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Puig’s Habit-Forming Fragrances

Senior perfumer Elisabeth Vidal uses the powers of scent to stir sales.

Elisabeth Vidal sees her job as creating addiction.

As senior perfumer of prestige fragrances at Puig’s Perfumery Center, she is in charge of developing scents for Paco Rabanne, Nina Ricci, Carolina Herrera, Prada, Valentino and Comme des Garçons. For each one, she is after that elusive combination that will provoke desire.

People seek out and accept smells they find very addictive linked to certain moments in their lives that elicit an emotional response, and this regressive and addictive aspect to perfume is very important,” said Vidal, sitting in an office in Puig’s year-old headquarters on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Hitting the right note between a creative and a commercial concept is a delicate exercise for Puig’s three in-house perfumers, who must work in what Vidal described as a “creative triangle” with marketing teams and external perfumers.

Besides Vidal, there is Gregorio Sola, who is in charge of beauty brands including Shakira, Antonio Banderas, Mango and Benetton, and Camilla Latron, who works with both Vidal and Sola. Four evaluators and a laboratory operator round out the Perfumery Center team, spread between Barcelona and Paris. 

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Once the marketing team has defined a concept, it goes to outside partners in a consultation process that generally lasts six to eight months. At this stage, having in-house perfumers is particularly useful, said Vidal, explaining that they serve as go-betweens for marketers and perfumers who submit their interpretation of the brief.

“We can translate marketing feedback in a language more suited to perfumers,” she explained.

“What I like is when you see the response of several perfumers to the same brief, because sometimes they are completely different,” added Vidal. “Working on several ideas at once shows you where to take the project and helps you stay creative.”

It helps that she has known many of the perfumers for decades. Now 47, Vidal met the likes of Aurélien Guichard and Olivier Cresp as a 25-year-old, when she was training in places such as Geneva and Grasse.

She originally studied chemistry, joining Puig through its cosmetics laboratory. Having expressed an interest in perfumery, she began training in the evenings to learn about the different raw materials, and was eventually charged with putting a quality control system in place in the perfumery division.

Over the next five years, she visited industry powerhouses like International Flavors & Fragrances, Givaudan and Firmenich to learn her trade.

Vidal has seen Puig evolve from a largely domestic player into a company with a global beauty vision — a process that has accelerated over the last 10 years.

“We started to work in a much more international way and to look more for trends that work globally,” she noted. “Having this increasingly international vision also allowed us to pick up much more on trends in the gourmand category.”

Vidal believes those notes, which burst onto the perfumery landscape with the 1992 launch of Thierry Mugler’s Angel, still have a thriving future.

“Perfume evolves much more slowly than fashion,” she said.

“We are working out how we could interpret gourmand notes in a different way. There are some interesting notes to be explored on the saltier side,” she added, citing the example of hazelnut and coffee.

Vidal believes that Puig’s strength comes in part from its high-quality standards and access to exclusive ingredients, with signature notes including rose, sandalwood, patchouli, lavender and citrus essential oils.

The other key to success is a willingness to take risks. She cited the example of Paco Rabanne’s best-selling men’s fragrance 1 Million, an oriental with a blond leather base.

“It was not obvious to use a note like that, which ended up being a huge commercial hit, so you must always take certain risks, otherwise you never innovate,” she said.

“The main thing is to seek addiction. That’s it. You have to find how to create that addiction. And it can be through gourmand notes, it can be through very narcotic notes like oud, incense or myrrh,” Vidal added.

“I think that is essentially what you have to look for, but it’s not easy. Perfume evolves very gradually and you have to approach the future step-by-step.”