He’s a secret agent bouncing between exotic lands, hunting for that special something to create the next multi-million dollar fragrance. His name is François Demachy, and he has been the creator of Dior perfume since 2006. A new documentary, Nose, follows this master of olfactory creations as he travels the world, making it more fragrant every step of the way.
The opening credits of the film are a nod to James Bond, with retro graphics of female silhouettes and perfume bottles. We then cut to the patchouli fields of Indonesia where our olfactory agent has traveled for days to reach a remote farm. Talking about the experience, Demachy says, “I finally got to see my favourite ingredient in its natural environment on these steep slopes. Even after so many years of creating perfume, I was still absolutely amazed, and I’ll never forget the joy I felt at meeting the local growers.”
The art of the nose
“Perfumes are a language everyone understands, but few people can speak,” states one of the flower growers in the documentary. Indeed, smell is perhaps the least articulated of the senses. To decode its quintessential meaning, perfumers use the language of music to communicate.
Eddie Bulliqi, a culture writer and expert on the human sensory experience, compares perfume to a symphony. In the documentary, he shows how the same notes on a piano can be played in a different order, in a different key, or at a different pace to create completely different emotional experiences. “It’s difficult to make smells accurate,” he says. “It’s very difficult to make smells metaphorically rich.”
In Demachy’s Grasse workshop, he peruses through a kaleidoscope of glass containers full of distilled smells, or “absolutes” as they are called in the industry. Each of these contains a note, and is sorted into three shelves for top, middle, and bottom notes. One of the perfumers explains that the top notes are the most futile. “They only last a few seconds or minutes depending on their volatility. The middle notes are the warm and generous heart of the perfume and can last for a few hours.” Finally, the fragrances constitute the bottom notes. “They’re the ones you remember,” he says.
Citrus, flowers, herbs, and woods in different proportions collaborate to form the symphony of a well-crafted smell. And just like playing a good note at the wrong moment of a song can ruin the music, the formula for a perfume is incredibly precise, not just in the quantity of each ingredient, but in the order and the timing of their arrangement. Demachy says, “A perfumer is an artisan. It takes creativity and intuition.”
“When you’re raised in a family that values smell as much as sight or hearing, you’re not cut from the same cloth as others,” says one of Demachy’s colleagues about the virtue of growing up in Grasse, France, which has been the perfume capital of the world for four centuries. In 2006, Demachy moved the Dior perfume studio from Paris to Les Fontaines Parfumées in Grasse and forged relationships with a new generation of local farmers dedicated to exquisite fragrances.
Dior flowers for Dior perfume
It’s this connection to the land and the production of perfume’s raw materials that distinguishes Demachy from a scientist in a lab or an artist in a studio. Seeing the entire production of fragrances as part of his craft, Demachy revived the company’s old philosophy of “Dior flowers for Dior perfume.” Over the past 15 years, he has patiently established numerous partnerships with a new generation of organic flower producers, ensuring that Dior fragrances enjoy the finest flowers, while also supporting the revival of his region.
In 2006, the same year Demachy took on the top job at Dior perfume, Carole Biancalana of Domaine de Manon reserved her entire harvests of centifolia rose, jasmine, and tuberose for Dior perfumes. A true figurehead for the revival of fragrance flower cultivation, Biancalana drew other producers along in her wake, including Armelle Janody, who heads the Clos de Callian. Both women are featured prominently in the documentary.
Because of these lasting relationships with farmers, when Demachy creates a fragrance, he doesn’t just use rose and jasmine, he uses the same rose and the same jasmine from the same plants he has worked with for years. He knows the subtleties of the scents and how different conditions in the soil, weather, and growth process affect it. He knows how the smell transforms through distillation, and he knows how it will relate and interact with other notes. For Demachy, perfumes begin in the field.
For centuries people around the world have used the essence of plants to create oils for the purpose of worn fragrances, but it wasn’t until modern extraction methods became available in the 1920s and 30s that the golden age of perfume began. It takes 700 kilograms of flowers to make one litre of absolute. But it only takes a drop of absolute to play a note in a fragrance. The sheer volume of raw materials that goes into producing perfume is astounding, and Demachy tries to connect with all of it.
A world of smells
While the flower producers in Grasse have a special place in Demachy’s heart, his network extends to Calabria, Italy where the best bergamot is still produced by hand extraction; to a small island near Madagascar that grows ylang ylang; to sandalwood nurseries in Indonesia; and a host of other small farms around the world that couldn’t seem further removed from the world of high fashion.
In the documentary, Demachy also travels to the British Isles to harvest ambergris from the northern beaches with a Scotsman and his hounds. It’s incredible to see how many traditions, cultures, and art forms come together to form perfume. Demachy and the handful of other master noses in the world are a rare breed tuned into a world most of us can only catch a whiff of.
“It’s the perfume, more than anything, that is mysterious! We persist in trying to explain it, describe it and dissect it, but it’s never completely defined. I believe that a scent is like love—you can’t explain it,” Demachy says.