Ballet in our noses: An exclusive interview with Francis Kurkdjian

Francis Kurkdjian

Francis Kurkdjian – © N. Baetens.

He is a true giant among the perfumers of the world: Francis Kurkdjian. His passion for fragrance is incomparable while his creativity is almost unparalleled in perfumery. He created stunning olfactive installations as well as precious fragrances for highly prestigious brands such as Christian Dior, Narciso Rodriguez, Davidoff, Elizabeth Arden, Escada, Acqua di Parma, Giorgio Armani, Guerlain, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Joop, Kenzo, Lancaster, Lancome, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent,… just to name a few.
It´s only recently that Francis Kurkdjian launched his striking brand new fragrance creation for his very own label Maison Francis Kurkdjian named Aqua Universalis forte. So it is obvious that it was really high time for us to ask this outstanding French master perfumer for an interview! And so we did…
In his very personal and detailed interview with Essenza Nobile, Francis Kurkdjian told us about his happy and sheltered childhood in a suburb of Paris, shattered dreams of a carreer as a ballet dancer, the initial spark for his new fragrance Aqua Universalis forte in Southern Italy,… and how he recreated the perfume of Marie Antoinette more than 200 years after her tragic decease.

Aqua Universalis forte

Aqua Universalis forte

Essenza Nobile: Aqua Universalis forte, the Eau de Parfum version of your successful fragrance Aqua Universalis has recently been launched in Germany. Can you tell us what has changed in comparison with the Eau de Toilette version, and what the perfume aficionados can expect from Aqua Universalis forte?

Francis Kurkdjian: The olfactory composition has the same “sunny“, bright and clean emotions, but adds the memory, sparkle and intensity to the citrus charm and white flowers of the “classical” Aqua Universalis. The creation of Aqua Universalis forte goes back to an encounter with my Citrus supplier in Calabria, South of Italy. I was presented a new quality of Bergamot that amazed me by its freshness and long lastingness. It was a really new grade with facets I have never smelled nor experienced before. Back to Paris, I wanted to experiment this new product. In such case I take an existing formula, try the raw material I want to evaluate and compare it against the original formula. It allows me to smell the differences and evaluate if the product is worth including in my perfume palette in the laboratory. In this case, I immediately felt I had something really good under my nose. I started to change few things within the formula to smoothen the vibration of the bergamot by adding touches of pure rose and jasmine oil. Finally, I increased the level of the fragrance oil to be as much concentrated like a pure perfume. I wanted a liquor of water in a certain way. I presented my work to my team in Paris. And they all loved it and thought it would be great if we could share the product with our clients and friends. For the first year we were able to produce 2000 flacons only due to the limited amount of Bergamot oil we could get. We have secured for the coming years the availability of the product in order to have a great roll out.
The final consumer may experiment even more strength, more trail of the floral side. It is also a way to wear a fresh scent in the evening while convention tells you to wear something darker or sweeter. With Aqua Universalis forte, you have the assurance to have an elegant and daring fresh scent, yet very sexy.

Essenza Nobile: There is no other fragrance of yours than Aqua Universalis that is available in so many different varieties: Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, perfumed candles, incense paper… even washing liquid and fabric softener perfumed with the scent of Aqua Universalis are available. What do you think causes that special magic of Aqua Universalis, so that this fragrance stands in the very center of both your work and the product range of Maison Francis Kurkdjian?

Francis Kurkdjian: Aqua Universalis combines a rare equilibrium: Fresh, clean, sexy and long-lastingness are values extremely unusual to combine. There is a lot of artistry behind this scent, but the technique part is very important as well in order to be able to get the strength and the sillage that everyone expects. There are not many scents like this one in the market. In the same time, it’s a totally unique accord. The blend of citrus notes with freshly bloomed flowers is not so usual when combined with the smoothness of amber and musk; it’s all about proportion, balance. Then, what makes the magic of Aqua Universalis is the fact it carries universal values and emotions. Its name is inspired from that. I did want to create the new generation of Eau de Cologne, something to be generously shared, not only physically but emotionally as well. I guess our customers and clients have felt all that and this is why the response and success is tremendous.

Essenza Nobile: If one compares the product range of Maison Francis Kurkdjian with those of other perfume brands, it is noticeable that your products are extraordinarily diverse. Beside the classical Eaux de Toilette and Eaux de Parfum, you are providing for example incense paper, washing liquid, fabric softener, scented candles, soap bubbles… and now – with „Tour Atour“ – even a perfumed leather bracelet! What kind of thought or idea is the conceptual background of that exceptional product range?

Francis Kurkdjian: I am very glad you noticed theses differences. I usually say I am the Maker and Baker! (laughs). These products publicly show that I am the one behind the magic of the creation of each single product, each single scent. I am neither from a marketing school nor an heir from a dynasty or celebrity who decided to spare its time and make money by launching fragrances. I decided to become a perfumer at the age of 15. It’s not something that happened by chance, over night or by heritage. I wanted it. I am 42 now, so I consider I have been living for the art of perfume for almost 30 years now. I teach the art of perfume at the Perfume School in Versailles and give Lecture and Master Class. You need also to nurture your emotions, listening to music, going to exhibits, movies, everything that opens your soul and nurture you. This is how I see my life and all the products I have created have been inspired from.

Essenza Nobile: Beside your famous fragrance creations for the great perfume brands of the world, you are also well known for a very exclusive variety of perfumes: signature scents – i.e. tailor-made fragrances which are especially created for the individual personality of the wearer of the perfume. In April you mentioned in the British VOGUE that you would love to create a custom-tailored fragrance especially for the new Dutchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton. Well, that really sounds like a great offer! Did you perhaps even receive an official answer or reaction from the British Royal House in the meantime?

Francis Kurkdjian: In my mind, Aqua Universalis forte is the first outline of what could be the fragrance of the now new Duchess of Cambridge. As far disclosing the names of my clientele for bespoke perfumes, you will never get a comment on that. The secrecy of my clients is as important as the one for my formulas! (laughs)

Sillage de la Reine

Sillage de la Reine

Essenza Nobile: Royal fragrances seem to be an important subject for you in general. For example, a few years ago, you tried to reconstruct the perfume of the French Queen Marie Antoinette in collaboration with historians – the result was a precious fragrance with notes of iris, rose, jasmine, orange blossoms, cedar- and sandalwood. How difficult was it for you to recreate that perfume, and how did you proceed with this project?

Francis Kurkdjian: It all began in 2003, when I met a historian specialist of perfume who is named Elisabeth de Feydeau. She was writing a biography about one of Marie Antoinette’s perfumer, Jean Louis Fargeon. My custom made work was the opportunity to re-create a fragrance which could be the one Marie Antoinette could have asked me. We knew the taste of the queen for flowers, especially roses and iris. We also knew, that the queen loved fresh cut bouquet, almost different from the heavy musky and amber fragrances generally used at XVIIIème century. Reading the perfumer Fargeon formulas, I have realized that I could compose a fragrance in that way, using only unique natural raw materials. The first formulas were amazing, with a smell too much strong for our nose of XXIème century. But step by step, inspired by the garden, and by the sensibility of this woman, the perfume was born.  The Queen of France, coming from Austria, was eating boiled vegetables and meat, having a bath every day, riding horses. She was happy to be out of the “cour” in her little paradise, either at the Trianon or later at Le Hameau, with her flowers and animals, living like a peasant. This was really a scandalous behaviour at that time: The Queen of France, one of the most powerful and influent countries in Europe, living as a peasant!! She was out of everything, and this gave me the direction to create “MA Sillage de la Reine”.

Then the most difficult part was “talking” with someone who disappeared 200 years ago! I have found a great help on Marie Antoinette’s life through Stefan Zweig´s biography about the queen, reading the book of Mrs. Frezer who inspired Sophia Coppola for her movie about the late Queen. There was definitely a Marie Antoinette momentum at that period. It´s very well documented and full of details about her life. The other difficulty has been to compose a fragrance in order to respect the rules of creation and composition of the XVIIIth century in harmony with the level of smell of our period.

Essenza Nobile: You have intensively studied the personality of Marie Antoinette. Imagine you had been the royal perfumer of the French queen and had the challenge to compose a signature fragrance for her – would you have created a similar perfume for her as the one you´ve recreated now?

Francis Kurkdjian: I guess not. What I did with “Sillage de la Reine”, was to gather information about her taste, her likes and dislikes, then I used the book of her perfumer Jean Louis Fargeon in order to match his way of thinking and creating a perfume. There is one fragrance inspired by Marie Antoinette nowadays – the one I have created. But at this time, she had different perfumers and used many perfumes throughout the year and even the day. So I guess I would have created something different. Yes of course. You know, you could have asked me the same question for all my fragrances. Creation epitomizes and crystallizes a moment, an era. It’s the same when I created for my client a custom made perfume. And this is nothing I am afraid about. It’s the same for all the creators in all the fields.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

Essenza Nobile: Beside signature fragrances, there is another typical great speciality of yours: Olfactive installations in which you combine olfactory and visual elements. Would you contradict if one would call you the „André Heller of perfumery“?

Francis Kurkdjian: I am not very familiar with his work I trust you, but I guess we are all different with our references, style, sensitivity, background.

Essenza Nobile: It is noticeable that soap bubbles very often appear as a theme in your artistic work… I think of olfactive installations with perfumed bubbles in the Grand Palais in Paris, in the gardens of Versailles or at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, and of your collection of scented bubbles for children called „Les Bulles d’Agathe“. Is this an expression of childhood memories living in everyone´s mind, or what´s the reason for your obvious passion for perfumed bubbles?

Francis Kurkdjian: First of all I may correct your perception of using bubbles very often. My very first artistic work was scenting the fountain of Versailles at the Orangery, followed the year after with scenting the Bosquet des 3 fontaines and the bubbles installations. I hope my next art installation will be using scented outdoor candles. That must be spectacular.
As far the bubbles, I like them because it brings poetry and subtleness; it touches everyone from all the fields, ages and sensibility. There is something universal and this is what I like – playing on both fields. Fragrances are personal emotions. These bubble olfactive performances are universal. I like these opposite concepts.

Les Bulles d’Agathe

Les Bulles d’Agathe

Essenza Nobile: It is said that you originally wanted to become a ballet dancer, until you discovered your love for perfume at the age of 15. Is that right?

Francis Kurkdjian: Not exactly! I wanted to become a ballet dancer but I failed to one of the contests to be part of the ballet school. I was 13. It took me a year to recover from that. When I discovered the metier of perfumer, I knew right away this would be my playground.

Essenza Nobile: How did it happen that you decided to become a perfumer – what was the primal experience, the „epiphany moment“?

Francis Kurkdjian: You should interview my parents for such questions!! I have no precise idea when I decided I would embrace the work of a perfumer. What I can tell you is this: When I meet my schoolmates from that period, they all remember I was telling loud that I wanted to become a perfumer. I was raised in a little town called Gournay-sur-Marne in the East suburbs of Paris. I grew up adored by parents and my maternal grandparents. My father worked for a big consulting firm and my mother was running the household. My grandfather was a tailor and my grandmother was helping him.
I still thank my parents for the education I received. I think my siblings and I were given the best my parents could afford giving to us. On one side we had the education from school, on the other side we were surrounded by art, music, ballet as well as different types of sports. I learned to read music and play the piano, went to the ballet school. We learnt skiing and sailing, playing the rugby as well as athletics. It is quite impossible to describe the atmosphere of these years. My parents organizing costume balls with friends, hosting parties with friends and their children. My parents have always respected my personal and professional choices. I thank them for their support. However there was not even the shadow of a perfumer on the horizon in my family.  I grew up curious about everything and developed a love of handicrafts. After a short-lived career as a classical ballet dancer, I pursued fashion. Unfortunately, my pencil refused attempts at design, but the glossy pages of fashion magazines were a revelation. In them, I witnessed unimaginable splendours. And at the age of 15 I realized that I would be a perfumer…

Essenza Nobile: … did you ever regret this decision? Or, asked another way: Do you think that you could have been similarly successful in ballet as you are in perfumery now?

Francis Kurkdjian: Ballet will be a kind of eternal regret, if I may say so. But I failed at the Paris Opera Ballet school when I was 13. So there is no way to go back. On top of it, I am 42 this year. If I were a ballet dancer, I would have to retire. So I guess, perfume is my destiny. And who knows what the future will be made of, anyway!

Essenza Nobile: You’ve created perfumes for world-famous brands such as Dior, Davidoff, Escada, Guerlain, Giorgio Armani, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Narciso Rodriguez, Van Cleef & Arpels, Versace, Acqua di Parma, Yves Saint Laurent and many others. Since 2009, you’ve got your own label called Maison Francis Kurkdjian. Will you ever create fragrances for other brands again, or are you going to exclusively work under the umbrella of your own house from now on?

Francis Kurkdjian: I have just launched (and therefore created) “Le Parfum”, the first perfume of couturier Elie Saab last month. It took me more than a year to create the perfume, the one that capture his essence and style, as well as his vision of femininity. On a different level, I have created “Zeste de Vigne”, an Eau de Toilette for the brand Caudalie. I have worked also for Kenzo and other brands. In a near future, you should see few more creations for other brands.

Essenza Nobile: Could you finally tell us what you’re working on at the moment? And what we can expect next from Maison Francis Kurkdjian?

Francis Kurkdjian: I am working right now with artist Yann Toma on a new olfactory installation for May 2012. We are working on the theme of water and I will come up with a drinkable perfume! I have also a project for an olfactory installation in Florence for September. We have just released Aqua Universalis forte and this fall I have created an entire line of extrait de parfum / pure perfume for 3 of our existing fragrances. New formulas, new way/relationship to extrait de parfum. I am working on the press kit right now and everything should be ready mid of July. Beside that, I start working on my next fragrances for Maison Francis Kurkdjian, gathering ideas and raw materials from special suppliers. But all this part must remain secret until I finally decide.

Essenza Nobile: Francis Kurkdjian, it was a great honour and pleasure for us – so thank you very much for this very detailed interview!

Francis Kurkdjian © N.Baetens

Francis Kurkdjian © N.Baetens


Maison Francis Kurkdjian…

Interview with Francis Kurkdjian – German translation