Tuesday, 18 February 2014

No Lies, No Compromises - An Interview With Perfumer Quentin Bisch

Quentin Bisch (left) with Etienne De Swardt
at the Etat Libre D'Orange shop in Paris

Quentin Bisch’s connection with Etat Libre D’Orange goes back to the days before the young Frenchman had even begun his perfumery training. When I met him a few months ago to discuss his work on La Fin Du Monde - one of the most interesting releases of 2013 - he recalled the day he first walked into the ELDO store on Rue Des Archives and was essentially offered a job by the brand’s founder, Etienne De Swardt. He turned it down, on the grounds that he wanted to pursue a path towards becoming a fully fledged perfumer.

De Swardt’s loss on that day became his future gain. After that initial encounter, Bisch secured a work placement at Robertet. He then managed to get into the Givaudan School. And he has now authored a fragrance for the very same brand which had attracted his attention all those years earlier, when he’d just completed his Arts studies.

I started my conversation with him by focussing on that perfume, an intriguing mix of iris, roasted seeds and a suggestion of extinguished flames hovering in the background.

Persolaise: When you began putting together ideas for the Fin Du Monde fragrance, how did you respond to the Blaise Cendrars text - The End Of The World Filmed By The Angel Of Notre Dame - which inspired the perfume?

Quentin Bisch: The book is written as a script, so it fits with the idea of movies. It's seven chapters, and at the end, it rewinds everything and goes back to the beginning again. It's a new beginning. So I thought that it's not a negative end of the world, and it shouldn't be a negative perfume. It's a catastrophe, but in a way, it's a revival and a rebirth too. And I imagined the earth exploding in space, and I thought, 'That's popcorn! Or iris rhizomes! And seeds!' I tried to bring in some other ideas, because I thought I couldn't just rely on the popcorn. But I couldn't do anything else. The popcorn was obvious.

P: ‘Popcorn’ covers a variety of smells, from sweet to salty. How did you decide which particular type of popcorn you’d go for?

Q: It's a good question, because you can approach popcorn in different ways. You can have caramelised popcorn. You can have salty popcorn. I didn't want a sugary, heavy popcorn. So I tried to focus more on the fluffy, buttery side. When you put some corn seeds in a saucepan, they smell warm and fatty at the same time, and then they explode. But the problem is that 'fatty' is a pejorative word. I prefer 'creamy', 'fluffy'. The idea was to create popcorn getting together with iris. Iris can be fatty. It has a sort of creaminess and warmth and it's really powdery and musky. So the idea was to see iris in a seed-like way and popcorn in an iris-like way.

P: What materials did you use to create the popcorn accord?

Q: It’s based on a lot of seeds: ambrette, cumin, carrot, sesame. It was a story of seeds. At the beginning, I also had some angelica seed, but I decided to get rid of it.

P: Did you use any interesting Givaudan captive materials?

Q: There is a beautiful musk called Silkolide. And because there's this reference to the war, there's something really sad too, so I thought that maybe one of the seeds in the story could be a bullet exploding, like the seed of war. So I had to create gunpowder. I used styrax pyrogene, and cumin goes into that too. There's a captive called Mystikal - a kind of incense note - which is really interesting, because it's really long-lasting, and has metallic aspects and smoky aspects. It smells like incense, but in a really raw, diffusive way.

P: How many materials did you use in total?

Q: About 30-something. I'm allergic to long formulae.

P: Did your Givaudan training encourage you to stick to short formulae?

Q: I was trained to do as I feel. But it's true that short formulae are easier to understand. You can get lost very easily when you have two pages of raw materials. In my training, Michel Almairac, Jean Guichard and a lot of people told me to use one raw material and see the effect. If it brings something to the perfume, keep it. If not, get rid of it. It's better to take some raw materials out than to put more in. So on a daily basis, I try to take out rather than put in.

P: I guess your training must have brought you into contact with many inspirational perfumers. But which one would you most like to meet out of the ones you haven't yet encountered?

Q: I'm a big fan of Annick Menardo, I think her work is amazing. 

P: What are you personal favourites from the Etat Libre D’Orange collection?

Q: I have two favourites. The very first one I bought was Vierges Et Toreros. I love costus. And the other one I really like is Eau De Protection

P: How would you describe the process of working with ELDO and Etienne De Swardt?

Q: What I love with Etienne and his brand is the strong coherence between the brief and the perfume and the quality. Everything is built around an idea which is strong and respected. I think that's really rare these days. It's not the case everywhere. To have the opportunity to create something beautiful and sophisticated which stays coherent and true to itself, without lying, without compromising - that's the most important thing in perfumery.

P: What’s your view on the subject of reformulation and classic perfumes being changed to fit current recommendations?

Q: Regarding creation in general and making new perfumes with limitations on certain materials, I think things have evolved and you have to deal with that. You have to re-invent everything all the time, so it's not an issue. But if you're talking about older perfumes which have to be modified, then that's another problem. Even some slight changes in a formula can influence the whole perfume in certain cases, and I'm sure people who use their perfume daily - and sometimes for years - can see tiny variations and have the feeling that they have lost their precious, beloved fragrance. At the same time, perfumes have always had to adapt to the changes around: qualities of natural raw materials from one year to another, regulations regarding animal products etc. It's a very complex question!

P: So, in the future, if the recommendations change and you’re obliged to take out a key material from one of your own perfumes, how do you think you’ll react?

Q: I don't know how I would react. I don't know. I think we have to find a balance. We have to be responsible as far as the legislation goes, but as brands, we also have to be responsible and be aware of the fragile beauty of perfumes.


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