Lalique's Encre Noire enjoys what you might call a god-like status in the perfume community. Not long after it emerged in 2006, its uncompromising, legible structure of vetivert and musks turned it into a must-have for scentusiasts hoping to add a bold, animalic, yet polished creation to their collections. It soon achieved a cult following. And it's now something of a modern classic, as seen by the fact that it made it to Number 12 on the Basenotes Top 500 last year. In 2009, the brand gave us a female version of the scent. 2013 saw the release of a 'Sport' edition. But towards the end of 2015, Lalique decided to return to the perfume's founding principles to put together an 'Extreme' flanker. The person they recruited for the task was the composer of the original, Nathalie Lorson of Firmenich, whose many credits include Cuir 28 for Le Labo, Autoportrait for Olfactive Studio and Black Opium for YSL.
When the veteran perfumer - who has worked alongside the likes of Jean-Louis Sieuzac and the "fantastic" Sophia Grojsman - popped into London for the launch of Encre Noire À L'Extrême, I took her back to the 2006 release and asked her whether its formula really is as simple as it seems.
Nathalie Lorson: Yes, it is. Vetivert and musks. But there are different facets of the vetivert. For example, natural vetivert has a grapefruit effect. So I reinforced it with some grapefruit. I played with different facets of the vetivert.
Persolaise: Did you have any idea the scent would turn out to be so successful?
NL: No, because Lalique was not such a well known brand in perfumery. What I wanted when I made Encre Noire was to do something different. I have a lot of money when I work for Lalique. So I used some quantities and qualities of expensive ingredients I cannot normally use anywhere else. When I got the brief for the men's perfume, I wondered which wood I could use for men. I thought vetivert was very interesting, because it was used very often, but in a cologne, with citrus. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to use the vetivert for its woody facet.
P: Was Encre Noire difficult to make?
NL: Yes, it was very difficult, because it is a very simple formula, so you have to have good quality and good proportions. It was difficult to adjust everything. And it was really very different from what you had on the market 10 years ago. And the client dared to go with it.
P: I hear from perfumers that the pace of work at the major companies is extremely hectic at the moment. Would you agree with that?
NL: Yes, but it depends on the client. Not all clients are the same. For example, Lalique gives us more time. It's not so rushed. But with L'Oreal [for whom Lorson made YSL Black Opium], on each day, you have to make some mods. It's completely different.
P: You've made a few compositions with Le Labo. What's it like working with them?
NL: It's very interesting, because they don't care about the price, a little bit like Lalique. You can really play with the ingredients you want. It's freedom for us. It's real team work. Very free.
P: Do you think the situation will be different now that they've been bought by Estée Lauder?
NL: Sure. It will have to be different. Before it was just two guys. It's not the same now.
P: You made Black Opium as part of a team, together with Marie Salamagne, Olivier Cresp and Honorine Blanc. How does that set-up work?
NL: We worked for four years on Black Opium. As you can imagine, you can't work by yourself for four years on one perfume. And with L'Oreal you have to give, give, give. They wanted to have an American vision, because it was a very big project and the USA is very important. So at the end, they asked me to work with an American perfumer.
P: What's an "American vision", olfactively?
NL: I don't know. Maybe it's not olfactive. Maybe it was just reassuring for the client to have someone who succeeded in the US.
P: But in practical terms, how does the team arrangement work? Do you each work on separate components?
NL: No, we smell together. The starting point was my idea. And for example, the client may say, "It's not strong enough. It's not floral enough." Each of us made some experiments. Then we smell together and choose what we prefer. And then we show the client one or two versions. And then we continue from the version the client prefers. Working in a team can be very enriching, but the thing is that you must not lose your own idea, because if there are too many people, one will go one way, and another one another way, and you lose your idea.
P: If a perfumer was tired when they were working on a project, do you think you can smell that in the final product?
NL: Yes, you can sometimes. Sometimes, you can see that if they had had more time, they could have finished the perfume better, and created a better harmony between the ingredients. But sometimes, the problem isn't time. It depends. Sometimes it's the people you have in front of you. They have to agree on what you're making. They are clients. I am not an artist. I have to work for someone else. So I have to find a way to not be frustrated and to make my client happy.
P: On how many perfumes are you usually working at any given time?
NL: I have 10 or 15 projects on my desk. It's a lot, but I don't work at the same level on each of them. At the end of a project, if you really want to concentrate, and really be 'inside' your project, it's difficult.
P: Would you have liked to have been an in-house perfumer for a single brand?
NL: No. It's too narrow. At the beginning it would be okay, but then you would be alone. And you need to work for different brands on completely different things to have open eyes. For example, on my desk, I see all the different projects for the different brands. I get a feeling for the trends.
P: So, you think your work would have suffered?
NL: I'm sure. I think it's very interesting to have an open vision, to see differences, to work with Lalique or Le Labo or Lauder.
P: With which perfumer would you have loved to work?
NL: Edmond Roudnitska. Eau Sauvage is fantastic.
P: What do you think he'd say if he saw you in your Firmenich lab?
NL: Oh, I'm sure he would say we are completely crazy. We don't have time to do the right maceration.
P: Finally, I've always wondered: how does it feel if you've made several modifications of a perfume - possibly hundreds - and then suddenly the client turns around and says, "You know what, Nathalie. I really love version number 4." Is that frustrating?
NL: It depends. If I agree that number 4 was the best, then no problem. But sometimes, a client goes back to an early version which was not good. That happened to me one time. The client said, "I want that." It was a flop. And it had my name. I'm not the one who decides what is chosen, but it has my name.