January 12, 2014
Patricia de Nicolaï has been an independent perfumer and founded her own brand in 1989 (Photo Credit: Madame de Nicolaï)
Over a decade ago, I became interested in knowing about the Perfumers who create my most beloved fragrances. Who were they? When I met Master Perfumer Maurice Roucel in 2011 he told me that for much of his career perfumers who worked at large Flavor and Fragrance Companies called themselves "ghosts". That has changed over the past couple of years as olfactive artists are increasingly in the spotlight. As much as I enjoy learning about new perfumers, there are Artists who I have revered for many years. This is the first interview I have done in quite some time, (over a year) and it is with the "first lady of niche perfumery"…Madame Patricia de Nicolaï. She is one of the most famous perfumers in the world and has been a pioneer of independent niche perfumery for over 25 years (before there was such a term as "niche"). To me, Madame de Nicolaï is to niche fragrance what Amelia Earhart represented to the field of Aviation. Mme de Nicolaï is also a member of the technical committee of the French Society of Perfumers and the President of the Osmotheque. 2014 is a special year. Parfums de Nicolaï is celebrating a 25th Anniversary. I believe that you will "fall in love" with Madame de Nicolaï as a person as well as a perfumer. It is an honour to share her wisdom, humility, candor and of course her love of fine fragrance with our readers.-Michelyn Camen, Editor in Chief
Michelyn Camen: Thank you Madame de Nicolaï for taking time out of your busy schedule. We welcome you to CaFleureBon. Let’s start from the beginning. What was your first scent memory?
Patricia de Nicolai: Definitely the scent of the school inkwell. It has indeed a very particular scent that I later found in perfumery like in the natural essence of white thyme or the cedar essential oil.
Please, tell us a little bit about your childhood…
PdN: I lived within the Guerlain Parisian ‘Hôtel Particulier’ for the first 20 years of my life. We had – and we still have – a very big family and we all had our corner in this wonderful spot.I could tell loads of little stories about my childhood but if I had to take one moment, it would be when I was waken up every morning by the powerful and spellbinding Shalimar that my mother used to wear. I did not need an alarm clock in that time! The Shalimar scent was my morning wakeup call! And I loved it! My mother’s room was situated underneath mine and the scent came through my window which was always open, because sleeping with an opened window is in fact very healthy. You can trust my grandmother on that!
My mother loved Shalimar , it is true, but she really liked to be the first one to ‘test’ all the perfumes created by Jean-Paul Guerlain. She was the tender ‘guinea pig’ of her beloved cousin.
"The Guerlain FamilyTree"- Genealogy
Growing up a Guerlain… was there a time you considered working for the family?
PdN: When I was young, I never really thought of being a perfumer…It was only when I studied chemistry that I realised I may be interested by this path. I therefore made several very interesting internships but never within the Guerlain business. As you know, my family has been living in the world of perfumes for decades. However it was not an obvious option for my family to believe that I could work as a perfumer. Remember that I began my career 30 years ago, in the 80’s and in those times, the Guerlain business was managed by my grandmother’s brother who believed that women in the family should not be working…However my uncle helped me to find my first real job as a perfumer and told me that I have to improve my skills and then ‘we’ll see’. This ‘we’ll see’ never happened and you know what occurred then.
Why work at Florasynth and Quest (Givaudan)? What did you learn there?
PdN: My current job as a perfumer. I learnt everything regarding raw materials and how to formulate and weigh them. I learnt how to use all the important perfumer’s combinations and I also learnt team work which is very precious in our profession. Finally, working alongside great perfumers allows me to obtain loads of ‘tips’ and ‘secrets’ that I can’t reveal of course! (Editor's Note: Mme de Nicolaï worked on Tresor with Sophia Grosjman).
1988: Mme de Nicolaï was the first female perfumer to awarded the International Prize for Young Perfumers
When you composed Number One in 1988, you were awarded the International Prize for Young Perfumers by the French Society of Perfumers as the first female perfumer to be honoured with this award, did you realize at that young age you were making history?
PdN: I did not realise that I made history! When I received the prize, I was working at Quest (now Givaudan) and even if I was part of the teams which has created great perfumes, I did not myself create one of mine yet. Winning this prize, gave me a great visibility among the world of perfumers. Suddenly they realized that I was there and they became curious. Furthermore, I have to say that this was quite a great coincidence! Indeed, when I was awarded the prize, I was preparing to launch my brand. It is not because of the prize that I said to myself I had to do something. It was like a destiny sign, telling me that I was going on the right path.
When you started your Company in 1989, you were one of the first "niche" perfumeries. Now there are hundreds maybe thousands. What are your thoughts on so many on the market?
PdN: I think it’s a great thing. It proves that it is a dynamic and creative industry. However, it is very competitive and not everyone will succeed unfortunately.
Which Guerlain fragrance has the greatest influence on your own perfumery?
PdN: Unlike Jean-Paul Guerlain, I always loved L’Heure Bleue. However it is the entire Guerlain vision which has inspired me, even unconsciously. Like Guerlain, I like amber and vanilla notes. Like Guerlain, I really appreciate warm, opulent, chic and elegant scents and like Guerlain, I try to be very attentive regarding the selection of the best possible ingredients to create my perfumes.
Patricia de Nicolaï is the great-granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain and niece of Jean–Paul Guerlain (the last family member to run the House of Guerlain)
Why *didn't* Jean-Paul Guerlain like L'Heure Bleue? That sounds like an interesting story.
PdN: Indeed, Jean-Paul Guerlain is not a real fan of L’Heure Bleue, created in 1912 by his grandfather Jacques Guerlain. After all, you don’t have to like ALL the perfumes created by the family. I know that unlike his grandfather, my uncle was always more attracted by floral than amber notes. This may explain why.
Jean-Louis Michau of Parfums de Nicolaï
Why did you strike out on your own 25 years ago and what was the biggest obstacle?
PdN: The main obstacle was to be recognised. Even if I came from a great line of perfumers, nobody knew me and niche perfumery was very discreet. When my husband asked me to begin the NICOLAI project, we were of course very enthusiastic but we really did not know what was going to happen. In fact, we were prepared to the eventuality of shutting down the business. However, I was very motivated. I left Quest because I was restrained by the practice of creating fragrances based on focus groups and marketing questions. I was very frustrated and I wanted to be free! Free to create whatever I wanted and free to organize my time as a mother of three and soon four. My husband Jean-Louis Michau helped me a lot. He was, and still is responsible for our NICOLAI shops (7 in Paris, 1 in London) and our commercial and marketing business all over the world.
What Parfum de Nicolai fragrance was the most challenging for you to create?
PdN: It’s always a challenge for me to create a fragrance. But if I had to choose one, I will say Musc Intense. The musk note is much used in our business, but mainly when creating oriental and animalic fragrances. For my ‘musk’, I tried a different path—one paved with flowers (Rose, violet and carnation), starting with a fruity note (pear). The rose essence has a delicious williamine (pear liquor) scent which why I added fruity notes. Fortunately, it was a success. Musc Intense is indeed one of our bestsellers.
Photo credit Patricia de Nicolaï : The Osmothèque is at ISIPCA in Versailles
Over the past few years, there is a renewed interest in vintage perfumes. As the President of the Osmothèque what is the most important part of your role? For our readers who are not familiar with the Osmotheque, a brief explanation, please.
PdN: I have been the President of the Osmothèque since 2008. It is a great honour for me to chair this great research institution tracing the history of perfumery. The Osmothèque has the objective to be the ‘mémoire’ of great perfumes and organizes several conferences on the subject. We hold the world’s largest scent archive with more than 3,000 perfumes from the past to present. I am managing the day to day activities of the institution, supervise all the projects -like the publication of books and the organization of conferences. I also represent the Osmothèque to the media.
If you could go back in time and study with any perfumer who would it be and why?
PdN: With no hesitation Jacques Guerlain, one of my greatest ancestors, the one who really made the Guerlain name so famous and prestigious.
If you were not a perfumer you would be…
PdN: A music composer! Arrange notes, looking for harmonies, evoking emotion (this is not very far from my current job).
Who is your favourite musician and has a musical work inspired a perfume?
PdN: There are loads of classical musicians that I love. But I have to admit that I have a great passion for Beethoven. All his compositions take me out of this world, it is so fascinating! With Beethoven, it’s like a marathon: you always have to run to follow the music.
A perfume for Margaret Thatcher
If you could create a fragrance for a historical or fictional character who would it be and why?
PdN: Probably Margaret Thatcher. It would have been a great challenge! She was a very powerful and tough woman. I think I would have created a strong chypre for her, a bit like Odalisque I think.
Blogs, social media and the Internet have made information about fragrance much more accessible to the average person. For many aficiandos, perfumery is known as the 8th Art (thanks to Octavian Coifan, who coined the term and wrote about perfume and beauty in 2005 ). Do you think that Perfumery is an Art or a craft/skill? Is everyone who sells a perfume an Artist?
PdN: Internet is wonderful. Indeed, like anything else nowadays, it gives us accessibility and now anyone can find all the information he needs regarding perfumes. The multittude of webzines and blogs allover the world writing about fragrances and encouraging discussion is great. Sometimes I check blogs to see, for example the reactions of people who wear my perfumes. The majority of comments are very positive and encourage me to continue. So thank you to all the fragrance fans!
Is perfume an Art or a skill? Definitely an Art. Everyone who creates a perfume IS artist. However, you need to have some skills…Not everyone who creates a perfume is a great artist! But isn’t the case with all the arts?
Over the past several years, there is a renewed interest in Colognes, especially with high concentrations. Eau d'ete was created in 1997 and since then you have created quite a few including the enchanting Eau sOleil that was released in 2013. What is it about colognes that fascinate you?
PdN: Cologne and citrus fragrances are very easy notes to wear. Much loved during summertime, Colognes seem more suitable than powerful and often oriental ‘eau de parfums’. You really feel refreshed wearing citrus notes and they make us feel happy.
Madame de Nicolaï in the lab
What drives your creative process? For each perfumer it is always different; emotions, nature, the Arts or raw materials. Which are your muses?
PdN: Sometimes ingredients inspire me a lot, such as cedar or patchouli. I can also be inspired by perfumes created by other perfumers or simply by everyday smells. For instance, I love the smell – and the taste! – sugared almond. I love it so much that it inspired a perfume: Kiss Me Tender. Another example… a very lovely cigars box filled with wonderful and quality cigars, gave me the idea to create Havane, one of my favourite home fragrances.
Pierre Auguste Renoir "Roses"
Is there a raw material you are especially fond of working with?
PdN: I love the rose and especially the essence of rose. It smells like pear liquor and I really appreciate it. Unfortunately, rose essence is limited by regulations because of some "allergic" components. Also my interest in special raw material can vary. As far as I’m concerned, I had my ‘cedar’ and ‘patchouli’ phase for a long time. But my interest for the ‘Queen of the flowers’ has been continuous.
As we noted in our review of Rose Oud and Amber Oud, you did not jump on the oud trend early on. What inspired you to finally create two oud fragrances?
PdN: I indeed took my time because I really wanted to analyse the oud notes first. Pure agarwood is very strong and animalic, maybe too much for me. I needed to think how I could use the strength of the agarwood notes in order to create a perfume which could fit my style and skills. Then I realized I could either create a rose combination or an amber combination, mixing vanilla and labdanum. The choice between those two ideas was one I did not want to make, and I therefore decided to create two of them-Rose and Amber Oud! Some say that I am ‘too late’ but I did not want to be trapped by trends. I am a free woman, free to create my own perfumes the moment I want to, regardless of any marketing concepts
At the Parfums de Nicolaï factory
The new bottles are striking. How did you select them? Are you in the process of repositioning Parfums de Nicolaï?
PdN: It is a collective work between my husband Jean-Louis, our new communication and marketing team and finally me. The bottle is not enough, we indeed need to think about the label, the cover, the style…Even the size and the colour of the typeface are important to consider. Note that everything is made among the company.
The Parfums de Nicolaï Home Fragrance Collection are a source of inspiration for the Parfums (Photo: Parfums de Nicolai)
I love scenting my home and personal space. You have an extensive line of home fragrance, unlike most Master Perfumers. Why?
PdN: I love creating home fragrances! The acceptance field for a home fragrance is far more open than a personal fragrance. With a home fragrance, you can be very original and allow yourself to be more creative. Furthermore, most of my home fragrances are also sources of inspiration to create body perfumes. It is the case for example with Crépuscule Vanille which gave me the idea to create Vanille Tonka. I have more than 25 home fragrances in my collection and I do want to create 25 more! Indeed, it is important to me to have home fragrances because once again, they help me to imagine my body perfumes.
The International Fragrance Association aka IFRA. Always a hot button. How do you view their restrictions and guidelines as a perfumer? Reformualtions? As the keeper of the vintage treasures of the past?
PdN: What can I say…On the one hand, IFRA allows perfumers to be more cautious in their work but on the other hand, the ‘no risk’ precaution is to me too much restrictive! Everything now must be ‘no risk’ and I do understand the point the view. However, a society taking no risk is a society that could one day disappear. Because of IFRA and its strong regulations, we, perfumers, must continuously check if our perfumes are still correct according to their standards and more and more often, we need to reformulate the perfumes. I think that first restrictions were justified in order to protect the eco-system, poaching and crulety to animals or forbid strong allergic ingredients, but now, in a time when science everyday discovers new molecules that ‘could’ be allergans; regulations tend to be very zealous. As far as I know, perfume never killed anyone!
Vintage and Discontinued Perfumes at the Osmothèque
Therefore, because of regulations, some great perfumes could never be sold today and this is why, at the Osmothèque, we try to keep those treasures. However, the Osmothèque was not originally created to be the place where you can smell ‘forbidden’ perfumes. The first purpose of the Osmothèque was indeed to carry completely discontinued great perfumes because of the personal history of the concerned brand (such as fragrances created by Coty or Millot). Furthermore, we also have loads of high standards fragrances which could not be sold today because of the forbidden, rare or expensive ingredients composing the perfumes. It is for example the case with fragrances using natural musk or fragrances composed of ‘Vétiver bourbon’ which is no longer cultivated by local manufacturers.
Parfums de Nicolaï Boutique in Paris
How has the role of women perfumers changed over the past two decades?
PdN: It has clearly improved from my younger years! After my studies, I was looking for a job as a junior perfumer and as a woman, it was not easy! I remember that when I was an intern, I was always proposed internships in evaluation but never in creation. This gender discrimination was not fair, but that was the norm back then.
But I have to say that things have now changed. There are a lot of women now in creation and who have achieved recognition as Perfumers. Actually, 80% of the ISIPCA masters candidates are women. Therefore, the creation teams in modern perfume business are very much feminized. Clearly discrimination has been shaded off with regard to what I lived.
Your thoughts on Madame Christine Nagel’s new role at Hermes?
PdN: Congratulations and above all ‘bon courage’! I’m sure she’ll do well and that she would be a precious aid to Jean-Claude Ellena. I really think that 2 perfumers are not too much in a big brand like Hermès.
2014 is your 25th anniversary and a time for celebration and reflection. Your proudest moments?
PdN: Everything is ahead and the best is always to come. Every day is a battle and you must never rely on a so-called success of yours otherwise you’re finished! Especially in the niche family…Regarding my proudest moment, it is simply the fact that I have been given credibility to my brand, a credibility which has been glorified the day I received a phone call telling me that I was appointed to become a prestigious French ‘Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur’ in 2008; an honour which I was awarded as the creator of a perfume brand and not as a simple perfumer. It meant a lot to me.
How has your perspective as a perfumer changed over the past 25 years.
PdN: 25 years ago I had the impression that perfumery business reached a very low creativity point. The emergence of niche perfumery brought a complete new fresh air in a time where everything was ‘marketing’ and ‘communication’. Niche perfumery came as a healthy reaction and what is very interesting is to see in the early 2000’s, big brands such as Guerlain, Dior, Chanel or Hermès developing their own ‘niche’ perfumes like the Dior ‘collection privée or Chanel ‘Exclusive’. All this new creativity came thanks to the niche perfumers and I am quite proud to be one of the pioneers.
What is ahead in 2014?
PdN: Regarding 2014, other creations will debut and a quite heavy schedule is on track for our 25th anniversary…but I can’t tell you anything now.
We hope you enjoyed this in-depth interview with Madame de Nicolaï. As a special treat to our readers, Parfums de Nicolaï Parfumeur de Createur and Twisted Lily Boutique in Brooklyn are hosting a draw for the fragrances that were mentioned during the interview.
USA residents only- Reader's choice 30 ml of Number One (1989), Musc Intense (2012), Kiss Me Tender (2010), Odalisque (1989), Vanille Tonka (1997), L'Eau d'Ete (1997), Eau sOleil (2013) and Havane Diffuser.
Mme. Patricia de Nicolaï
To be eligible, please leave a comment about this interview – a quote you liked, a new discovery, something that touched you about Madame Patricia de Nicolaï. Please leave the name of the Parfum de Nicolaï perfume you would like to win in your comment, the country you live in (mandatory), and, since Madame de Nicolaï will be reading your comments any word or thoughts you would like to share with her. Draw closes January 16, 2014.
We announce the winners only on site and on our Facebook page, so Like Cafleurebon and use our RSS option…or your dream prize will be just spilled perfume