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Pierre Negrin: A master perfumer's pursuit of perfection


In the nakedness of rocky Jabal Akdhar, he pulled some leaves that grew amongst the rocks. He identified it as a wild form of an herb and after what is a minute of taking in its smell, describes it as a little bit tangy and spicy, floral and refreshing.

This goes on for a bit. In every new location, whether it's on the top of a cliff overlooking terraced gardens of damask roses or some random corners where wildflowers grew, plucking a few leaves or stems and smelling them to understand their profile has almost become a habit, something that he might not be fully aware of doing.

Pierre Negrin is far from the comfort of busy Connecticut where he's currently based, just a couple of hours' drive away from New York where he works. For someone who grew up in Grasse, in the South of France, he has travelled the world working with different big perfume brands. He has lived a life of luxury and has seen beauty in different forms and his collection of memory is what fueled him to become one of the most efficient and effective perfumers in the world. Making a stop in Oman, it was fascinating to be on his trail and leaving Pierre in the wilds of the Green Mountain offered a lot of insight as to what goes on inside a master perfumer's head.

He has done Oman tremendous honour although the country is not fully aware of it. Through his collaborative partnership with Amouage, Oman's luxury perfume brand, he has created around 10 fragrances several of which had become a massive success not just within the region but in different parts of the world. It's not far off to say that for every fragrance he helps make famous, he is doing the country proud as Amouage will always be Oman.

"Perfumery requires a complicated equation. There are numerous factors to look into. No template tells you that a fragrance will become a success. It's a tough case. I control only one element — the smell. The rest is out of my hand," he shared.

"I have created a lot of different fragrances. Some became a success. Interlude for instance is one of my creations for Amouage that enjoyed tremendous success. For each of these successes, there is also a lot of waste. About 98 per cent of what I make is wasted. Perfumery is about picking out the best of the best. Only two per cent of a perfumer's creation makes it into the market. The rest will never see the light of day," he said.s

"Perfumery, in its complexities, is the pursuit of perfection," he said.

"Imagination first, and then the pursuit of perfection comes next," he added.

Out of the hundreds of questions thrown to Pierre to understand his process, these are some of the interview highlights:

In the same way that a chef can tell what's on a dish, are you also able to tell what's in a bottle after smelling it?

As a perfurmer, you will be able to pick up some of the elements but not everything. Age is also a factor in this. When you are younger, you can detect and dissect fragrances with more detail but in making perfume, experience contributes a lot because you will be able to tell which elements are missing and which ones are overly done. I can tell what elements were used on a certain fragrance. I can tell whether it's using jasmine, mandarin or spices. I can differentiate whether sandalwood or cedarwood is used. You can pick up hints but it's impossible to detect all that goes into the bottle just by smelling the finished product.

When you are commissioned to do a scent, where do you begin?

I usually have a process. Sometimes, I create something that I project my mind into — something that I wanted to come to a realization and totally not listening to the brief or external influences. That's one of the routes.

The other route is trying to translate what the client and the brief are asking me to do. I'm trying to put myself in the client's shoes. When they want something young, fun, fresh engaging or whatever, that's when I do a process of elimination. It involves making a checklist of raw materials not to include as they do not represent the brief.

When you get more experienced, you don't fall off too far from the target because you know how things interact and go together. Even I really get surprised with what I can come up with.

The fragrance goes through an evolution from how you started and what the clients also wanted to achieve. Sometimes the evolution can be so big that you end up so far from how you started and it can take months of work and rework of adjusting and customizing. Sometimes though, the clients just fall in love with the fragrance and they have a few propositions, some minor tweaks and in a couple of weeks, it's done.

Talking about the experience with around 30 years in your belt, how much did you evolve as a perfumer?

When you are 20 years old, you are doing things one way. When you are 40 years old, you do it differently. Creating perfume is all about life in a way. You evolve with time. Your approach changes. How many times you interact with cardamon or cinnamon affects your perception and understanding. There's always progress and every time you use an element, every time you discover a different effect on the product. As a perfumer, I went through different stages of development. I have gotten to a point where my collective knowledge allows me how to create fragrances that balance out the different elements included in them.

You said a lot of the things you create go to waste. Do you revisit those fragrances?

Yes of course. When you look at these fragrances 10 years later, you have a totally different mindset or perspective and you also evolve and change with age. Often, your taste changes. This will lead to a different take on the fragrance when you look at it and you rework it. With experience, you will be able to tell which elements are overly done or which part is not right — whether there is too much wood, or it's too green, too sharp, or too sweet. You look at the creation with different eyes — is it lacking some amber notes? What am I missing? With knowledge, you reshape and redesign it. With time and experience, your taste becomes refined as well. You understand things better.

What do you do so you don't get overwhelmed by different fragrances?

Our nose can only take so much fragrance at a time. There is a fatigue that comes with the number of elements you smell. This is one issue we face as perfumers. When working daily developing a product, I usually need to stop the madness sometimes. You need to pull the stop otherwise you will not be able to assess the product as it should be. Two or three scents, that's already a lot. Then you get confused. you will not be able to discern the nuances. It's bad when you are unable to evaluate things properly so you have to pace yourself when you're working on something.

What do you love about what you do?

I like it when I am creating something new; when I am recreating a strong memory. I like coming up with something that has never been done before that's completely out of this world. Perfumery is like going to your favourite bakery to buy a croissant and loving the ambience, having the ability to recreate that experience. I like the idea of achieving that and then combining what I created with something, like a beautiful flower and waiting for what happens and the surprise you get in the end. That's one of the best perks of this job.

Does it inspire you when you do these trips like visiting Oman?

Yes for sure. I'd been to Oman numerous times. I get inspired by life in general. I get inspired by everything I see, touch, hear, smell and eat. For many perfumers, this is where the inspiration comes from — life itself and the many unique experiences it presents you with.

You've made around 10 fragrances for Amouage, is there a template to this success?

Many of these fragrances took time to fine-tune and customise. It involves a lot of meetings and several back and forths. You have factors to consider in the equation and the equation is long — visuals, bottles, packaging etc. Sometimes, all the dots align, and that's when it becomes a total success. There's no template. You can tick all the boxes but if one or two elements are not right like if the visual is not right, that can affect the whole thing. Science is not necessarily the word I'm going to use in fragrance-making. There is a little bit of science involved especially when mixing the components and they create a little bit of chemical reaction. I'd been doing perfumery for 30 years now. I've smelled a lot of smells. Like a composer, I can say that I composed a lot of music but what works and what doesn't, those are all beyond me. I can collaborate, submit the fragrance, get feedback, and rely on vast experience to guide me to come up with something memorable. There's only one thing I can control — the smell. And the goal is always to come up with something that people would want to buy and take home with them.

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