Female perfumers: Quiet Artists in a man’s world

Female perfumers: Quiet Artists in a man’s world

By Deborah Fulsang

“When I used to work with Mr. Jean-Paul Guerlain, he told me women can’t create [perfume] for other women,” said Sylvaine Delacourte while in Toronto just over a year ago.

Delacourte, the Director of Perfume Creation for the house of Guerlain, laughed quietly to herself in recollecting that moment.

“For me, I think the question of sensibility and creativity is not because you are a man or a women,” she continued. “It’s not that there is a better sex.”

Of course, what would a woman know about making women’s fragrance?

I had asked the fragrance-industry veteran, who has been at Guerlain since 1987, what it was like building her career path in perfumery, which like finance, professional cooking or technology, remains in many ways a boy’s club—a big glamorous boy’s club, but a boy’s club none the less.

While women are starting to enjoy some of the spotlight, female perfumers are the quiet artists working in this man’s world. The male perfumer has—pop-culturally speaking—attained rock-star status with countless magazines and newspapers recently paying homage.

“The 5 Hottest Guys in Perfume,” quipped The Cut, New York Magazine’s influential style blog to its one million Twitter followers, in a recent piece profiling a quintet of perfumery’s most influential male creators.

“While these men are easy on the eyes, they’re also extremely talented at their craft and have better senses than a bloodhound,” it reported. “Because you know what they say about men with big noses, right? They make great perfume.”

Indeed, the irresistible combination of intelligence, talent, charm and good looks wielded by many of today’s most trendsetting male noses—from Frederic Malle and Ben Gorham of Byredo, to Carlos Huber of Arquiste and Kilian Hennessy of By Kilian, makes these men perfect candidates for big glossy feature stories.

But as with rock stars, where you have a Mick Jagger, Bono and Freddie Mercury, so too do you have your Patti Smiths, Annie Lennoxes and Gwen Stefanis.

So today—International Women’s Day—we celebrate the accomplishments of women in the world of fragrance.

Perfumer Olivia Giacobetti

Perfumer Olivia Giacobetti

Women such as Olivia Giacobetti who have created scents for Diptyque, and who mixed Hiris by Hermès and several scents for L’Artisan Parfumeur.

Women such as Daniela Andrier, winner of three FiFi Awards, who has crafted such notable concoctions as Prada Amber Pour Homme, Prada Infusion d’Iris, Prada Candy, Marni’s Marni and Gucci Envy for Men.

Perfumer Calice Becker

Perfumer Calice Becker

Women such as Calice Becker, who gave the fragrance-loving world such spritzes as Tommy Girl by Tommy Hilfiger, Christian Dior’s J’Adore and Oscar de la Renta’s Essential Luxuries collection.

Women such as Annick Goutal, who before passing the torch to her daughter, Camille, founded her own perfume house and launched such beloved and iconic scents as Eau d’Hadrien and Eau de Charlotte.

Women such as Ann Gottlieb, who had her hand in creating almost every one of Calvin Klein’s trendsetting perfumes, from Obsession to Eternity and ck One; as well as Marc Jacob’s Daisy, Carolina Herrera’s Chic and 212.

Women such as Annie Buzantian, who tickled our collective noses with Estée Lauder Sensuous and Pleasures, with Marc Jacobs Dot and Honey, with Clinque’s Happy For Men, and with several Victoria’s Secret scents, from Breathless to Pink to So In Love.

Women such as Christine Nagel, who developed such scents as Narciso Rodriguez for Her, Eau de Cartier, Miss Dior Cherie, Giorgio Armani’s Si, Jimmy Choo’s Flash and a roster of fragrances under the Jo Malone banner. She is also set to take over from Jean-Claude Ellena at the house of Hermes upon the head perfumer’s retirement.

Perfumer Karine Dubreuil

Perfumer Karine Dubreuil

Women such as Karine Dubreuil, who has given us wonderful scents as fragrance creation queen at L’Occitane—the most recent being the breezy and beautiful Collection de Grasse. She has also written the olfactory script for a couple of Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria fragrances as well as Roberto Cavalli’s Just Cavalli Her, Gucci’s Envy Me and Eclat d’Arpége by Lanvin.

Women such as Aerin Lauder, who is following in her grandmother’s fragrance footsteps with her boutique collection of perfumes that manage to meld clean-lined American style with a more complex and nuanced European perfume sensibility.

Of course, there are the other inspiring women that will go down in the perfume history books as deserving of mention on all days, but especially on International Women’s Day. Women such as Jo Malone and Lyn Harris, Gabrielle Chanel, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and Estée Lauder. There are many more of course; this is not an exhaustive list.

And then of course, there is Sylvaine Delacourte, who has created so many scents for the legendary house of Guerlain, many solo and many in collaboration with perfumery’s other great noses—both men and women; fragrances such as L’Instant to Insolence, Cologne du 68 to the Elixirs Charnel scents.

And so we asked Delacourte about her mentors, hoping there might be a bold encouraging woman in the midst.

“Nobody taught me,” she replied. “My spirit is Jacques. For me, he has the most talented nose in the world. … I have a lot of respect for his creations. But I learned a lot from myself. I work with Jean-Paul [Guerlain] but I learned from myself. I think all the respect I have [is] for the beautiful creation of Guerlain: It is my most beautiful mentor.”

PHOTO: Sylvaine Delacourte, Director of Perfume Creation at Guerlain, photographed in Toronto, October 2013.

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Alexandra Donaldson is the editorial assistant at The Whale & The Rose and a freelance writer and content creator. Although she recently took up yoga in an effort to be a healthy adult, she still binge-watches cartoons on a regular basis and dreams of running away to a cottage in the woods. She has yet to nail down her favourite perfume, but knows that it smells green, earthy and maybe a little bit spicy, but definitely not sweet.