My interview with Master Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian.
Of the dozens of perfumers that I’ve interviewed in my career, Francis Kurkdjian just may be the most creative and visionary. He has the ability to take a scent brief from a designer brand and blend a scent that is both commercial and artistically interesting. That is a rare feat these days. Many of the prestige labels are using the same ingredients in their launches: tuberose, vanilla, sandalwood and bergamot. So there becomes a homogeny to the fragrances you smell at a perfume counter. They start to smell the same.
Francis boasts a keen understanding of not only how the ingredients behave in a scent, but how to bring out the most interesting facets of them. His My Burberry creation captured the experience of walking through a London garden at dawn. And his Burberry Her expressed an energy and enthusiasm of youth you feel walking through the English capital.
Kurkdjian rose to fame at the young age of 26 when he designed the scent Le Male for French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. It remains one of the world’s best-selling fragrances having won almost every scent award on the planet. It was followed by more than 40 creations for major perfume companies worldwide. He’s the nose behind Narciso Rodriguez for her, Elie Saab Le Parfum, L’Exase Nina Ricci and My Burberry. And while these are impressive accomplishments, it was another scent project that captured my interest. He recreated Marie Antoinette’s favourite perfume for the Palace of Versailles following early 17th century perfumery practices. It was a triumph that brought him great acclaim throughout France. His following gigantic olfactory installations led to earning the “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government in 2008.
In 2009, he co-founded his own luxury fragrance house Maison Francis Kurkdjian with business partner Marc Chaya to allow him to express his creativity and to use the quality of ingredients he desired. There are now more than 300 locations worldwide.
I had the honour of interviewing Francis in New York for the debut of the My Burberry scent. He’s thoughtful, focused and passionate about his art. I recently reconnected to ask him to share the creative process behind Burberry Her Intense. I wanted to understand how perfumers approach reworking one of their creations. With so many editions of signature scents, how are these different and how do we truly appreciate them. Burberry Her Intense if a fruity-floral gourmand with notes of blackberry, red fruits, jasmine and benzoin. It’s dark and fruity with a warm sweet kick.
Here is my interview with Francis Kurkdjian:
Dave: To start, congrats on the success of My Burberry. Can you tell me how you approach re-imagining one of your creations?
Francis: With hindsight, it is possible to see or feel elements of the formula that were not detected before. That’s why I like when I am asked to revisit one of my creations. It allows me to re-imagine a creation. It is a unique opportunity to tell the same story in a different way by adding new notes or removing those you don’t need to interpret the new scent.
D: How would you describe an “intense” version of a scent? How does it differ from an original eau de parfum version?
F: In the case of Burberry Her, the intense version embodies a fuller and more dense version. The spirit of Her is the idea of being unconventional. Burberry Her, as a Gourmand fragrance, steps out of the traditional gourmand family as it is not sticky nor thick. On contrary, it’s airy and light in a unique way. Red and dark berries are at the heart of Burberry Her fragrance family. However, Burberry Her Intense is intensified with notes of blackberries and cedarwood for a subtly intense scent. The Intense version of Burberry Her fills the airy side of the scent without adding any thickness or heaviness.
D: Describe a day in the life of a master perfumer when working on a project like Burberry? What is your schedule like?
F: My creative process is always the same. Inspiration is the invisible part of creation and it is the most challenging part of my work by far. That’s why the creation of a perfume is made in two stages. First there is the time of reflection and inspiration guided by the story followed by a name, or vice et versa. I must have a very clear idea on what to do, where to go with my emotions so the scent is just an extension of that. Then began the time of the composition and to write the formula.
So it’s not about the place you are in or the time you work on. I would say it’s about timing. Most of the people think inspiration is passive. You can’t just have to wait to get inspired. It’s the opposite. You must work and seek for an idea. You must pursue it, chase it until you find you hold something relevant, and a story good enough to become a scent.
I have a creative routine that I apply for most of my projects. As an early bird I am at the office around 7:30 – 8 the latest. It’s the best time for me to work on a scent, to smell the trials I have made previously, sometimes the day before, sometimes the week before, depending on my creative stage.
I can smell until 9 or 9:30 until I have meetings (internal or external). Then I can have a business lunch. If not, I grab a sandwich at my favorite bakery named Stohrer, the oldest bakery in Paris, since king Louis the 15th, and eat in my office. In the afternoon until 4 or 5 pm. I then go back to my formulas and scents.
For Burberry, I work on a deadline. So once I feel ready, I present my work the Burberry team to get their comments and later their approval.
D: Why do certain notes and ingredients seem to come in and out of popularity? It seems that all of a sudden, top perfumers are using the same ingredient such as tuberose or a particular rose variety.
F: I don’t look around and what’s on the market. I follow my path and my vision for each brand I work for, including mine. People need an anchor. I believe they need to be reassured with trends and ingredients they have heard of.
D: Do you like to listen to music when creating a fragrance? What music are you listening to right now?
F: I don’t listen to music when I compose a scent and smell. I focus my senses on the olfactory sense. Silence, a not-so-bright environment and a tempered room are required.
D: If you have a spare day in London, where do you go to find inspiration?
F: A spare day never exists when you work in a creative field as everything, every single detail can become the beginning of an inspiration. When in London, I meet my friends! If not, I love museums so many options are offered. I love the Tate but I am also a fan of the Wallace Collection.
D: How long does it take to create a fragrance like Burberry from creative brief to finished product?
F: It takes about 18 months to create and complete a scent from its original idea to manufacturing.
D: How many different versions do you create?
F: It depends. The number of versions does mean anything to mean. Sometimes, very few are needed, some others, you need months to get it right. I know one rule though, the clearer the original brief or storyboard is, the better the scent is.
D: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in perfumery? I know you graduated from the Institut Superior International du Parfum, de la Cosmetique et de l’Aromatique in Versailles. Where are the best perfume schools?
F: I believe the best schools are in France. However, the best apprenticeship is what you make out of it!
D: How long will a fragrance such as Burberry last once you start using it?
F: Burberry Her has a great strength and sillage/trial. It will last on skin up to 8 or 9 hours if you use the scent in normal conditions.
D: And to finish, what would you like consumers to know about this fragrance?
F: Burberry Her is very modern, fun and playful. In the campaign, Cara Delevingne is truly the embodiment of the Londoner girl. From playful to sophisticated and daring, she represents the diverse facets of the modern femininity.
Burberry Her Intense is available at thebay.com Here is a direct link for more details.
Manon SavardFebruary 21, 2023 at 12:28 pm
It’s a great and very interesting interview!
Janet LanceJanuary 15, 2023 at 12:00 am
Wow, it must be nice to create beautiful scents that are like fresh blossoms. Great article.
Janet MJanuary 7, 2023 at 11:26 am
This is so fascinating. It is such a process.
A.JDecember 30, 2022 at 9:22 pm
Such a great read. I loved this interview and learned so many new things!
DEOX TIBEINGANAJanuary 24, 2022 at 8:02 am
Thought you would ask him if his nose is insured. What would happen if corona left him unable to smell hence earn a living? This is serious stuff. Deox from Uganda.
bn100December 29, 2021 at 1:56 pm
Delores HarrisDecember 24, 2021 at 8:04 am
“Re-imagining” a scent, I had no idea people did this. It makes sense but I always thought of perfumes as sent in stone,
Corry L.December 6, 2021 at 11:40 pm
Fantastic and fascinating interview. I’ve always wanted to be a perfumer.
Catherine YoungDecember 9, 2019 at 8:02 am
The description of the process involved in creating a fragrance was fascinating. This was a wonderful interview.
LORI LAWSDecember 6, 2019 at 9:50 am
Amazing interview Dave! He is one of my favorite perfumer’s and I wear the Holy Grail by him Baccarat Rouge 540. I can’t tell you how many people ask me what I am wearing or say you smell amazing. He does some really great masterpieces!
J.Erin RossiDecember 5, 2019 at 7:20 pm
HE REALLY IS A MASTER OF FRAGRANCE!
Trisha PedrosDecember 2, 2019 at 8:41 am
Very interesting that it takes 18 months to create! Love this article! I now understand the work that goes into creating a scent from start to finish! Thank you
September DeeDecember 1, 2019 at 8:53 pm
Nice interview Dave! He is fascinating!!
Anna Roszak RobinsonDecember 1, 2019 at 3:44 pm
What a great interview Dave. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.