Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Fragrant Melting Pot - An Interview With Givaudan (Part 1)

Chances are that if you’re a regular reader of this site, then you’ve already heard of Givaudan. For the uninitiated, the Swiss firm is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of synthetic perfumery ingredients. It supplies high-quality natural raw materials, gathered from every part of the planet. It creates the scents for countless consumer products, such as detergents and air fresheners. And it makes fine fragrances, one or two of which you may have come across at some point. Poison, Obsession, Candy, Lou Lou, Opium, Fracas, Shocking, L’Air Du Temps. Do any of those sound familiar?

As if its grip on the scented world weren’t firm enough, Givaudan also has a perfumery school. But this isn’t a Mickey Mouse establishment which hands out a certificate of achievement to every casual passer by. It is an absolute Mecca for hundreds (if not thousands) of hopefuls who would love nothing better than to spend the rest of their days concocting fragrant magic in glass vials.

Therefore, the prospect of interviewing two key players from the firm was more than a little exciting. Thanks to the efforts of the delightful Odette Toilette, I was able to meet Jean Guichard (the head of the Paris-based Givaudan school) and Hervé Fretay (in charge of sourcing new raw materials) before they took to the stage at a recent Scratch & Sniff event in London. Sadly, I didn’t have as much time with them as I would’ve liked (although I suspect even twelve hours wouldn’t have been enough) so I couldn’t challenge some of their responses or delve into wider areas of discussion. But I’m not complaining: during our brief chat, we managed to cover many aspects of their work, both past and present.

I started by asking them how conscious they are of the fact that they’re responsible for so many of the smells in the world. The odours of thousands of soaps, deodorants and washing powders have come from their labs. Do they ever think about the enormity of that?

Jean Guichard: Yes, yes, but we're a big company, we are a lot of perfumers - for example, in Givaudan there are more than 100 perfumers - so there isn't one person who is in charge. In fact, what we are trying to do is understand life, trying to understand what people like, and we try to translate that into a perfume.

P: But are you actively aware that you’re changing the world with your work?

Hervé Fretay: I always feel that working in perfumery is not real work, it's a passion. If you go into a fragrance house, you will see that all the people are driven by passion, at the perfumery school and at the perfumer level, everybody, at each step. So we are moved by that. To bring new smells and to bring pleasurable smells to consumers is what we like to do. We don't feel like we've got this big weight on our shoulders.

JG: We don't feel like we are going to change the world. We just try to please ourselves, make ourselves happy, and we hope that other people will share the happiness.

P: But all the perfumes that are currently being poured into all these functional products are going to shape people’s lives, especially their childhoods. Do you not feel that you’re creating people’s future memories?

JG: I don't think so, because you cannot impose something. If you make something that is not right for the time, then it's too early, and people don't understand. In fact, like every single artist, we have to understand our world and maybe be a bit in advance of our time. That's when we have success. If you are too much ahead, then people and consumers and customers will not follow you. So in fact it's more about translating what is already the idea of our time, and not inventing or changing the world. It's about capturing something that the market and people are ready to like.

Jean Guichard [image: The Garden Productions Ltd]

P: So in all the time you’ve spent in the perfume world, what trends would you say you’ve seen over the years?

JG: It's very difficult to know what is going to come next. But if you look backwards, it's very easy. In 1988 New West came on the market. They had everything right. The name was right: the west coast of the United States. The packaging was blue like the ocean, with yellow, like the sun. And the perfume contained calone, which smells marine, like seaweed, iodine. But it was too early. It was quite a big flop. Some years later came Escape. It did quite well. Then came Eau D'Issey and Acqua Di Gio [which were both extremely successful]. And you can see the same thing in other parts of our lives. For example, in sport, people started enjoying surfing. Also more and more people liked naturals. Even in movies, in France we had Le Grand Bleu. And even on TV we had Baywatch. So we always say that, in perfumery, we have no special trends. There are trends in our lives, and our goal is to translate them into perfumes.

HF: You can have a 'push-pull' effect as well. Through new materials, and through overdosing raw materials, you change the equation, and you develop a new trend, like when Angel came. You can say it was completely new, or it was the overdose of the ethyl maltol together with the patchouli, but in a way, wasn't it a continuation of the orientals? Wasn't it a new oriental? So you see, it's like in any creation. You capitalise on what has been done by your predecessors, and you try to play with what is new around you. Our perfumers are really infused by the external world, not only in terms of smelling, but also in terms of painting and all kinds of creation...

JG: You know, recently in Paris we had a very good Picasso exhibition. They were showing the influence of the masters on Picasso's work. In perfumery, it's exactly the same. Something exists, because, as Hervé was explaining, before, there was something like Shalimar...

HF: So you see, it's a continuity. Jean explained it very well. It's the right place at the right time. It's the 'click'.

JG: And also you need to have a company which is able to make a statement and make a trend. With Angel, you know, Mugler was a designer who really believed in it...

HF: And Vera Strubi [the woman hired to launch Mugler’s first perfume] as well...

JG: Yes. It was not just a marketing strategy. They really believed in it.

P: What would you say to someone who disagrees that perfumery is an art?

JG: For sure, it's an art. I think we work exactly like other artists. We translate the ideas of our time, like film makers, like painters. To create that, we've got some raw materials, some ingredients that we use, some tools. The only thing you could say is, "Oh yes, but you're very commercial. When your customer says something is too green, you reduce the green. An artist would say that if you want something less green, you should paint it yourself." Maybe we are artists working in a commercial world, but I mean, if you look at the history of art, you have a lot of very famous artists who were working for customers.

HF: Mozart created a lot of his compositions on commission. And I think what's important is that, like any artist, everybody has the same tools: the palette of ingredients, like a painter has a palette of colours. It's what you do with them, it's how you mix it, that's where the artistry comes in, with a sense of craftsmanship as well.

JG: Exactly. And you recognise the style of the perfumer. A perfumer is not just making a smell. We've got evaluators working with us who can tell what has been made by which perfumer. Some perfumers have a strong style; some other ones, a bit less.

HF: Some of them re-invent themselves permanently. A few of them are so creative, like Picasso. He re-invented himself twenty times.

JG: But when you see a Picasso, you can tell it's a Picasso.

P: So when you’re greeting your new pupils at the Givaudan school, do you tell them that you’ll be treating them as artists?

JG: Well, we never discuss that. It's so obvious. When they come to the school, we select them through talking with them, to see what is their personality, if they are a bit different, if they are living with their time. And then we teach them the technique. We choose them on creativity. We don't give them a test to see if they have a good nose. You know, very often people say a perfumer is a nose. We don't like that. We don't say that a painter is an eye. We don't say that a musician is an ear. It would be very easy if the only thing that mattered was the nose when choosing a candidate. I'd go in the street, I'd get a dog, I'd bring it here, and it would do the job a hundred times better than me. A good perfumer is not someone who has a better nose. He is the one who is able to imagine, to invent what the market is going to want.

P: Has the type of person who applies for the Givaudan course changed over the years?

JG: Yes, yes, yes, for sure. In my time, most of the people were coming from Grasse. At first, people didn't know much about perfumery. I remember, when I started, I was saying, "I'm a perfumer," and people were thinking I had a perfumery shop and I was selling perfume. In Grasse, because it's the work of the city, we knew about perfumery, and our family was working in the business. Today, because of people like you, because of magazines, we've got a lot of demand from people who want to become perfumers because they know about it, but more from women. For example, out of 10 demands, we'll have 9 young women who want to become perfumers.

Hervé Fretay

P: Perfumers are now much more well-known than they used to be. Do you think some of your students are striving for a taste of celebrity status?

JG: Yes, maybe.

HF: This glamour is brought by fine fragrance perfumery. But out of 100 perfumers, we've got only, like, 30% who are in fine fragrance. I can tell you we've got fantastic, very creative perfumers doing toilet cleaners or fabric softeners or soap or shampoo.

P: And of course, in some ways, creating functional fragrances is more difficult than creating fine fragrances.

JG: Yes, yes...

HF: Yes, the technical performance, the stability...

JG: The price...

HF: They have a limited palette they can play with, but at the same time, our customers are asking for more and more creativity. If you look, for instance, at fabric softeners, 10 years ago, there were only three colours, a blue, a yellow and maybe a lavender. Now, if you go into a supermarket, it's almost like being in a Sephora. In the smell and in the packaging, you've got orientals...

JG: Yes, what Hervé is saying is right. In the perfumery school, we give exactly the same training to the ones who will work on fabric softeners and the ones who will work on fine fragrance. We teach them the technique, and then they apply it to soap or to fine fragrance.

P: Is there something different about the type of person who eventually ends up working on fine fragrances?

JG: Technically, certainly not. Fine fragrance is more about seducing...

HF: It's more about the story, as well. But you see, some of these markets have revolutionised themselves. Because of the turnaround, even outside the area of fine fragrance, you need to tell a story as well. When you're working on the next shampoo for L'Oréal, you need to bring a story to L'Oréal. It's going in the same direction. I think it's just that you haven't got the same lighting on you. You've got a lot of light and glamour when you're in fine fragrance, but a bit less on other fragrances.

JG: Exactly. 5 years ago, we had an opening of a new part of the school, and we asked journalists to come. And we asked young perfumers coming out of the school to come. And some of the journalists asked the young perfumers, "What products have you made?" And the fine fragrance perfumers were allowed to say, "I've made this product or that product." With consumer products, some of the companies said, "We don't want you to say that Givaudan made the perfume."

HF: The fine fragrance market is more transparent, in terms of who has created what. The consumer product market is not at all.

P: Are there any rising stars at Givaudan? Are you able to name any names?

JG: Yes, yes, we've got some. There's one who just came out of the school: Quentin Bisch [who appeared in Ian Denyer’s Perfume documentary for the BBC]. He's now what we call a junior perfumer. He's working under a senior perfumer as his mentor.

HF: I'm happy you said it, because I share this view about Quentin. We had an exercise with the young perfumers, when they were finishing their schooling, and I thought Quentin would come along with fine fragrance. But he made only fabric softeners and detergents. And he created fabric softeners that were incredible. He created something around the smell of a salt grain on a sandy beach.

P: From your different perspectives at Givaudan, do you have to be very aware of global trends and developments?

JG: Of course. For example, in the perfumery school, we took four students. Two of them are from Brazil, and they will go back to Brazil. One of them is from Japan, and she will go and work in Shanghai later on. And there is only one European. And next year, for sure we will take two people from Asia. Certainly one or two from India, and another one from south-east Asia. We give priority to local people. We think that those people will understand more what consumers want, because they come from the same culture.

HF: To link that to raw materials, until recently, all our research was done in Switzerland. But now we have a small lab in Shanghai, only with Chinese people. And they're starting to bring new materials to the palette, strongly supported by Asian perfumers, because they bring smells related to their own environment. For them, they're 'easy' smells. For western Europeans or Americans, it's a complete novelty to the palette.

P: Globalisation in perfume, right?

HF: It's cross-fertilisation, more than globalisation. It's not the same smell everywhere. We take a smell which has, maybe, a strong reference to a food in China, but for fine fragrance perfumers in Paris, it would be the new 'freshness' for instance, and it would be an eye-opener. Something completely new.

Come back next week for part 2, in which Guichard and Fretay share info on some fascinating new materials and a wonderful story about the creation of Poison. And watch this space for an interview with the rising star himself, Quentin Bisch.


Quentin Bisch [image: The Garden Productions Ltd]


  1. Fascinating, thanks so much! Looking forward to what comes next.

    1. Rosarita, thanks for taking the time to write. I hope you enjoy Part 2.

  2. Thanks for this very insightful interview! Can't wait for Part 2.

    (Here's hoping this comment doesn't disappear into the ether)

    1. Thanks, CPB... and your comment seems to have made it intact :-)


Thanks very much for reading my site and taking the time to leave a comment.

Please note that whilst the full range of views is welcome on, comments containing expletives and/or abusive language may not be published.

If you're using Safari on an Apple device, you may experience some difficulties with submitting comments. Please consider using Google's Chrome browser on your Apple device; this may make it easier to leave your comment.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...