VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

In Conversation | Thought Leaders and Iconoclasts

The Smell of Money and Marie Antoinette: How Francis Kurkdjian Designs Things You Can’t Smell




Francis Kurkdjian never dreamed of inventing fragrances. His dream was to be a dancer, but luck was not on his side. As they say: when one door closes, another opens, and standing at that door was Marie Antoinette.


Well, not really, but almost.


We’ll get to that later. Before the Queen of France showed up, Francis had discovered the magic of fragrance and how it can bring to life a couturier’s vision through scent. Schiaparelli’s Shocking. Saint Laurent’s Opium.


He attended the prestigious ISIPCA, the leading school for perfume and cosmetics, and not long after, created one of the most successful fragrances of all time: Le Mâle by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Suddenly he was 32 and receiving the François Coty Award — for a collective body of work.


Francis wasted little time and launched his own atelier for “custom fragrances,” concocting fragrances for such clients as Catherine Deneuve, for whom he created a scent called Lumiere Noire.


But Francis yearned for other ways to express his passion for fragrance. He wanted fragrance to be a performance, a spectacle for the senses that went beyond the traditional boundaries of the commercial juice industry.


In 2005, he set about to recreated the perfume of Marie Antoinette, drawn from the ancient scribbles of the Queen’s own perfumer. He meditated on her life in Marie Antoinette’s private chambers at Versailles. At launch, the fragrance sold for $900 a flacon.


Today, with Maison Francis Kurkdjian, he continues his sometimes eccentric but always mesmerizing fragrance designs, going so far as to create everything from fragrance “wardrobes” to full-scale art installations built around ephemeral scents, like – money. For Francis, the boundaries of scent are only limited by imagination.



BERTRAND PELLEGRIN: Your approach to creating fragrance is very three-dimensional and passionate. What is your starting point when making a scent?


FRANCIS KURKDJIAN: When I create a perfume, anything can inspire me as long as it becomes the beginning of a story that I can translate into a fragrance. A fragrance is a story that is strong enough to convey emotions.


My inspiration is not driven by raw materials. I first focus on a general feeling. Then I try to envision the final image for the fragrance. I first must dream of the fragrance, only then can I start writing the formula. How can you create something if you don’t know what you want to say? Painter uses colors, musician notes, as a perfumer I use smell. The name of the fragrance always comes first. It sums up what I want to say with my perfume. It’s like the title of a book or the name of a painting. It gives me a guideline, a creative path to follow.


The scent that launched a career: in 1995 Francis developed Le Mâle by Jean-Paul Gaultier, one of the best-selling fragrances of all time.

BP: Every brand believes that they need a fragrance in order to communicate their identity. There are over a thousand new fragrances launched every year. Are we in danger of ruining the art, craft, and appreciation of fragrance?


FK: Everything can become a story, so every brand can have its own scent. However, if you want to make a real statement, be unique and different, your story has to be one of a kind.


Twenty years ago, you had fewer players in the industry and it was more Couture and Fashion oriented. Today you have fragrances endorsed by models, singers, actors and even celebrities. You have good and bad ones on each market. For a while, the niche brand market was synonymous of quality and uniqueness. I think this is almost over now. You have so many brands launching so many fragrances, with no legitimacy for some of them, no real creation in terms of fragrances. Some commercial fragrances are just amazing and have changed the market and influenced it. It’s like movies or music. Some blockbusters pieces are just very good, and some are not.

{{“You have so many brands launching so many fragrances, with no legitimacy for some of them, no real creation in terms of fragrances.”}}


BP: So what was your goal then in launching Maison Francis Kurkdjian?


FK: By launching my own house I wanted to share my vision on scents and luxury with the public. In my mind, there is a unique style in Paris that I have not seen anywhere else in the world. The fragrances are created and blended in France. What is also important for me is to create a fragrance collection that can be seen as an olfactory wardrobe. I want people able to choose everyday a specific fragrance according to their moods… For me, you don’t have to remain loyal to a perfume but to a perfumer and his universe. That’s why I have created a specific line called the fragrance wardrobe, a feminine and a masculine set of 8 different perfumes.




Maison Francis Kurkdjian products retail in over 150 points of sale. There are two free-standing stores in Paris.


BP: You’ve had such a keen interest in historical fragrances, ones that don’t even exist anymore, like Marie Antoinette’s. How did that fascination start?


FK: History is one of my passions since I was a child. It is also a great source of inspiration in life in general. It all began in 2003 when I met the historian, Elisabeth de Feydeau. She was writing a biography about one of Marie Antoinette’s perfumers, Jean Louis Fargeon. I have recreated the scent of the queen from original formulas. The Queen of France had an inimitable style and liked large floral scents.


I knew quite a lot about Versailles when I worked on recreating the Queen’s scent. The perfume school I attended is based in Versailles and the gardens were a great place to study. This project gave me an incredible opportunity to spend a lot of time in her private apartments in Versailles and to get to know the Queen in a more intimate way.

Francis had a particular obsession with replicating a fragrance worn by Marie Antoinette. Sillage de la Reine featured amber essence of jasmine, orange blossom, tuberose, iris, cedar and sandalwood. It retailed for $900 — or $11,000 for this one in a Baccarat bottle.

BP: Talk to me about these multi-sensory installations or performances that you do. Is this the future of the fragrance experience?


FK: Perfume in a bottle, the way we know it, is not an art form in my mind. It’s craftsmanship but not art. The future of the perfumer for the sake of the art is truly outside of the perfume bottle. This is why I started thinking about olfactive installations. Each olfactory installation is the opportunity to engage a dialogue between the public and a place by using smell as an emotional medium.


I have worked with French artist Yann Toma and created a drinkable scented water for an art exhibit in the South of France. I also created the fragrance The Smell of Money for French artist Sophie Calle, as well as olfactory installations for the Castle of Versailles, the Grand Palais, scented couture and fashion shows, and so on.

Right now I am exhibiting an olfactive installation called Stratus 2015 in Milano for the 2015 Universal Exhibition 2015, with the fragrance dispersed in sort of clouds or a fog. I was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.


{{“The future of the perfumer for the sake of the art is truly outside of the perfume bottle.”}}


At top, the latest creation from Maison Francis Kurkdjian, OUD satin Mood. At bottom, a fragrance “wardrobe” featuring eight scents meant to be worn according to mood.

BP: From da Vinci to textiles. Your newest scent, OUD Satin Mood, is continuation of your exploration of scents inspired by textiles and this time it is satin. Can a textile really have its own smell?


FK : With the OUD collection, It was my desire to express my reflections of the Orient as kind of fragrance « sensations » — feelings, texture, and yes, fabrics. These scents play on warmth, glamour, comfort and sensuality. OUD cashmere mood, for instance, slips on like a second skin. OUD velvet mood Is fluid and majestic and releases the scent of Ceylon cinnamon. OUD silk mood captures and celebrates the Bulgarian rose. My newest, OUD satin mood conveys the idea of flowing fabrics delicately draped over bare skin, with smooth notes of amber and vanilla.


BP: Wow… quite intense. You get so passionate when you talk about these scents! So tell me, if you were to create only one fragrance that is only yours and which conveys only the essence of you, what would it be composed of?


FK: You might be very surprise and disappointed, but I do not wear any fragrance any longer. It’s my very own way to be away from my work and feel free!

>> READ MORE. “Francis Kurkdjian and Fabien Ducher, Changing History in a Bottle,” The New York Times, 9/24/15.

>> Maison Francis Kurkdjian fragrances are available at Neiman Marcus, Net-a-Porter, and online at franciskurkdjian.com

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