Towards the end of 2014, Bertrand Duchaufour popped into London to launch Ostara, his latest creation for Penhaligon's. Inspired by a perfume he encountered in Jodhpur - where he was carrying out research for Vaara - it aims to recreate the scent of a daffodil and, by extension, to evoke notions of optimism, fertility and rebirth. If those three words make you think of spring, then you're not far off the mark: Ostara (or Ēostre) is the ancient Germanic goddess of the dawn and, as it happens, the source of the word 'Easter', a holiday which, at least in the UK, is always associated with daffodils. The humble flower doesn't often find itself featured in scent compositions, so I decided it would form a sensible topic from which to begin my discussion with Duchaufour. I asked him how he went about putting together its smell.
Bertrand Duchaufour: You can't extract any oils from daffodils, so to create the daffodil, I worked through narcissus - which is the exact brother of the daffodil - and other flower bases, like hyacinth, poison ivy and ylang ylang.
Persolaise: Would you say that daffodils have a smell?*
BD: Yes! Certain varieties do. There are many different types of them. They smell like a lighter narcissus.
P: Is Ostara based on a specific variety of daffodil?
BD: Not exactly. But it is a soliflore, because I worked on reproducing the exact effect of a daffodil. I also added a cyclamen note, which is very transparent and watery, so it symbolises dew. To reproduce the effect of sunshine, I used the radiancy of red berries, and also black pepper. And that's reinforced by the effect of clementines and bergamot, which are also yellow, like daffodils.
P: So if Amaranthine was your white perfume for Penhaligon's, is this your yellow one?
BD: Yes, between yellow and green. The greenness is very important too, because of the sappy effect.
P: What would you say the future holds for niche perfumery? Is there enough work coming your way to keep you busy?
BD: I always have a lot of work, a lot of new customers coming. I'm lucky, because everything is going well. But as for niche products... I'm pessimistic, in a way... but I'm sure I will be optimistic in another way. I'm sure we're going to have a new market of very exclusive, niche products. The normal niche products - the ones in the middle - will be completely taken over by the big brands.
P: What are your thoughts on Frederic Malle being sold to Estée Lauder?
BD: It's a bad thing. Look at Jo Malone. There will be no exclusivity. It will just become a normal brand. You see, 'niche' is a question of distribution, it's to do with a certain exclusivity, something rare, something not easy to find.
P: Apart from making scents for Penhaligon's and L'Artisan Parfumeur, what else do you do in your capacity as a freelance perfumer?
BD: I have my own company. But I also work for a perfume manufacturing company, mainly for the export market, the Middle East and Russia. I'm their employee. It's interesting to have these two jobs, because one can influence and inspire the other. That's the reason why I do it, although it's a lot of work.
P: What exactly do you do for them?
BD: I make perfumes for them, as an employee, but that's nothing to do with niche products. I work on mukhallat, for example, and I like it.
P: So do you mean to say that some of the mukhallats we smell in the shops in Dubai were made by you?
BD: Yes! I work for Rasasi and Ajmal and so on. It inspires me in the rest of my work, because it's so different.
P: In what way?
BD: It's a completely different style. Mukhallat can be like a deconstruction, a completely different way of building things and accords. You realise that you don't need any floral effects, for example, to create something good. Even with very strong materials - which you would normally use only for the background - you can make something breath-y, something that breathes. It's very interesting. With mukhallat, you can also permit yourself a lot of things that you can't with European perfumery, because of the norms and the regulations. For the moment, you don't have to follow IFRA, but they are becoming more sensitive about it.
P: You may or not be aware that on perfume sites, one of the main questions that's asked about you is: How is he capable of making so many perfumes in such a short space of time? What's the answer?
BD: I work the same as other perfumers work. But the fact is that I'm much more exhibited. I don't work more or less than other perfumers. I do the same number of trials.
P: How many perfumes are you working on at the moment?
BD: 20, 25. That's a lot. They won't all end up on the market. With Penhaligon's, I work exclusively on a certain product. They choose me for a certain project. There's no competition. So there's less rush, less pressure, less pushing. But at the same time, it's more challenging, because I'm alone, with only one person for guidance. So the responsibility is greater. But when you work for a big brand, you have two or three different perfumers on the same project, one or two evaluators, a seller and a marketing team. So the responsibility is shared.
P: Apart from your own, what were some of the best perfumes released in 2014?
BD: I can't say. I don't smell anything. I never smell anything.
P: Never? Not even if you're killing time at an airport?
BD: Never at an airport! Never at Sephora!
P: Do you pay attention to the work of other perfumers?
BD: Never! But I know that certain perfumers pay attention to my work. I'm sure of it. Because sometimes somebody makes me smell something and they say, 'Don't you think this smells like something you made...?' But no, I don't smell anything else. I don't want to be influenced.
[Ostara is due to be released in March.]
[Ostara is due to be released in March.]
* It's important to draw attention to a few potential linguistic stumbling blocks here. Whenever he slipped into French, Duchaufour used the word 'jonquille' for the flower under discussion. That's the direct translation of 'daffodil'. However, in English, 'jonquil' doesn't refer to just any daffodil, but a specific (usually fragrant) type. To make matters more complicated, narcissus is also a type of daffodil.