PARIS — Just steps away from Paris’ last working vineyard, there is a new liquid being vinted under the hill of Montmartre.
Perfumer Sebastien Plan recently opened Abstraction Paris, an atelier for an exclusive series of scents by that name, which are matured in a cellar, inspired by winemaking traditions.
Plan trained at natural fragrance and flavors supplier Robertet, and held positions at Cosmo Fragrances International and L’Oréal, where he spent time sourcing ingredients such as jasmine. There, Plan noted the harvest varied depending on year, producer and terrain — important aspects for wine. However the large fragrance companies generally select the plants making the most uniform blends that remain consistent over time.
“I thought to myself, ‘What a pity,’ because in the wine industry the fact that the grape, the soil, the year and the sun are factors that make the tastes variable is a strength,” he said. “And in perfumery, we hide those differences. I was convinced that those differences could also be a strength.”
Like many a fragrance story in France, his begins in Grasse, where Plan and four fledgling perfumers became friends. They went on to pursue careers at various suppliers — Alexander Lee at Mane, Alexandra Carlin at Symrise, and Amelie Jacquin and Mylène Alran at Givaudan — but remained close through the years.
A decade-and-a-half later, in Paris, Plan invited his friends for dinner and asked if each would create a fragrance duo. The only direction given was the brand name — Abstraction — and his definition of the word: that one can become so caught up in a moment that everything else disappears.
Plan put complete trust in the perfumers to interpret the Abstraction concept. “Because I’ve known them for 15 years, I knew very well that they knew how to create a perfume, and I really wanted their versions of the idea of the brand. I didn’t want to put my nose into it,” he said.
Plan actually didn’t, and only got a first whiff of the scents the week they were set to debut in May.
The result was 10 creations, a series of five eau de parfum duos with evocative names, such as Our Own Backyard, Accidental Maybe, Here We Belong, Mirror-Mirror and Plan’s own Slow Burn Desire.
Arlan’s Mirror-Mirror is meant to invoke the feeling of self-discovery and reflection. One of the scents in the pair has top notes of bergamot and lemon, heart notes of neroli and orange blossom, on a base of vetiver and coconut notes. Its sibling scent has a top note of cardamom, a heart note of cedarwood and patchouli, with a base note of myrrh.
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Plan’s Slow Burn Desire includes one scent with light top notes of rose and peach, a heart of saffron and base notes of cedar. His paired scent has top notes of nutmeg and cumin, heart of ylang-ylang and jasmine, and a base note of amber.
He has a unique fragrance-making process, buying ingredients directly from suppliers, including Robertet, Firmenich and Symrise, then blending the scents by hand in his atelier. Some of the juices are kept for this year’s mix, and he ages the rest.
Plan experimented with the process for three years, using both natural aging as well as heated techniques to simulate different time frames. While he intends to test out wood barrels and other materials in the future, for now the scents are stored in glass bottles.
Before releasing the fragrances, he had 100 nonindustry experts try them out.
“I didn’t want to launch a brand on marketing concepts and saying, ‘Well it’s older, so it’s better,’” said Plan. “I wanted to be sure that people who are not trained are able to smell the difference between the different years.”
The results? More than 80 percent could sense the difference between the vintages, and 40 percent preferred the aged scent.
“The links between all the raw materials move over time. Some characteristics pop out after a while, and then the year after that they recede and another facet will bloom,” Plan explained. “It’s just like wine.”
Plan compares this to revisiting one winery year after year, a process he undertook as part of his research. “When you take the same wine from the same property, even if it’s the same [farmer] and the same grape, it’s a different year and the sun and the water were not the same,” he said. “You will have differences in taste.”
Plan believes macerating perfume in such a fashion has never been done before. “I wanted to propose something new,” he said.
Altogether, only 1,000 bottles of each fragrance will be made each year. Plan chose for Abstraction’s flacons an antique bottle literally taken off a shelf while touring French glassmaker Waltersperger’s archives.
“I really liked the idea of giving a new life to this bottle, even though I have absolutely no idea of the brand or perfume that it was used for,” said Plan.
He made a rudimentary sketch of the swirling cap, which took a year to develop “exactly like I imagined it.” Customers can choose between blue, pink, white or green versions.
A vertical label and wax seal are applied by hand, before being placed in a sustainably made, water-based ink printed box and atop a bed sewn from excess textiles sourced from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Everything is made in France to reduce Abstraction’s environmental impact.
Each 100-ml. bottle retails for 220 euros, and refills go for 180 euros. A discovery box of 10, 3-ml. samples of scents sells for 50 euros.
Starting in September 2023, new “vintages” of the 10 fragrances will be released annually, so in the future someone might say: “I’d like Slow Burn Desire from 2024.”
Abstraction fragrances are available online, at abstractionparis.com and in Plan’s atelier, which soft-opened in May in Montmartre. It’s being discovered by passersby — both locals and tourists.
“I really want to build on the customer experience, and put a priority on people,” he said.