian's.

    Olfactoria is right; some of this is art vs. craft. I don't buy for "quality" of ingredients but I'm also not foolish enough to think that all I'm smelling that's different between my $300 perfume and my $40 perfume is composition. He apparently doesn't want to get sucked into that discussion. I'm trying to keep that in mind to offset what truly does seem like a good bit of cynicism toward his consumers. I'm having a hard time juxtaposing that to, for instance, the truly emotional love letter he wrote to his fans at Sniffapalooza one year (he has not been able to attend, as far as I know, but at least he cared enough to write a note.)

    I imagine that like most artists, 1) he loves it when people loves what he does, 2) he loathes discussing the activity of his art (the image of the self-absorbed artist who talks endlessly about art is bunk, I think; people who actually do art do it and usually hate to talk about it); 3) he is constantly comparing himself to other perfumers, like Ellena and Roudnitska, and probably feels a fair bit of envy and/or distaste toward their work because it isn't what he would do, AND it is generally well received. (This too is fairly common among artists.)

    Persolaise, you are to be applauded for bringing us this great interview. Thanks so much!

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    1. Unseencenser, thanks very much for your lengthy comment. I agree that, like many artists, FK feels the tension that is sometimes comes from critics and peers. I'm sure most would agree that no matter what his views are on the work of other people, he should follow his own instincts and produce the sorts of fragrances which he feels he needs to produce.

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  12. Francis Kurkdjian is obviously a very passionate man and I found some of his responses amusing especially re. Jean Claude Ellena ( as I tend to agree with Francis' view .....as brutal and frank as it was. )

    I dsagree about his view on raw materials. I absolutely believe it matters what kind of quality of raw materials are used - both as a consumer and a person who loves perfume. It is an insult to your customer to present them with less than the best materials for your work . If you are going to have a high price tag attached to a bottle of fragrance, I certainly will hope that the perfumer sourced the best raw materials he can utilise - synthetic or otherwise.
    Great job, Persolaise. :)

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    1. Mimi, thanks very much indeed. Perhaps I'll be able to re-visit the question of the quality of materials in the future.

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  13. Great interview. There's much to be admired in Mr. Kurkdjian's brutally honest stance. It's always about the end result; the artist's intention and the emotions evoked will always trump the materials. Agree about Ellena, his work has fallen into redundancy. How many times can one rehash Declaration/Eau D'Hermes?

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  14. Kevin, thank you. I'd be inclined to say that Ellena isn't simply giving us new versions of Declaration, but then that's a debate for another time ;-)

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  15. FK comes across as very tetchy in these interviews. Could it be that his hand was forced with the oud scent ?, it's a very bland fragrance. I wonder if FK 's backers made him jump on the oud bandwagon ?.

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    1. Chris, thanks for writing. FK has publicly stated that he was advised to add an oud scent to his line, but obviously, this doesn't mean that he'd deliberately make it 'sub-standard' because he felt he was being forced into creating it. I suspect he wouldn't want to shoot himself in the foot that way.

      Do you find his oud bland? I agree that it isn't the Arabian powerhouse you might expect from its name, but I think that's part of the point.

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    2. Persolaise
      I am an FK fan. I say this is a bland oud with a heavy heart. Absolue Pour Le Soir is an amazing fragrance and FK is an amazing talent. This whole project just seems so cynical. It feels like this oud was cobbled together in no time at all, at the behest of marketing men with £ signs in their eyes. It feels passionless and souless. I do not beleive FK wanted to do this fragrance.
      Do you feel this is a good release ? or even a mediocre one ?

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    3. Chris, you'll find my review of Oud if you click on the link at the end of the post above.

      As for how long it took to make the scent, FK told me he spent two years developing it.

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  16. Persolaise... forgive me, but what's said in the interview is starting to sound redundant; you can say the same thing only so many times.
    And one can criticize but I do believe in mutual regard among colleagues. Constructive criticism is an art form and very few can do it well.
    Lambasting another's work is the easiest thing to do.
    Not that I disagree; Monsieur Ellena's minimalistic bandwagon got derailed long time ago, what one is seeing is the clutter left behind. But I have faith, who knows maybe next time he'll surprise us.

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    1. Ash, if FK has a somewhat blunt manner of expressing his thoughts, that's one thing. But I feel it mustn't detract too much from the fact that he IS expressing them. It's not often you get industry figures saying exactly how they feel.

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  17. I have quite enjoyed this interview. I find him amusing and honest. After reading the comments...I find that I have read what he said differently than many others..when he says.."who is to say what is good quality?" I take that to mean..that he is saying that who can say what country or place produces the best quality jasmine..or whatever other ingredient. What determines "best" or "good"..that is highly subjective no matter how you look at it. I would use beef as an example..some will swear to you that kobe beef is the BEST beef..while others will tell you that corn fed beef from the midwest is the BEST. It is all subjective. So when he says who decides good quality...I do not think he is making an argument of cheap ingredients versus expensive or fine ingredients.. or even an argument of synthetic vs. natural..but an argument about what constitutes the "high" vs."low"..he is asking who can determine that when perhaps to one person Moroccan jasmine smells the best and has the most staying power..and to another it is the jasmine from India or Egypt. He doesn't want people to be told..well Moroccan Jasmine is clearly the best so when that ingredient is used this is clearly a high quality perfume..when in fact it is not clear that Moroccan Jasmine would be the best. He is saying ( in my opinion) that what constitutes the best especially in nature..is subjective and so one should not waste time thinking about the individual ingredients necessarily and just think about the composition as a whole. Contrary to what many others think..I believe he respects his consumers to that point that he doesn't feel like they should need or want to pick apart a creation but that they can recognize quality without being told that the product has the "best" jasmine in it or any other accord for that matter.

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    1. EchoCharlie, thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview, and I agree that FK's words can be taken in a few different ways. The question of quality has always been prone to the whims of 'subjectivity' and the dictats of opinion-formers.

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  18. It's funny, FK is someone who made a favorite, and a least-favorite of mine, Green Tea and Le Male respectively. Green Tea smells somewhat minimalistic to me. Le Male smells like a cluttered mess. Yet in this interview he points out how a small, basic trade school palette of ingredients was all he used in Le Male. Revelations like this are why I enjoy reading loose, from the hip interviews like this one. Nice job.

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    1. Bryan, thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  19. I loved this interview! It was a real insight into the mindset of a distinguished perfumer, and his honesty is hugely refreshing. Francis K and Frederic Malle are examples of talented perfume pros who don't feel the need to work the wifty-wafty, "sensitive artist" line in their patter, and I applaud them. Thanks for this, Persolaise.

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    1. Katie, thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. Yes, I appreciated his honesty too, and I'd certainly jump at the chance to have a chat with him again.

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  20. Anorexic perfume can be more profiting for big companies who aim for bigger margin on their selling. They probably dream that one day a perfume consists of only one ingredient *sarcasm joke*

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    1. Anon, you may well be right... and, of course, we already have the single-ingredient perfume :-)

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