Francis Kurkdjian: A Perfumer’s Uncommon Path

The celebrated French perfumer shared what led him to explore unexpected ways to capitalize on his creativity.

Francis Kurkdjian

Celebrated French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian shared how his initial reality shock with the fragrance industry led him to explore unexpected ways to capitalize on his creativity.

This story first appeared in the May 24, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“The beginning of my career became also the end of my dream,” said Kurkdjian, who created his first scent, the best-selling Le Male by John Paul Gaultier as a 25-year-old junior perfumer at Quest International, now owned by Givaudan. “I discovered that the perfumer has no interaction at all with the other creators of the product.”

As he continued to develop scents for a number of fashion, beauty and luxury brands, Kurkdjian said the lack of communication between creatives and marketers continued to unsettle him.

“I wanted to look to see what the bottle would look like,” he said. “I wanted to be in the loop of what the name will be. I was in need of working closer to other creative forces.”

Increasingly feeling like “a nose for hire,” Kurkdjian began seeking outlets for his talent. “I had the feeling there was a new path to open,” he said. “There were other ways to be a perfumer. The final product didn’t have to be necessarily captured in a bottle.”

To that end, in 2003, Kurkdjian began taking on a series of commissioned fragrance-based artistic projects, including imagining the scent of money for artist Sophie Calle, and interpreting a strawberry dessert for the Plaza Athénée in Paris. In 2006, he began conceiving large-scale scent installations, including a rooftop scented bubble exhibit in Shanghai during the World Expo Fair, a recreation of a fragrance worn by Marie Antoinette, used to scent the fountains in the gardens of Versailles, and a scented candle display for the oldest orphanage in Florence.

“I found out I was able to bring emotions to people in a different way,” said Kurkdjian. “Each olfactory installation I do is the opportunity to engage a dialogue between public and the place by using smell as the emotional medium.”

Eventually in 2009, Kurkdjian, along with cofounder and chief executive officer Marc Chaya, founded his fragrance business, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, meant to fulfill Kurkdjian’s vision of 360-degree fragrance creation. “I [create] my own work with my own imagination as a limit and no time frame, no price limit,” he said of his business, which he compared to a couture fashion house. “The collection is built as a fragrance wardrobe and my house is dedicated to great joy.”

Kurkdjian concluded with some advice for the fragrance industry, including the importance of sharing more about the fragrance creation process with consumers and cautioning brands on too many launches. Kurkdjian also discussed the importance of historically focused education and training — especially for younger perfumers coming into the industry — to avoid rote creation. “A perfumer is not a nose, the same way a dancer is not a body and a painter a pair of eyes or a pair of hands,” he said, underscoring his main point. “I love the intelligence of the hand. It is moving to watch the transformation of material under the guidance of a creative mind.”