Francis Kurkdjian, a pioneer of custom perfume creation in Paris, is renowned as one of the most brilliant and innovative noses in the industry. Kurkdjian, a suave-looking Frenchman of Armenian descent, enjoyed phenomenal success at the age of 25 with his first fragrance, the iconic men’s cologne Le Mâle, for Jean-Paul Gaultier. After impressing the olfactory elite with other best-selling scents including Narciso Rodriguez’s For Her, Acqua di Parma’s Iris Nobile and Dior’s Eau Noire, the rising star cemented his reputation by winning a Prix François Coty, the perfumer’s Oscar.
Other highlights along Kurkdjian’s way include filling the fountains at Versailles with scented soap bubbles, re-creating an 18th-century perfume worn by Marie Antoinette and reproducing the “smell of money” commissioned by French installation artist Sophie Calle. That career resume would be reason enough to book a private consultation with Kurkdjian. But his made-to-measure perfumes also start at €8,000—as opposed to starting prices of some €30,000 or more at Cartier or Guerlain.
When working on a project with a private client (70% of whom are women), Kurkdjian insists that the initial consultation happens on the phone. “That way I’m not distracted by any visual influences,” he says. “I can get closer to the essence of who a person is.” Questioning his client about what type of odors they like and what memories these smells evoke for them, he goes on to construct a “perfume map” that will guide his later experimentation. “Being a perfumer is a bit like being a magician,” he says. “It’s about realizing your vision of someone else’s emotions.” Briefs given by clients can range from vague ideas—the feeling of walking barefoot through wet grass, for instance—to specific requests: one American gentleman asked the perfumer to re-create the smell of his Bentley. No matter the request, Kurkdjian always works the same way, filling a notebook with observations and drawings, like a storyboard. It’s only after creating a back story, he says, that he begins thinking about ingredients to use.
Once he has drawn up a general palette of his client’s fragrance preferences, Kurkdjian sets up a face-to-face meeting. He inevitably turns up at this appointment with his “nomadic laboratory”, a 33-pound green leather steamer trunk custom-made for him by French luxury leathergoods craftsman Fred Pinel. The trunk is filled with all the traditional tools of the perfumer’s trade, including electronic scales, pipettes and blotters, together with raw materials and essential oils best suited to his client’s taste. “It’s like a Pantone color chart,” Kurkdjian says. “If your client has a preference for shades of blue, you’re not going to turn up and present greens.” Kurkdjian then spends between three months and a year working on the project, sending samples back and forth to his client and tweaking his formula until he gets the custom fragrance just right. “I tread a fine line between what clients originally thought they wanted,” he says, “and what I think works best as a reflection of their souls.”
Because he believes everyone should be able to “buy a little piece of the dream”, Kurkdjian has a boutique carrying not only perfumes but also scented leather bracelets, soap bubbles for children and much more.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian 5 rue d’Alger,1st, (custom-made by appointment, 01.42.77.40.33)
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of France Today