Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A Very Full Day - Olivier Cresp on Angel, Penhaligon's And The Manic Pace Of Perfumery

If Olivier Cresp is fed up with talking about Angel, he doesn't show it. Since the fragrance was launched in 1992, he's probably spent a frightening proportion of his life entertaining journalists and fans with stories of its creation. But when he discusses the perfume at London's Sanderson Hotel, during an event to mark the start of Georgia May Jagger's reign as the official Face Of Angel (see below), he is full of enthusiasm, acting as though he's never before been asked to explain how one of the most successful fragrances of all time came into existence.

That said, when I manage to drag him into a corner for a quick interview, we start not by talking about his work for Mugler, but by discussing his two scents for Penhaligon's: Juniper Sling and the under-appreciated Peoneve. I tell him I find the extrait version of the latter particularly beautiful, and although he accepts the compliment with a nod, his lips curl into a disappointed grimace.

Olivier Cresp: Peoneve wasn't a success. But the other day, during my holidays, the manager of Penhaligon's called me saying that Juniper Sling is Number 1. It's even better than Blenheim Bouquet. You know, I was betting it would do well, because when they came to me, I said, "Okay, I've never worked for a niche perfume brand. And I want to work for you, but I want to be the Number 1 of your sales." And they said, "Okay, we will do our best." And after two, three years, Juniper Sling is Number 1 on the market.

Persolaise: Why do you think it's become so successful?

OC: It's not following the market. It's extremely spicy. The woods are interesting. It's unique.

P: But what makes it so special?

OC: First of all, the approach of the people. Instead of coming and using the same words as usual, they came with a bottle of gin, saying "We want you to duplicate this smell." So I was curious. I thought the approach was unique. And I said to myself, "I'm really going to start from a blank formula, from scratch." It was interesting. Peoneve was different. It was more related to naturals, it was more figurative, more classical.

P: A few minutes ago, in your presentation on Angel, you let us smell three of the main components of the scent, but you made no mention of ethyl maltol. Tell me, how is it possible to talk about the creation of Angel without saying a word about ethyl maltol*?

OC: Ah, but you smelt the blotter with the praline accord. I didn't want to say precisely what I used in the perfume. It's still a secret part that I keep for myself, because a lot of people say, "You used some praline or ethyl maltol, but what else did you use? Is there honey? Is there cocoa? Is there chocolate? Is there something else?" And that I cannot tell. But if you smell the patchouli with the vanilla, combined with the ethyl maltol, then you already have the main accord.

P: Was Angel the first scent in which you'd used ethyl maltol?

OC: I'd been using ethyl maltol in the creation of some flavours, when I was living in New Jersey. Nobody in perfumery had ever used it. And I used 50 parts of it out of 10,000 in the perfume, which is a lot.

P: In your presentation, you also said that when the Mugler people came to you, the first thing you did was to show them a fragrance on which you'd already been working, a fragrance with a core similar to that of what would eventually become Angel. You even had a name for it: Patchou. So I suppose you could argue that Angel's creation had nothing to do with Mugler at all. What would you say to that?

OC: That's a good question. You know, if you ask a painter, or a sculptor, or a perfumer if they are real creators, they will all say that, at the beginning, for a few moments - for a week, or for one day - you are creating something for yourself. You are pleasing yourself. And then, you give it - it's a gift - to anybody, to the world. That is very important. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago, thirty years ago, I had the time to create fragrances for myself. I had a precious box of five masculines and five feminines, and I used to show my ideas to some people, to answer their briefs. Today, it's impossible, because we have so many briefs. We work ten times more. I was saying to someone that ten years ago, I used to send ten formulas a day to my lab assistant. Today, I send sixty formulas a day. And I have to smell them all. I have to wear them. I have to compare them with benchmarks. It's a very full day.

P: Would you say that you don't have time to play with materials and ideas any more?

OC: I am saying that it's exciting. It's like driving a car at 300 kilometres per hour. I used to start at 9:30, and now I start at 8:30. And I used to finish at 7:00, but now I finish at 9:00. I work for Brazil, I work for the States, I work for Europe. It's exciting.

P: Do you feel you've lost the opportunity to look at your work in great detail?

OC: No.

P: But would Angel have been made in the atmosphere you describe?

OC: No. Today, I would spend three months, or six months maximum, on Angel. But you know, when you are rushed, when you are stressed, sometimes you can do something nice. Speeding can help you.

P: Have some of your colleagues not been able to take the pace?

OC: It's the same in all jobs. You have some people who survive. I'm trying to adapt myself. And I love the way I'm working today. I'm really driving my job. I know exactly what to do. I'm much more in control now than before. That's very important. It's key.

P: I guess for the new generation of perfumers, this way of working seems normal. Are there any young fragrance makers whose work you particularly admire?

OC: At my company, Firmenich, we have a school with five, six young trainees. Among them, my son, Sebastien, is going to finish in November. He lives in London. He will become a very creative perfumer. He wants to be in shampoo and shower gels. We also have some people we've been hiring from outside. We have a bunch of perfumers between 30 and 35 years old, and I'm very close to them, we work together.

P: Finally, I probably know the answer to this question already, but I'll ask it anyway. Do you sometimes wish you were an in-house perfumer for a single brand, like Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès or Thierry Wasser for Guerlain?

OC: It's a good question. That's another job; it's a different job. It's complicated to answer. What is exciting at Firmenich is that I can work on so many fragrances in the world. Focussing only on one or two fragrances would be a bit boring. Honestly speaking, today, at my age, no, I wouldn't be interested in working for an in-house perfumery.

* Ethyl maltol is the aromachemical which gives Angel its distinctive, super-sweet, candy floss note.

Here's the brand new Angel advert, directed by Sølve Sundsbø. More than a hint of Under The Skin here, I dare say...



  1. This was so sad to read. It's like listening to someone on amphetamine rush.
    Thanks for an insightful interview.

    1. Walter, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. And yes, I certainly find Cresp's descriptions of his working day rather upsetting.

  2. A fascinating insight into the frenetic life of a top perfumer. Thanks.
    Regarding Angel, I read there were in the region of 1000 revisions, and virtually no market testing. Extraordinary !

    1. L, thanks for reading.

      Cresp told me that there were at least 600 mods, so yes, your figure of 1000 sounds likely. And as for market testing, yes, all accounts seem to agree that Angel wasn't 'tested' in any way at all.

  3. Great interview as always. Fascinating reading for me. Thanks for that and asking for more! :-)

    1. Fqjcior, thanks for stopping by. I've got many more interviews lined up :-)

    2. Great to know and looking forward. :-)

  4. Disliked Angel from the outset, I have to admit! I like Peoneve, but not to wear as rose doesn't work on me, & was looking forward to Juniper Sling but it doesn't sit well on me either. I'm a big Penhaligon's fan & have worn Bluebell fro many years.

    1. Carolyn, Angel was and continues to be extremely divisive.

      And it's funny you mention Bluebell, because I know it's many people's favourite Penhaligon's.


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