Searching for a Beautiful Scent, A Conversation with Maurice Roucel

Maurice Roucel is one of the best people to talk perfume. For one thing, the rarefied, quasi-mystical approach to fragrance so common among many perfumers is entirely foreign to him. He sees the role of a fragrance creator in need of a clear definition and classification afforded to other artists, but he doesn’t comport himself as a savant of subjects too refined for the understanding of mere mortals. If anything, his down-to-earth attitude and candid manner make him a refreshing presence and a great conversation partner on topics that range from perfume to wine and life in general.

One winter Roucel and I met at a café in Paris and I posed a slightly provocative question to him: what makes a perfume beautiful? His answer and our subsequent conversation that lasted for several hours is the inspiration for my latest FT piece, Striking Accord.

“The idea of perfume making as an art form, however, can be hard to champion. While scents are related to other kinds of intangible Unesco-listed cultural heritage such as cuisine, they don’t benefit from the same recognition or documentation (the Osmothèque, a scent archive based in Versailles, is the main institution studying and preserving historical fragrances), and are generally seen as too subjective to analyse or even describe, making definitions of artistic worth complicated.” To continue reading, please click here.

What is your personal definition of a beautiful perfume?

Photography via WPC

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43 Comments

  • rosarita: Most interesting, and I am intrigued by the statement that “perfume as an art form can be hard to champion.” To me, perfume is part of self care and expression and as such, is ephemeral by nature; that makes finding what makes a perfume beautiful a challenge because it’s so intimate. A beautiful perfume is a perfume that makes one feel beautiful and that is very subjective. Wearing perfume can be like a wonderful secret, held close, or projecting power and confidence and so many other feelings that inspire beauty within. July 7, 2017 at 7:32am Reply

    • Gretchen Wyatt: I relish this definition-it is so accurate! I also would suggest that a beautiful perfume is one that brings joy or amplifies, augments, or brings about feelings of contentment, safety, derring-do, or personal authority. It’s a magical elixir that enhances our feelings or has the power to change them and our mood. July 7, 2017 at 11:17am Reply

      • Victoria: I do too, and I also love yours. July 11, 2017 at 12:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree that there is a strong intuitive component to appreciating perfume, especially so since it’s meant to be worn. Of course, there are still objective criteria, and that’s what Roucel was getting at. July 11, 2017 at 12:06pm Reply

    • SilverMoon: I agree with Rosarita and Gretchen. Their definitions of beautiful perfumes resonate with me. Victoria ‘s interview with Roucel touches on key aspects of beauty in a perfume – the jolt, a personal reaction, harmony, art out-doing craft, and so on.

      I love many of Roucel’s creations. What is remarkable is how different each of them are – the contrast between 24Faubourg and Iris Silver Mist is almost wildly surprising. Loved the photos – in the post as well as the FT article. July 14, 2017 at 12:28pm Reply

      • Victoria: Yes, he is able to change his style dramatically. July 17, 2017 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Becky K.: I just love that image of both of you! The blue lighting of the image seems to correspond with what you wrote about a beautiful perfume: “It gives me a glimpse into another world.” I totally agree! July 7, 2017 at 9:56am Reply

    • Victoria: People when they smell paper blotter with concentration do look slightly weird, but well, that’s our world. 🙂 July 11, 2017 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Bela: Very simple: if I like it and want to wear, then it’s beautiful. If not, not. 🙂 July 7, 2017 at 9:57am Reply

  • Maria: I think the notion of “beautiful” in parfum is closer to the “beautiful” in applied arts, like architecture or design, than the “beautiful” as conceived in dance, music or cinema. Parfum, like houses or clothes, is used by someone. The wearer has to feel identified with it. Is this personal notion of identification that make us say a parfum is beautiful enough to put it on us. July 7, 2017 at 10:56am Reply

    • Maria: And I’m with you, I find Chanel 19 extremely beautiful, but I’m sure 10 years ago it wasn’t a parfum I could feel identified with 🙂 July 7, 2017 at 11:13am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s very important. July 12, 2017 at 11:02am Reply

  • Brenda: I do see the choice of a perfume – on any given day – as an artistic gesture. It is for me and I can remember being drawn to that notion as early as my teen years. It is, after all, an extension of our creative selves..and it says something to the world around us…no different than a sketch or painting we choose to create and, perhaps, share with others. July 7, 2017 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: How beautifully you put it! July 12, 2017 at 11:03am Reply

  • Carla: This is a wonderful photo of you and Roucel. Yes a beautiful perfume should make you dream or take you somewhere else like your Tubereuse Criminelle. Or a beautiful perfume should make you pause and forget everything else for a moment as you contemplate its complexity …like Roucel’s Iris Silver Mist does for me. Or a beautiful perfume should make you smile, like his Missoni. Or, it should just make you feel beautiful, like his 24 Faubourg. Ah, thank goodness for Roucel’s perfumes! July 7, 2017 at 2:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: His perfumes give me such a boost. He himself is such an upbeat, positive individual. July 12, 2017 at 11:04am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Beauty is in the nose of the sniffer. July 7, 2017 at 3:07pm Reply

    • AndreaR: Without a doubt:-) July 7, 2017 at 9:56pm Reply

  • Nina Leto Mayleas: A beautiful fragrance is one that reminds me of a color, happy events, walks in the woods, damp earth, oceans, salty air, the electricity of the pre-thunderstorm air, childhood gardens, puppy breath and anything else that gives me pleasure. My dad had a pair of garden shears in his car. When he drove by a lilac bush or sometimes a tree, he’d snag some blossoms since my mother adored them. We called him the lilac bandit! The scent of lilac in a fragrance is beautiful to me as was his aftershave scent of vetivert. And on and on. Great piece thank you! July 7, 2017 at 4:52pm Reply

    • Brenda: I enjoyed your lilac story – heartwarming. It’s prescious when a family can share such a kindness….& especially nice when it includes the outdoors. July 8, 2017 at 12:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Nina. Your story is so touching. July 12, 2017 at 11:11am Reply

  • john: My perspective is similar to some of those above… I objectively admire the complexity and craft of exceptionally well made things, but ‘beautiful’ relates very much to the sensations I experience (and the feelings they provoke) with a particular composition, and these are not reducible only to an apprehension of fine craft.

    There is also the ability of that composition to hold its own against other strong experiences. Recently, I received a bottle of Caron’s Third Man (3 eme Homme), which, for complicated reasons, was not something I was expecting to wear; I had just bought (and started adjusting to) Habit Rouge, a composition I certainly consider beautiful. 3eme Homme actually bothered me a little: there was something slightly grating about it that kept redirecting my attention, but the tenderness that followed on this impression was also remarkable. Today we walked to an old lighthouse in heat and high winds, and the smells of salt, warm rocks and sea sage were very strong. There is a linen-like spicy-syrupy quality in 3 eme Homme’s heart that corresponded with these naturally occurring notes in a very memorable way; I was reminded that one of the ways I tend to test a fragrance is to wear it on a walk (my first two encounters with Habit Rouge, now that I think about it, were in a big old bookstore, and on a dusty rural road in the early morning.) To extend this point a little further, I think it is very important to test these artificial things by comparing them with other forms of authentic experience rather than with other compositions; our own sense of ‘the natural’ is after all a most personal form of synthesis. July 8, 2017 at 2:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, of course, you’re right. Something that’s objectively well-done, original or innovative may not be the thing that moves you. For instance, I recognize the genius of Mozart, but he is not my favorite composer. That would be Bach, Ravel, Mussorgsky. It’s a matter of what touches you, what resonates with you. July 12, 2017 at 11:14am Reply

  • Le Critique de Parfum: Love your article. It always amazes me to see masters like Roucel getting recognition abroad while being virtually ignored in France.

    To stay on topic, a beautiful perfume is a scent that puts a smile on your face. Even if it’s creatively or technically mediocre, it can be beautiful to someone. Just like people, I guess. July 8, 2017 at 1:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Perhaps because he worked abroad for so long. That being said he has done much work in France promoting the art of perfumery and the métier of a perfumer. July 12, 2017 at 11:15am Reply

  • spe: It’s enjoyable to read the comments here. Referencing some of the qualities Gretchen mentioned, for me a beautiful perfume feels both like 1) being “home”. Familiar, comfortable, loving, and 2) soaring into the heavens. Optimistic, confident, toward the future.

    There are many beautiful perfumes that, to my nose, that don’t have balance. Like Angel, for instance. Or Bandit. Other beautiful perfumes aren’t harmonious – like Rive Gauche or even Shalimar. I’d propose that imbalance and discordance are what make them all beautiful and memorable.

    Two small questions for Victoria. I notice when No. 19 is mentioned in your writing for this publication, if I remember correctly, the edp formulation is usually specified. Did Henri Robert create the edp? Also, the edp can be difficult to find whereas the EDT is the more commonly available formulation. I’m wondering if you are meaning to place emphasis on the edp.

    Lovely article and photo. Thank you. July 8, 2017 at 7:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: So many fascinating and thought-provoking comments in this thread. Thank you very much!

      As for the concentration of No 19, these days I’m between the EDT for the green sparkle and the parfum for richness. As for the article itself, the choice of the concentration is up to the FT editors, since they know what’s available in the UK market better than I do. The EDP is also excellent. July 9, 2017 at 9:06am Reply

      • spe: Thank you for the explanation – I like the EDP as well. Grounded yet with an other-worldly quality.

        Msr. Roucel is quite fetching in the photo – and you are stunning. July 9, 2017 at 3:04pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much. 🙂 July 12, 2017 at 11:15am Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    Like many perfumistas, I have a versatile taste and wear many scents from heavy orientals to the whispering calligraphy of Jean-Claude Ellena’s perfumes.
    My definition is : a beautiful perfume was created with love and utmost care thus containing a part of the perfumer’s soul. It takes your breath away when you experience it. July 9, 2017 at 7:00am Reply

    • Victoria: A beautiful definition! July 12, 2017 at 11:16am Reply

  • Aurora: So interesting Victoria, you go from strength to strength in your articles. i absolutely agree about the ‘jolt’ needed in perfumes to make them truly beautiful, I would also call it an element of surprise. I think of Ma Griffe for example with its green flower accent which resembles nothing from nature, or a perfume which I explored recently (after our class) vintage Diorella with its earthy fruitiness so distinctive. Or the mineral drydown of Eau de Rochas, so unique. What I learn also from the articles is that like in the other arts knowledge is passed from perfumers to the next generation so that the past is preserved in a way. Thank you so much for having shared your conversation. July 9, 2017 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! Whenever I smell Ma Griffe and feel that green accent coming up, I feel that it’s one perfectly named perfume–“my signature,” “my claw.” July 12, 2017 at 11:18am Reply

  • limegreen: Thank you, Victoria, for this essay on one of my favorite noses! I am always stunned at the diversity of his fragrances. He is an artist that shapeshifts and reinvents himself from fragrance to fragrance.

    A beautiful fragrance is one that can revisit time and again and still make one marvel or swoon as if for the first time. It can be memory induced, can be linear or multi-layered. July 9, 2017 at 12:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it. Yes, I can’t agree more about Roucel’s diversity. He keeps challenging himself, and that’s why he continues to develop as an artist. July 12, 2017 at 11:19am Reply

      • limegreen: Total nerd question –I love the photo of the two of you sniffing a blotter. What were you testing?! 🙂 July 12, 2017 at 11:54am Reply

        • Victoria: You know, I was trying to recall, but I don’t remember. It must have been a raw material sample, as we were at the World Perfumer Congress. Or else, it was Patricia Nicolai’s presentation on the vintages. Then it would explain our concentration. July 17, 2017 at 1:20pm Reply

          • limegreen: So cool! Thanks! July 17, 2017 at 1:58pm Reply

  • Cathy: Victoria, I have just discovered Roucel’s glorious L de Lolita Lempicka in a miniature but am dismayed to find nobody has it in stock.
    There is some confusion as to whether it has been discontinued, which would be a crime. Can you help?
    Cathy July 16, 2017 at 10:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Unfortunately, yes, it’s been discontinued. I’m so disappointed. July 17, 2017 at 2:17pm Reply

  • Cathy: Thanks Victoria, I raced off and snapped up a bottle on eBay. Roucel’s perfumes are so often love at first sniff for me, even those With notes I don!t normally like. Smell is so instinctive and
    He has the knack of composing perfumes that light up my brain and transport me utterly.
    Instant bliss. July 18, 2017 at 11:06am Reply

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