Talking Scents with Francis Kurkdjian


Francis Kurkdjian has created over 40 fragrances for major fashion houses (among them Iris Nobile for Acqua di Parma, Cologne Blanche and Eau Noire for Dior, Armani’s Armani Mania, and, perhaps most notably, Le Mâle for Jean Paul Gaultier when he was 25 years old). He's also collaborated with artist Sophie Calle (he created the "scent of money," namely that of a dollar bill that has been thumbed, pocketed, and passed hand to hand, for one of her exhibitions); he's helmed fragrance-focused installations at Versailles and the Fondation Cartier; and received both the highly regarded Prix François Coty for lifetime achievement (2001) and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government (2008). He started his own ITG-beloved line, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, in 2009, and when we spoke to him late this fall, he was frankly a little sick and tired of people trashing the synthetic ingredients sometimes employed in the creation of perfumes.

“Imagine constructing a building only with stones and natural products, so, without steel and without glass,” he explained over coffee in SoHo, half-way through an international tour to promote his Maison, which boasts a range of seven fragrances plus laundry detergent, children’s bubbles, incense papers, scent-infused leather bracelets, home sprays and a bespoke perfume service. “A modern city without steel and glass would just be huts,” he said, pausing to grab a fork and knife in each fist, holding them perpendicular to the table. “Synthetic notes,” he continued, gesturing with the cutlery, “are the backbone of the structure, the longer-lasting notes, or the steal beams in the building you’re making. If you use only natural products, in two hours they will die on your skin and you will have no aura, no power." He thumped the ends of the silverware against the table for emphasis. “The chemical acts as a foundation, but also the backbone, and the muscle. You should use the natural notes to wrap around it, making the end result look and smell completely natural, even though it’s not.” He returned the knife and fork to the neighboring table and continued. “It’s like music: the piano has eighty-five white and black keys. Think about Bach, Mozart…the notes and those keys, the ingredients you are given are nothing—what matters is your inspiration and the composer, what you do with what you’re given.”

When Kurkdjian launched his own brand three years ago, he sought to avoid including written descriptions of the perfume ingredients (he considered such blurbs intentionally misleading and “clichéd”). After six months, his business partner told him the salespeople were having trouble at counters when customers pressed them for details about the formulations. “Sure, there is a sense of richness, a sense of knowledge, like at an art exhibition, when there is a label that tells you, ‘Pencil on wood by blah blah blah,'” he conceded. “But in perfume, this is not what you go for first. First is the smell, the way it makes you feel. The problem is that the industry and the marketing and the retailers, they go back to what’s inside right away, and then you forget what it smells like. Perfume is not just the sum total of the ingredients—there’s an artistic value.” Synthetic notes are neither a good or bad, he explained, they are just necessary. “It’s like words when you write—you need all the words to make your points, not just the ones you like to use. We need [synthetic ingredients] to express ourselves, like music. If you have electronic instruments, you can still play the same sheet music that you would have had a hundred years ago. It is just a little more modern.” His perfumes now come with (notably poetic) concise olfactory descriptions.

A fragrance from Maison Francis Kurkdjian has an 18-month gestation period—and always begins with the name. “The name is the final turn of the key, the last gate before the creation," he said. "When I know what I want to do, I just know. I know that I can rely on my technique.” He proffered a small vial of an as-yet-unreleased formula for 2013. "I can't tell you the name," he said, "but you can try it." He spritzed and this reporter almost rubbed her wrists together, in a move familiar to anyone who's ever cruised the fragrance counter at a department store, before he intervened—"Don't rub!" he warned. "Rubbing hits the skin and accelerates the evaporation, the course of the perfume. It's like hitting fast-forward on a cassette tape."

As for his particular technique and aesthetic, “Everybody has their own language," he explained. "Each perfumer is different. The smell of jasmine, for example, is flowery but it’s also dirty. To me, it smells like New York, like Central Park.” There's jasmine in Central Park? Kurkdjian laughed. “The first time I came to New York, I was walking to the park and five blocks before, I started to smell jasmine, and I was amazed, picturing these fields of it in Central Park. I was so excited, and then right around 59th street, I started to see horses and carriages. Jasmine flowers, even on the plant, have some of the same chemical compounds that you find in horse shit. It was May, when the air is kind of lukewarm and a little bit wet, and if you smell Central Park, it smells like the dirty and animalistic notes in jasmine, and it’s the same thing in the horse shit.” Kurkdjian grinned and, sensing his audience was unconvinced, or at least unwilling to correlate a much-loved scent with manure, continued: “It's not a bad thing, and it's not that bizarre. There are shared elements there."

In the years he's been making people smell better, Kurkdjian has made a few observations. Like, the tendency of women to change perfumes when they're experiencing a dramatic life shift (pregnancy, a divorce, a marriage). Sound familiar? As for the difference between American fragrance shoppers and their European counterparts, “You can’t generalize about what ‘American women like’ in a scent," he said. "You can’t just talk about American women. You have the East coast, West coast, Middle America, North, and South—that’s where you see the differences. But I would say that New York is boring for fragrance. It's too clean and washed out. In the U.S., sexiness is translated to cleanliness. But if you go in the Middle East or Europe, sexy is not ‘clean.’” When this reporter noted that even excluding the aforementioned horse manure, New York isn’t exactly known for it’s clean living, Kurkdjian laughed. “I see the coastal United States as very anti-perfume. It’s very funny," he said. "New York is very clean. If you go into New Jersey, if you go outside of New York, it’s a different story. People like a stronger scent. What is funny is you would think that if you lived somewhere hot, you would want a 'fresher' scent, but in the Middle East, they don’t—they want something stronger."

Strong, soft, bold, classic—whatever you choose—at the end of the day, the master perfumer just hopes women will keep their options open. “I think having just one perfume is nonsense. It’s denying the modernity of woman. You can’t always wear the same suit or the same evening dress. To me, it’s like a wardrobe: you should have everything from lingerie to a tuxedo, but always feel whatever option you choose... It’s not about smelling the same—it’s about feeling the same; you feel good. Even though the perfume can be a statement and strong, you need to have space between the skin and your mind so your perfume becomes you and you don’t become the perfume. Still, the perfume has its own signature. It's like someone being able to tell wh0 designed your dress; it's not a bad thing."

—Alessandra Codinha

Francis Kurkdjian photographed in New York by Elizabeth Brockway on November 10th, 2012.

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  • Jessa

    He's so interesting, love when people are passionate about their field of work!

  • Sofia

    He is actually a master at what he does, and passionate. I first fell in love with Aqua Universalis 2 years ago when I still was living in Paris, and now Amyris is
    simply the best. Merci, Francis ! And good one ITG!

    • SF City Editor

      I'm in love with Amyris too, it's the best scent I've worn since I can remember, simply beautiful. What I like about Maison Francis Kurkdjian is that he formulates simply and intelligently, without many of the ingredients I find are so mass produced, with Maison Francis Kurkdjian you get luxury.

  • CindyK

    Great article-thank you. I have waffled over the signature scent and having many and now my arsenal is a bit too full. I find myself being intrigued by the next and the next - never satisfied. I LOVE scent. :)

  • texasvegmama

    Good information about not rubbing the scent on your wrists!

  • beautyidealist

    He is a very interesting man and I've enjoyed a couple of his scents, they are very thoughtfully created and have such a high attention to detail. He has very strong opinions on a lot of things which I applaud him for.

    I do think the analogy comparing natural fragrances to the architectural equivalent of a hut is inaccurate though. If we're being technical, steel and glass are forged through naturally existing compounds, in the same way a natural perfume is forged through combining natural ingredients. The chemicals in this case wouldn't be steel/glass, it would be the lead in the paint that goes inside the buildings.

    Whats interesting is in my Greek Civilization class in college, we learned that fragrances were all composed from naturally occurring scents until peoples clothing started becoming more opulent, which combined with infrequent bathing, led to a demand for stronger scents to mask body odors. This has translated into todays market believing that a well made scent has to have long lasting power and that the natural scent of our bodies was something unattractive. The result is that in order to create such strong products, we implement chemicals such as phthalates and synthetic fragrances which are known hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and skin irritants. I believe a study showed that women who worked in cosmetics: i.e. Sephora sales associates, were more likely to develop conditions such as thyroid cancer and infertility due to being immersed in the chemicals in their work environment.

    I'm not writing this to be scary. I actually do not think a natural perfume company has been able to compete with scents that I love from Serge Lutens and Jo Malone so I still buy them (although for anyone who believes you need synthetics and chemicals to create the foundation of a good fragrance, I urge you to check out Strange Invisibles or even Intelligent Nutrients Multi-functional Aromas), but I do believe that it is important to realize there is a reason people are becoming turned off from synthetic fragrances and that they're valid reasons.

    I respect the work Francis Kurkdjian has done and his products are an amazing achievement in modern perfumary. I think we just differ a bit on our priorities regarding what makes good fragrance, but I'm sure many people will appreciate his candor and views and want to try his stuff.

    • JC


    • eastvillagesiren

      Interesting comments and observations, thank you. Can you send a link to that study? I like to read scientifically-based research. I buy fragrances with synthetic components if the ingredients are EU-approved. EU seems to do a good job objectively evaluating the safety and environmental implications of chemicals (both naturally and synthetically derived). I also wear Le Labo fragrances, which combine synthetic and naturally derived ingredients with no added phthalates, last a long time and don't make me sneeze or break out in hives ;)

    • Greencourt

      Your analogies are not altogether true. I'm a perfumer, and I use synthetic ingredients.

      First off, synthetics have to be made from something. Sometimes they are made from scratch with "chemical" compounds. Other times, they are actually taken from natural materials. For instance, there is a molecule called geraniol that you will find in 90% of all perfumes. (It's also IFRA mandated to label this ingredient, so you will see it on the ingredients lists for many perfumes and bath products.) Geraniol is essentially the scent of rose. Roses have hundreds of molecules that account for their scent, but since geraniol is found in huge amounts in rose, smelling the single molecule is like seeing a photo of a rose (think of the photo as being in lo-fi - although you don't get all of the tiny details around the edges, you still fully understand what is depicted in the picture). Geraniol is also found in very large amounts in many other flowers, and in rosewood.

      Synthesized geraniol is not made from a pile of phthalate monster molecules. Synthesized geraniol is made from pine sap. The molecule itself is but one "branch" of a natural material, and a bottle of geraniol that has been made "synthetically" from pine sap and a bottle of geraniol that has been taken from rosewood are chemically identical, save for small variations in trace elements. Is one branch of a tree any less natural than the tree it came from? Kurkdjian was correct to choose steel and glass for his comparison.

      Also, lead is a natural element.

      Synthetics also aren't used simply for their power. Many synthetics are gone in 15 seconds, and many naturals (sandalwood, oakmoss, ambergris, civet) last for weeks. Indeed, the whole reason many perfumers even use synthetics is because people actually have a taste for transparent, easy-smelling, fresh, non-irritating perfumes. Ck One? So synthetic. Acqua di Gio? So synthetic. Eau Sauvage? Synthetic, synthetic, synthetic. In that case, you are correct that people have a taste for things that don't smell like the human body. However, that's mostly in America and Japan. In France, the Middle East, etc, there is a huge taste for sweaty, raunchy scents that are the scent of skin. These are made with synthetic musks.

      In times of opulence or reduced bathing, perfumes were so strong they would knock. you. out. And they were natural. And, in some cases, they were actually made to emphasize certain "dirty" smells. People didn't only wear perfume because they were trying to mask something, it was also a status symbol and a sexual symbol. They used cat s**t for lastingness, musk from deer for sensuality, and would lay waste to fields of jasmine and endangered sandalwood trees for richness. The taste for lighter perfumes went hand in hand with the development of synthetics.

      And a huge number of "natural" materials used in perfumery like some flower absolutes are taken from plants using toxic solvents like hexane and benzene. Even so-called natural perfumery is removed significantly from the pastoral and non-technological, and is many significant steps from bruising some pine needles and rubbing them on your wrist (which would cause skin irritation, anyway.)

      • greenmachie

        I think you might be missing her point which is that there is legitimate concern about synthetic fragrances. Sure her analogy might not be 100%, but it's more accurate than Francis' original. Even if its not the lead thats the chemical there are still so many chemicals (VOC, benzene, formaldehyde, etc.) that her reference to the paint is not inaccurate.

        And I don't think anyone is making a point that all natural materials are better, I don't think anyone is mistaken for example that rubbing poison ivy or pine needles as you said, a natural ingredient is going to be better than absorbing a few chemicals.

        There are many not so great synthetic fragrances that are used, and to be honest the example you cited, geraniol is a commonly used naturally derived fragrance that is used in many natural products, I think we might be working on two different definitions of what constitutes synthetic and what does not. For me, synthetics are things such as Galaxolide and TonalideI which can bind and stimulate human estrogen receptions, and not geraniol which is mostly derived from natural botanicals.

        And you're right, some flower absolutes are derived from chemical solvents but I don't think the original poster was advocating the use of that over synthetic fragrance either, and for many natural beauty people, those absolutes constitute chemical ingredients as well.

        It seems you're picking on her for things she didn't really say at this point. Let's just step away and you can keep producing your fragrances and people who don't want synthetics can have their options and everyone is entitled to their views.

  • kneelbeforetigers

    HA, I'm the exact opposite. The cashiers know me by name (*oof*)!

    • SF City Editor

      Sephora doesn't have any of the hard to find beauty essentials, everything they primarily carry is mass marketed and produced.

      • kneelbeforetigers

        True... but they did carry Sunday Riley before any other larger retailer. They try, they try.

  • kneelbeforetigers

    Seriously... this is the type of man I need to marry. Or have a really torrid, 5 year on and off fling with!

    • SF City Editor

      I first : )

  • Sarabecca

    Frankly, there have not been enough attempts at creating fine natural perfumes. They are different, softer, subtler, but very beautiful when done right. The fact that they are not overpowering allows one to wear them without disturbing people who are fragrance adverse. Our Sarabecca perfumes stand up well when compared to any other scent, natural or synthetic.

  • Liz Cook

    Disappointed in his lack of understanding of natural perfumery or natural ingredients. If synthetics is your orchestra, that's fine, but leave the insight into naturals to the people who actually know them.

  • Greencourt

    Please see my comment above - many synthetics are made from natural materials: like plucking a carrot from a soup. And plenty of so-called natural plant materials (see virtually all flower absolutes) are extracted with chemical solvents which *are* actually toxic.

  • Claudia

    The Incas created Machu Picchu with stones and matural material, no steel or glass and it stands today. A work of genius, an architectural masterpiece coveted by modern day architects. There was was a time when perfume was regarded in the same fashion. It's basis was pure, natural, and of botanical resources. Then the money grubbing whores came along to preserve scents and make them last longer or develop an unnatural scent from which does not exist in nature and hence we have what most people think of as perfume. True perfumes don't need to be stirred in a witch's cauldron as they do today. There are natural perfumers in this world that are considered artists. Any fool can create a scent based on chemicals. additives, and the kitchen sink, I mean have you smelled a Demeter perfume lately? Sounds like Francis is a little confined with his elements and may ne a little jealous of what other "true" perfumers are doing now.

    • SF City Editor

      How dare you say such a thing, FK is in a league all his own. And who cares about all of those analogies, we understand and get the point. Francis Kurkdjian is the "Nose", the one true modern perfumer.

  • SF City Editor

    I actually would feel like I was cheating on FK if I wore another fragrance, I'm afraid I'm in-love with Amyris, and it's my signature scent, until he makes another scent I fall madly in-love with.

    • Max Borsdi

      I feel exactly the same now that my Aqua Universalis is finished and I tried Aqua Vitae, but I found it too sweet (I felt a bit guilty about disliking it since I was ready to buy it for my birthday). I'll give a try to Amyris. i feel guilty as well because I am quite seduced by Bergamote 22 by Le labo...