I’d have never imagined that some day I’d be telling Bertrand Duchaufour about my nights in Seville. When we first met in a radio studio in May 2008, I hadn’t even liked him much.
I’d only been writing about fragrance in earnest for a year at that point and I’d been very much looking forward to meeting Duchaufour. His off-beat, deeply personal compositions for edgy fashion labels like Comme des Garçons or the pioneer niche house L’Artisan Parfumeur had earned him star status among perfume aficionados as well as a reputation for artistic integrity. He was one of the people who’d eased fragrance out of its traditional set of references as projections of feminine or masculine personae: many of his compositions were olfactory sketches capturing the spirit of the places to which he’d travelled: Sienna in winter; a seduction ritual in Mali; a Buddhist temple in Bhutan; the Panamanian rainforest; a church in Avignon …
With his rectangular glasses, shaven pate and forthright demeanour, the forty-something perfumer certainly looked more like one of my artist friends than the sibylline master of a secret craft, and I was sure we’d get on fine. I was mistaken. Throughout the broadcast, Duchaufour was gruff and snappy. The host’s faux-naïve questions seemed to irk him; he let on that self-styled critics like myself or our fellow guest, the perfume historian Octavian Coifan, had better leave the thinking to the pros. It turned out he had good reason to be annoyed. He’d been led to believe he’d been invited to speak about his work. Minutes before going on the air, he was told that the topics of the day would be the high price of perfume and the absence of proper fragrance reviews. I understood why he was disgruntled and respected the fact that he didn’t try to ingratiate himself with us or the public, but I was disappointed just the same. Clearly, we weren’t going to be buddies. Still, the man made great perfumes and that was all that mattered. I didn’t have to like him personally to appreciate his work, and I certainly didn’t need him to like me.
So when I spotted him the following November at the raw materials exhibition organized by the Société Française des Parfumeurs where I had just been accepted as a member, I wondered whether I should even bother to say hello. But since we’d met, I’d managed to slip a foot in the door of a few labs: some of his colleagues seemed to think I was worth talking to. And more significantly, I’d fallen in love with his recent work. I felt he was shifting towards a more sensuous style I could actually connect with, and I’d just written a review of his latest fragrance, Al Oudh, an ode to Arabian perfumery pungent with sexy animal notes. ‘I love it when a man plays that kind of dirty trick on me,’ I’d concluded teasingly. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would ever read those words.
Duchaufour recognized me as I walked by: I was somewhat conspicuous with my apple-green coat and silver bob. Much to my surprise, he grinned and kissed me on both cheeks before congratulating me on the accuracy of my review. I hadn’t written it to please him, but I wasn’t about to let such an opportunity pass me by, so I instantly improvised a white lie. I was teaching a perfume appreciation course at the London College of Fashion in a month’s time, I told him (which was the truth), and I intended to discuss his work (also the truth, as of one second ago). It was the very first time I was to teach the course, which I’d been offered on the strength of my writing and talks I’d given to students in Paris. At first, I’d felt pretty confident I could swing it, but as the time to shut myself inside a classroom for three days with fifteen eager perfume lovers drew nearer, I was feeling a little jittery. I kept that to myself, but I did tell Duchaufour I’d appreciate his input (if anything, I’m a quick learner). Much to my relief, he nodded, still grinning:
‘You’re ready to learn more. Come over to the lab whenever you want!’
* * *
I wrote to him the very next day to take him up on his offer. After we’d exchanged a couple of emails, he suggested the use of the more familiar French form of address, tu, slyly adding, ‘It sounds more serious.’ So here I am, six months after our first, inauspicious encounter, perched on a chair in his tiny lab above L’Artisan Parfumeur’s flagship store and very ready indeed to learn more. The staid sandstone façade of the Louvre looms across the street; the searchlights of a bateau-mouche sweep from the Seine over the Pont des Arts. A three-tiered array of neatly labelled phials, each containing one of the hundreds of raw materials of the perfumer’s palette, throws amber, topaz and emerald glints under the desk lamp. A paper sheet lies next to a small electronic scale: the forty handwritten lines of the formula he is currently working on. At his feet, three shopping bags bulge with dozens of discarded phials – less than one per cent of his work, he says, ever makes it to the shop shelves. I’ve just tucked into my handbag a tiny atomizer of a scent of his due to be launched next spring, a tuberose perfume whose working title is ‘Belle de Nuit’. Though it was conceived long before we met, it feels like a sign: the tuberose resonates deeply with my life and loves, though he can’t possibly know it …
The churlish man who’d snubbed me has turned out to be warm, friendly and almost disconcertingly straight-talking; an intensely focused listener given to boyish bursts of enthusiasm. About the story of Seville I’ve just told him, for instance. He loves it, he says it would make a good perfume, but I don’t know him well enough to ascertain whether he’s the type to follow through or if this is just a perfumer’s version of a chat-up line. And certainly not well enough to ask him straight out if he’ll do it. Why would he bother with what must be, for him, just one of a hundred different ideas? On the other hand, why wouldn’t he? His ideas do have to come from somewhere. I didn’t tell him my story because I thought it would inspire him. It just came up as we were swapping tales of far-flung journeys. But now this idea is hovering between us and I realize I want this perfume to happen more than I’ve wanted anything in a very long time. Why couldn’t I be a perfumer’s muse? I’ve come such a long way in the realm of scent, Bertrand, you couldn’t ever know … In fact, I was never really meant to poke my nose into it.
Text © Denyse Beaulieu 2012