From luminous dryness of Frédéric Malle Noir Epices to elegant sensuality of Parfums DelRae Amoureuse, creations of Michel Roudnitska are marked by sensitivity to form and originality of expression. Their sources of inspiration are diverse, based on their creator’s extensive travels and observations unfettered by traditional views. His ability to break through the crust of conventional is no doubt fostered by his other life-long passions in photography, sculpture, drawing, and video montage. …
Born in 1948 in Seine-et-Marne, Michel Roudnitska has been immersed in the perfumery from his childhood, given his father’s, Edmond Roudnitska’s, influence. Edmond Roudnitska’s legacy in perfumery cannot be summarized briefly, with his creations including such great classics as Rochas Femme, Christian Dior Eau Sauvage, Christian Dior Diorissimo, and Hermès Eau d’Hermès. Yet, in light of such formidable heritage, Michel Roudnitska has his own style and his own vision. Like all original compositions, his fragrances bring to life memories, create dreams and kindle yearnings.
Having launched Noir Epices for Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums, he has also worked on Parfums DelRae fragrances:
Eau Illuminée (2002)
Bois de Paradis (2002)
Since 1997, Michel Roudnitska has been managing the Art & Parfum company that was founded by Edmond Roudnitska in 1946, specializing in creation and manufacture of fine fragrances. In an interview to Bois de Jasmin, Michel Roudnitska shares his passions and his views on the art of perfumery.
Perfume straddles the line between tangible and ethereal, an object of beauty that can be felt, yet not seen. What is the most satisfying aspect of the process of fragrance creation, and what is the least? Which of your fragrances did you enjoy composing the most?
There are 2 exciting moments in my creation process:
The first one is in the beginning of the research when, after an incubation period and some first trials, the original and distinctive shape of a fragrance appears magically from the chaos. It’s a very special emotion telling me intuitively that, even if it’s quite unperfect at this stage, this formula has opened the gate of a new olfactive universe in which I’ll travel for several weeks and months, exploring all the paths until I get the right balance between all the components.
The second one is when I really feel the work is achieved, that’s when any change destroys the fragile harmony progressively elaborated. At this moment I have the same satisfaction as if I was looking at a grown up child able to stand on his own feet.
The least satisfying part of this process is the intermediary stage, especially when you think you have improved your creation in the evening and realize it’s awful the next morning! Because of the high subjectivity of the olfactive sense, there are many disillusions in our profession and we have to be very strong in our mind to resist to such contrast of emotions. This problem increases when you have to deal with clients’ ‘versatile requests or marketing teams’ contradictory demands, adding their doubts to your own confusion…
The fragrance I enjoy composing the most was Bois de Paradis. Even if it was the longest and hardest process (2 years and about 300 trials), it was an exciting challenge. Before I started, I had a quite precise olfactive shape in my mind. The mere thought of the potential fragrance outcome was enough to make me crazy: a mix of cedarwood, wild rose, exotic fruit jam and tasty ‘marron glacé’. Gathering all my favorite ingredients in a new harmonious composition seemed like an impossible dream to realize.
It became a real obsession during these 2 years. I was exploring so many directions leading to just dead ends that I was on the verge of giving up my research. But slowly, solutions where coming up, with the magical discovery of new ingredients that was solving each problem one after another until the final approval by the client.
The creation of a perfume is as complex, or even more, as any other artistic creation. The ability to combine in an harmonious composition about 100 components chosen among 3000 raw materials is the result of at least 10 years of learning. The conception of an original olfactive shape chosen among billions of combinations can be considered as a work of art when this fragrance provokes an aesthetic emotion.
So for me the real question is: in which conditions and for what purpose is this creation done ?
Even if the perfume is the result of a client order it’s very important that the fragrance composer enjoys sufficient freedom to be able to listen to his own inner sensitivity and that he can express himself, sometimes even taking risk in asserting his own personality, getting emotionally involved through it all. That’s the prerequisite to create a work of art.
Then, what makes it a work of art is also the meaning we want to give it , that is the purpose behind it and the respect vis-à-vis the perfume wearer. To reduce the fragrance to a simple instrument of seduction or a toiletry product, as it is often the case, vastly limits the possibilities of this nevertheless very powerful medium to touch our soul.
Unfortunately, we have somehow forgotten that the origins of perfume are sacred (funeral or initiation rituals and communication between Gods and mortals in Ancient Egypt or in Orient ). I am nevertheless convinced that the fragrance can lead to a kind of ecstasy. That is why I conduct my research in this direction notably in my olfactive shows. It’s the only area nowadays where I can develop all the artistic dimension of the perfume as I am free of the international marketing constraints and of the “olfactively correct”.
I read in one of your interviews that you do not incorporate many vanillic notes in your compositions, while jasmine is one of your favorites. Is there a material you have only started exploring in your work recently? Which natural materials do you consider to be irreplaceable by synthetics?
I am always exploring new materials, especially natural materials. Nature is the main source of inspiration in fragrance creation. Even if we use more and more synthetic molecules, bringing new olfactive “harmonies”, natural scents are still the reference because they are related to our oldest memories since the beginning of humanity.
Nearly all natural ingredients can be now replaced by synthetic reconstitution. Sometimes we can reproduce the scent of the living flower even better than the oil coming from it (because most of the top notes are destroyed during the distillation process).
There are some exceptions such as patchouli, vetiver, frankincense, jasmine that are very difficult to replace, but it’s just a question of time.
Some flowers like Lily of the Valley, Hyacinth, Violet, or Lilac either cannot give enough essential oil or produces a very bad scent compared to the original subtle one and the only way to use these beautiful fragrances is by synthetic recomposition of the genuine molecules found in those flowers.
Do you feel that your exposure to the art of perfumery from an early age affected your perceptions of the world around you? What scent triggers your childhood memories?
Our internal olfactive databank is elaborated mostly during our first 7 years. That’s why it so important for a future fragrance composer to have lived surrounded by nature during his childhood. I had this chance. My playground was just in front of my father’s laboratory and even if I didn’t know the name of these essential oils mixed during entire days, I was recording a lot of olfactive memories. They became 20 years later very strong references with which I could recognize and describe any scents going through my nose. I could stay for hours near some magnolia tree, fragrant honeysuckle or rose bushes, soaking them all until they made my head turn.
It was a very methodic and long approach, leading me to learn the 15 olfactive families one after one, studying for about 4 months each family and working on exercises in which I had to find the right ingredients in the right proportion, with nearly no help from my father.
It was a good training because I became very familiar with most of the raw materials and their interaction but at the end of these 5 years of this hard and sometimes boring work, my father still hadn’t taught me of art of composing perfume. So I decided to leave my father’s house and began to explore by myself other fields of creation, such as photography and dance shows.
When, after 15 years of this experience, I came back home, I decided to start again the learning of fragrance composition by myself, using the method I had elaborated in image composition. It was quite an unconventional method but it allowed me to discover new olfactive universes based on original harmonies.
Which of your father’s fragrances is your favorite?
Parfum de Thérèse which has been created specially for my mother. Even if I cannot be objective about this fragrance, I believe it’s the most original and exceptional fragrance my father ever created. It’s at the same time very round and with so many facets. It’s such an expressive fragrance that you either adore it or hate it, you cannot stay indifferent.
You speak highly of Jean-Claude Ellena’s work. Have you ever worked together?
I like Jean-Claude Ellena’s work very much, specially what he did for Cartier and Hermès. We have known each other since we were at school. I had then the opportunity of sharing with him our passion when he was coming to our house to meet my father and mostly when we worked together in the 80’s on the graphic representation of fragrances for the company in which he was working. We had a lot of exchanges about our ways of composing which had some similarity and we used to show our work to each other before the launch of our perfumes.
Absolutely! As photographer, computer graphic designer and fragrance composer, I have been working on this subject for 30 years: first, theoretically trying to find a poetical correspondence between visual and olfactive shapes and then creating multisensorial shows using these results in order to increase the emotional impact of my images. It’s incredible how the right fragrance combined with the right sound and images can create a real synergy and draw the spectator into a deep sensorial immersion.
This tool has been used also for the graphic illustration of the Perfume families in the Michael Edward’s “Fragrance of the World” book in 2000 or more recently for an exhibition in which the public was invited to discover by itself these correspondences, matching 10 scents (spicy, citrus, woody, fresh, floral, green, …) with 10 pictures [such as the picture here]. We can use these visual analogues in an educational way in order to help people communicate about scents. There a big gap to fill because we don’t learn the olfactive language at school.
What are your passions besides perfumery? Is it possible to speak of these passions as being outside of perfumery, or are they intrinsically connected with it?
My passion for photography and computer graphics developed in parallel to fragrance composition. They are really connected to each other. I use the same method of creation: isolating elements from nature, processing them through different filters and then combining them in a new reality. Each area adds value to the other as it enables a new kind of olfactory vision by getting rid of the usual professional recipes.
Because I was involved in those two areas of expression – perfume and shows -, it was a logical step to take to make them work together. This opportunity was given to me when I was asked in 1996 for the 50th Festival of Avignon, France, to produce a show together with the Avignon Opera ballet. It was a challenge to create this show in only 3 months but we did it and it was a complete success.
This polysensorial event based on the 5 elements and the history of perfume, was merging music, dance, a giant slide show and fragrances sprayed in the open air with a new cutting edge diffusion technology. Then in 2001, I created 4 fragrances for the 4 acts of Nabucco’s Verdi Opera in Rotterdam, Holland, in front of 6000 people.
Natural scents can also bring a strong feeling of reality in our computerized virtual worlds: I am now working on new shows combining digital videos, “world music” concerts and fragrances like “World Scents” shown in 2002 in Montreux, Switzerland and in 2005 in Paris for the FIFI Awards. More recently I have composed fragrances for the Lion King show in Disneyland Paris and other great Theme Parks in Europe.
Fragrance can bring a new dimension to the opera and dance performance. Mostly, an emotional dimension that can touch our heart as music does. Maybe more so, because scents are directly related to our primitive “limbic” brain without going through the intellectual process of the neo-cortex. It may have subliminal effects and instantly reminds us of very old memories and feelings.
For me perfume is much more adapted to music concert, opera and ballet than movies or theater, because it’s a poetical and metaphorical way of expression which needs time to settle. The future in perfume for shows is not in the simple olfactive illustration of an environment but in a personal interpretation of an emotional atmosphere equivalent to the music score in the opera.
I understand that you are an avid traveler. Can you please describe one of your favorite places to visit in terms of its olfactory image?
I used to travel nearly twice each year. Less now because of an increasing workload after the death of my mother. The place in the world that olfactively impressed me the most was Tahiti island in French Polynesia. I cannot forget the emotion I feel every time I arrive at the Faaa Airport with the overwhelming combined fragrance of Ylang Ylang and Tiare in the early morning, then the wet moss of the rain forest, the special wild scent of the mountains’ paths cutting across fields of ferns, the drying coprah mixing its rancid smell with the salty breeze coming from the coral reef…. I have been living for 10 years in this country and each time I go there it’s like coming back home: a very deep and ancient home, an old memory of Eden.
We have no plan in the near future but we would like to launch a masculine fragrance within 1 or 2 years. As for establishing a new line under my own name, time will tell…
Thank you to Mr. Roudnitska for a fascinating interview! More information on his work and Art & Parfum can be discovered by going directly to the site.
Photo: Michel Roudnitska, by J.M. Sordello. The rest of the images are by M. Roudnitska, protected by Art-et-Parfum copyright.
Editions de Parfums fragrances are available from Frédéric Malle boutiques, Barneys New York and Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums website. Parfums DelRae fragrances are available from Aedes, Beautyhabit and First-in-Fragrance.