Words by Hannah Tapping
The world of Alienor Massenet – perfumer of The Favourite for Penhaligon’s, the renowned British perfume house with a Cornish beginning.
It was the late 1860s, and a Cornish barber, born in Philby, Penzance by the name of William Penhaligon, travelled to London with his wife and children. His founding principles were to create products of the highest quality, combined with a sense of elegance, and he took influence from Picadilly’s Turkish Baths to create his first fragrance, ‘Hamman Bouquet’, in 1872. He opened a shop in the same year at the back of Picadilly, on Jermyn Street, next to the city’s finest tailors and the Turkish Bath Houses that had so inspired him. He went on to become Court Barber and Perfumer to Queen Victoria.
The original 1870s bottle design and iconic bows are still used today, as are William’s recipe books, consulted by Penhaligon’s perfumers for inspiration and authenticity. A century and a half on, and in celebration of an illustrious history, Penhaligon’s has created a new fragrance, ‘The Favourite’. In conversation with Alienor, she reveals the mystery, creativity and abstraction that surround the world of fine fragrance, and her inspiration for creating The Favourite.
Was being a perfumer something you always knew you wanted to be?
The world of perfumery is an abstract one, and one that has always fascinated me. I found out about the profession from a friend of my mother but at the time, dared not even think about becoming a part of it. I began a laboratory internship at the Swiss fragrance company, Firmenich, when I was 16 years old and by the age of 17, the age when people are beginning to wonder about their career choice, I decided to become a perfumer.
Why did you choose to be a perfumer?
I need to be able to feel and it is important for me to express those feelings through a perfume, a smell. When an emotion comes to me after an event or a trip for example, I like to be able to translate it into a smell to immortalise the moment. I compose a perfume as some might write or others play music. Creating a perfume is essential not only for me and for my own my feelings, but also for the feelings of others. Knowing that my creations bring happiness and a sense of wellbeing fills me with joy. Sometimes, I even receive messages of thanks – it’s magical.
How and when did you train to be a perfumer?
Unlike many perfumers, I didn’t train at a perfume school. I learned in the field from some big names. I started at 19 at Cinquième Sens with Monique Schlinger, then with Bertrand Duchaufour. Subsequently, I joined the IFF New York perfumer team as a junior: I was trained by Sophia Grojsman, Carlos Benaim and Pierre Wargny who all taught me a lot, it was amazing. I was really lucky to have had that chance.
Do you have you a particular style or approach to creating fragrances?
I do indeed have a particular style. Most of the time I sign my perfumes with Myrrh or Labdanum [a gum resin obtained from the twigs of a southern European rock rose]. I like to play with green notes and create contrast in my perfumes. When I start to develop a perfume, I think in three dimensions, in the same way as one would the construction of a building. I work a little like the painter, Monet: I have themes that I develop in different ways. For example, I created several perfumes around the theme of amber, which subsequently gave ‘Clandestine Clara’ by Penhaligon’s, ‘Intuition For Man’ by Estée Lauder, and ‘Night’ by Emporio Armani.
Where do you seek and find inspiration for your perfumes? And once inspired, what is your creative process?
Inspiration can be found everywhere; watching a ballet, painting, hearing people’s discussions, reading a book, observing a landscape... I don’t really have a process, because each creation is so different, each has its own story. When I create, I’m very spontaneous; I work a lot with my instincts rather than trends because I prefer to work ‘outside the box’. The fragrance will therefore differ depending on how I feel about its history.
Do you work from a brief? How much latitude are you given in each fragrance’s creation?
Most of the time we have a brief to follow. Our creative freedom differs according to the briefs and by brands. For Penhaligon’s The Favourite, the marketing team explained its concept to me and I had to interpret it in my own way. I love this way of working because I can bring my own creativity to the perfume.
Which comes first in developing a perfume… the sense of location, of place, or an idea?
To answer that question, I’m going to talk about The Favourite again. Firstly, I read a lot of articles about the Duchess of Marlborough and imagined myself being in her castle at Blenheim Palace. I watched the 2019 film The Favourite by Yargos Lunhimos, which also inspired me a great deal. So, I set out on a creation around mimosa and Iris because these flowers symbolize magnificence and elegance. They also have a powdery note that refers to the favourite cosmetics of the time.
Can you tell me a little about the science of how a perfume is made?
To make a perfume, we combine natural raw materials and synthetic ingredients. In order to know the correct dosage of each ingredient you need to know how long each smell will last. For example, for the absolute of mimosa, or the concrete of Iris, we will put less in the formula because these materials last for four hours. On the other hand, a mandarin essence lasts only up to an hour and a half, and so we can add more of this. There is a real technical side to the raw ingredients, and natural or synthetic, they still act as living materials.
Which fragrance do you wish you had created?
I would have liked to create ‘Shalimar de Guerlain, Angel’ by Thierry Mugler, ‘Treasure’ by Lancôme, and ‘CK one’ by Calvin Klein.
Is there a special vocabulary for perfumes?
Some words are indeed specific to the perfume industry, but most are also found in the lexicon of art and especially music. We talk about a ‘perfume organ’, ‘head, heart and bottom notes’, ‘the composition’ of a perfume, and its ‘chords’.
How do you create the various ‘notes’ of a perfume?
It’s just an intuition, a taste.
Do you remember the first fragrance you created?
Yes, my first perfume was a candle that I created myself to sell rather than earn money from babysitting! My first professional success was Estée Lauder’s ‘Intuition for Men’.
Do you have any favourite smells or perfumes?
Labdanum and Myrrh: I use them in each of my creations, with different doses. For me, these materials give a perfume a touch of spirituality as well as a sensuality. I also like the smell of vanilla as it reminds me of my childhood and brings me comfort. I love discovering new raw materials: right now I’m having fun interpreting the absolute Fucus [seaweed].
When not working, what do you enjoy?
I love cooking, practising yoga and being surrounded by my children, nieces and nephews. I love enjoying life!