The de Laire bases: sleeping beauties awaken

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The history of Fabriques de Laire uniquely embodies modern perfumery, mainly through its famous bases, products of the intuition, vision and inventiveness of the company’s founders and successive collaborators which built its reputation. In a bid to breathe new life into an olfactory heritage that dates back over 100 years, Symrise has for some years now been developing a collection of twelve new bases. These creations, fruit of the work of in-house perfumers, are part of the de Laire heritage while laying the groundwork for the perfumery of tomorrow.

During the second half of the 19th century, perfumers saw their palette expand with the arrival of synthetic aromatic molecules. This was a revolution for the industry and the beginning of the era of modern perfumery. In 1876, Fabriques de Laire, now owned by Symrise, began researching, producing and marketing these compounds. The story began when Georges de Laire alongside chemists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann identified and then synthesized a molecule that has since become an essential in perfumery: vanillin.

But it was Marie-Thérèse, married to the founder’s nephew, Edgar de Laire, who in 1891 had the brilliant idea of blending these synthetic molecules with natural raw materials to make pre-perfumes: the de Laire bases were born. Enveloped in these ingredients, synthetic compounds became easier to use by perfumers who could then recognise their full potential. Pascal Sillon, a perfumer at Symrise and driving force in the awakening of these sleeping beauties, explains: “It is thanks to Ambre 83 that de Laire was able to sell its vanillin at a time when perfumers were using 100% natural materials and, above all, essential oils.”

The modern era of perfumery

A few de Laire bases are still being sold in the early 21st century – bases that have spanned more than 100 years of modern perfumery and made a deep impression on the collective unconscious. Ambre 83, for instance, was created in the 1900s and is still bought by a handful of customers today. In 2010, perfumer Pascal Sillon began working on de Laire bases from Symrise as part of his MBA specializing in luxury brand marketing and international management. He wrote a thesis titled “De Laire – 1876 – Renaissance of an olfactory diamond.” It is thanks to him that these sleeping beauties are awakening once more. He is convinced that “a company built on mergers and acquisitions cannot turn its back on its historical and olfactory heritage; they are facets of its history, what forms it,” and that it should be proud of them. It took six years of hard work to persuade the in-house teams to recognize the advantages offered by reviving this legacy. The operation’s commercial benefits were not necessarily clear, and he got the impression that many perfumers felt that the bases were museum pieces. 

Little by little, he set up a “circle of vanished bases” and worked with other Symrise perfumers on ideas of how to put the bases back in the spotlight. They finally decided to create new pre-perfumes, for and by the perfumers. Their collaborative work focused primarily on their function, not for the market, nor for anyone else, but for them, the perfumers at Symrise: “To have fun and to tell inspiring stories,” as Pascal Sillon puts it. But also “to ensure that we have exclusive creations that cannot be copied by the competition,” insists senior perfumer Émilie Coppermann.

Collaborative work

The perfumers were gradually won over by the approach, without knowing exactly where they were headed. Then, in 2015, they were given carte blanche for a year. Symrise offered them the luxury of working on five new bases that would become part of their palette at the 2016 World Perfumery Congress (WPC) in Miami. The perfumers got to throw off the shackles and play! The group included David Apel, Nathalie Benareau, Evelyne Boulanger, Alexandra Carlin, Émilie Coppermann, Aliénor Massenet, Maurice Roucel and,  of course, Pascal Sillon. They met once a week, creating without any financial constraints and evaluating their trials themselves. “It was a real exchange,” says Pascal Sillon. The collaborative process was also very exciting for the teams. “It was magical to rediscover the old names, the old formulas from the beginning of the century. It was like putting a child in a toy shop; we were like children reading formulas!” laughs Émilie Coppermann.

The goal is to continue to promote the beauty of the alliance between natural and synthetic, to encourage a different use of the latest molecules discovered by the company and to play the exclusivity card. Pascal Sillon talked to master perfumer Maurice Roucel about reworking Ambre 83: “We started by asking ourselves what the new vanillin for the 21st century was.” He remembers the master perfumer’s unequivocal answer: ethyl maltol, a molecule with a gourmand praline-like flavor. This, in turn, provided the starting point for what was to become Ambre 84, giving the pre-perfume a more modern touch while ensuring that it remained true to its predecessor.

Perfumers Émilie Coppermann et David Apel

A new field of experimentation 

Senior perfumer Aliénor Massenet explains that she has enthusiastically adopted some of the new bases. A huge fan of Ambre 84, she went so far as to use a 10% dose in one of her creations, I am not a flower for Floraïku. Thanks to Miel Essentiel, the nuances of anisic aldehydes and the addictive creamy-coconut facet of Tonkalactone are accentuated, and the new base inspired Aliénor to propose a fresh interpretation of mimosa. When Spicatanate is smelled by itself, it suggests the scent of garlic. But in the Rouge Groseille base, it really spreads its wings, acting as a scent enhancer and elevating the red and fruity dimension of red berries and the tart facet of rhubarb, as illustrated by So Repetto.

Now twelve in number, these new bases – just like all the new raw materials incorporated into their palette – open up a new and exclusive field of experimentation to Symrise perfumers. But they also know that there is no miracle recipe when it comes to blending them, and that the success of their creations lies above all in their expertise in knowing how to dose them precisely and find original combinations.

Photos : © Symrise

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All perfume lovers know Legendary Perfumes. French Feminine Fragrances<\/em>, published in 1996. With this book, Fragrances of the World’s founder Michael Edwards was the first to give perfumers the opportunity to speak out in order to collect in detail and without detour the entire genesis of the great classics of perfumery.<\/p>

Twenty-three years later, he offers an expanded version with eight new legends (Fracas, Nahema, Féminité du bois, J’adore, Flower, Coco Mademoiselle, Timbuktu, Portrait of a Lady<\/em>), and enriched texts on 52 creations, gathering testimonies and quotes from perfumers, couturiers, artistic directors, designers....<\/p> ", "_my_chapo": "field_5e85d1d4b6b90" }, "mode": "preview" } /-->

Edwards describes himself more as a "word weaver" than as a writer, because most of the legends’ texts are the words of the creators. He continued his research and investigations through the archives of perfume houses and conducted some 200 interviews, in order to transcribe a history of perfumery as accurate as possible to reality, rid of its myths and legends, of formatted, distorted or sublimated speeches by certain journalists, biographers or unscrupulous press officers. The result is a living testimony to the history of perfumery, since, as the author points out, "in a world where perfumes are modified, sometimes destroyed, we have no museums that allow us to examine what happened". This is why he strives to reconstruct this past as closely as possible through the words of the creators themselves, by listening to them and "weaving" their words.

We met him in June in his Parisian apartment, in the Saint-Michel district, where he gave us a few glimpses of his new work through two emblematic creations by Chanel: the famous N°5, often covered in sometimes improbable legends, and Coco Mademoiselle, the feminine global best-seller which was initially intended to be only a small flanker... Interview.

How did Coco Chanel come up with the idea of creating a perfume? You say in your book that two versions coexist: it would be either her friend Misia Sert or the Grand Duke Prince Dmitri Pavlovitch who would have influenced her?

Misia Sert wrote that she gave Chanel the idea for a perfume in 1920, while reading aloud from a newspaper article. That may be true but but Mlle Chanel had already registered the name “Eau de Chanel”, in 1919. So clearly, there were always this premise that there might be a perfume. Was it because of Poiret or Coty, whose perfumes had become increasingly important? Probably.
However, the idea turned into reality when, during the summer of 1920, Chanel was invited to visit Parfums Rallet in La Bocca, near Cannes. There, she was introduced to perfumer Ernest Beaux.

At the beginning, Chanel was hostile to the idea of a fragrance: “I’m a couturier, not a perfumer, and I disapprove of everything perfumers do.” she said. How did her meeting with Ernest Beaux go?

Beaux rarely spoke publicly of his collaboration with Chanel. Once in a speech, he said that he had presented ten perfumes to Chanel which he had created between 1919 to 1920. The perfumes were ordered in two series : 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. She selected four of them, he said : 5, 20, 21 and 22.

At that time was it common to work like this? Were there any exchange between the perfumer and the client? Any reworks? Or just a selection?

Beaux said that he had already created all the perfumes he showed Chanel. His letters demonstrate that he had been working on N°5 for at least five years. He finished it, he said, in 1920, before he met Chanel.

There is no evidence that Coco Chanel told him to rework the formula, make it stronger or more expensive. To the contrary, Beaux would not have permitted to anyone to tell him what to do!

Finally a perfumer would work like a couturier? “You like it, you buy it!”

Exactly, but of course as clients work with perfumers and develop their confidence, the more likely they are to ask for modifications.

So when did this habit of asking for modifications start?

From the start, I assume. Jean Patou started to rework Joy (1930) with Henri Almeras, for example, telling him to “Make it stronger, make it stronger!”, but he would not have gone into perfumery technicalities such as “Make it more aldehydic…”.

Author Ludovic Bron said about N°5: “In the realm of perfumery, it was a sort of French Revolution.” What did he mean?

It was an abstract flower, an imagined floral in an era when perfumes copied nature. Yes, it became famous for its innovative use of aldehydes but Jacques Polge, Chanel’s perfumer, once told me that you can take the aldehydes out of N°5 and it would still remain N°5.

Beaux once said he put the aldehydes to make the richness of the flowers (the jasmine, the May rose, the ylang-ylang) explode.

There’s an old story that the high level of aldehydes in N°5 was the result of a mistake. when his assistent misinterpreted his instruction and did not dilute the aldehyes to a 10% level. It’s been repeated so often it’s assumed to be true but it makes no sense simply because Beaux used a cocktail of three aldehydes in N°5. One mistake, fine, but three ?

This is part of the legend, of the myth of N°5 ? Where does it come from?

From Mademoiselle Chanel, a tell-all biography published by the tabloid Paris Match and released several months after Chanel’s death. The book, riddled with factual errors, was written by Paris Match’s secretary general Pierre Galante, who never interviewed Chanel about her life story, but claimed to have amassed “hundreds of eyewitness accounts” in the few months it took him to pen the manuscript.

Ernest Beaux talks about his military service near Arctic Circle. How did his experience influence the creation of N°5?

Beaux wrote that he had been sent to spend a part of the Allies’ Russian campaign in a Murmansk above the Arctic Circle "at the time of the midnight sun when the lakes and rivers release a perfume of extreme freshness. I retained that note and replicated it." The scent of the water plants was fresh and sharp, full of aldehydes.

It has always been said that it was launched in 1921, but it could be 1922 after all?

Interesting isn’t it? The launch date of N°5 has long been recorded as 1921, but there is no firm evidence to support that claim. According to Yves Roubert, the original formulae were completed in March 1922. Constatin Weriguine, Beaux’s assistant, wrote that the original formulae were completed in March 1922. It is possible, then, that N° 5 was launched in 1922 rather than 1921, alongside six other perfumes of Chanel’s choosing.

Let's come now to Coco Mademoiselle, what prompted its birth?

Coco, the first major women’s perfume to be launched, in 1984, after the death of Coco Chanel, was in danger of being phased out of upscale department stores in the United States. Imagine the humiliation!

Flankers already existed but were not well perceived, more related to mass market?

True, but some had worked to revitalise the brand. The original Drakkar (1972) failed. But Drakkar noir, (1982) succeeded.

At that time, they were preparing the launch of Chance, that was supposed to be the big international launch?

Yes, and Coco Mademoiselle took over!

How did they came with the idea of chypre?

Jacques Polge, Chanel’s perfumer, has always admired Clinique Aromatics Elixir, a masterly chypre. But perfume moves on and patchouli replaced oakmoss as the core note in a chypre. Coco Mademoiselle was created to be the perfume Coco Chanel herself would have wear if she were turning twenty-one in the 21st century. Can you imagine Coco Chanel being a “floral-fruity” lady?

When you look back, what is a chypre? When do chypre come out? Historically, they tended to become important when women become assertive.
WW1: men died, women took over their role. Would they after the war retreat to the way it was before? No! So we saw Chypre de Coty, Mitsouko by Guerlain...
After WW2, a chypre renaissance: Bandit , Miss Dior, Femme de Rochas.
In the 1980’s, when women kick against the glass ceiling: Ysatis, Passion.

At the same time, woody orientals have become more and more important, such as Samsara (1989), but the explosion was Angel (1992). Polge clearly was aware of this influence.

They created a new trend of “neo-chypre”, also because patchouli oil could be fractionned at that time?

Yes, they had already done fractions of patchouli oil for Chance, making it cleaner, less musty, but it was used for the first time in Coco Mademoiselle.

And because it was a flanker, in many ways it was a pure recreation. All the attention was on Chance, so Polge could largely do what he wanted.

In Chance, it seems that this patchouli is used in a lighter way, it’s more facetted? But in Coco Mademoiselle, it’s more direct?

Yes, Chance is more playful, Coco Mademoiselle is more single minded, but the top notes are also very important, they give freshness and lift, which are key for the US market.

And finally Coco Mademoiselle has been an immediate success?

Yes, first in the US first, and then in the world. Today, it has overtaken N°5 to become the best selling perfume in the world.

Interview conducted on the 24th June 2019

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Firmenich is 125 years old this year. How are you celebrating the anniversary?

Unfortunately, given the current pandemic, we can’t invite all our staff to celebrate this milestone in our company’s history. To commemorate this important date, we have organised a virtual convention with our teams all over the world.

Patrick Firmenich
President of the Board of Directors

How did the company begin?

Firmenich was initially a start-up founded by two associates, Philippe Chuit, a brilliant scientist, and Martin Naef, a talented businessman. The story unfolded in Geneva in 1895, in the neighbourhood of La Servette, where the two men decided to rent the garage of a certain Charles Firmenich in order to develop revolutionary molecules that would go on to seduce their first client, the perfumer François Coty. Charles Firmenich had a daughter named Thérèse. She had noticed one of the handsome young men, Philippe Chuit, as he came and went, and a romance was born... She urged her brothers Fred and Hugo to join the company; later, they took it over [and, in 1934, Chuit, Naef & Co. became Firmenich & Cie].

Did you always want to work for the company?

No, initially I didn’t want to join the family business... But after two years working at Credit Suisse First Boston in New York and getting an MBA from INSEAD, my father suggested I interview there. The company culture, as well as the men and women behind it, appealed to me. I first joined Firmenich in Paris as a sales representative, mentored by Michel Missoffe. Firmenich is a family legacy and I am extremely proud to have been a part of it since 1990.

1895, the founders Martin Naef, Philippe Chuit, Fred Firmenich

Genealogy of the Firmenich family

1st generation:
1900: Fred Firmenich joined the company created by Chuit and Naef in 1895 as a salesman.
1916: His brother Hugo joined him as sales manager.
2nd generation:
1931: Roger and André, Fred Firmenich's sons, joined the company.
1939: Georges joined Firmenich.
1944: All members of the 2nd generation (Roger, André, Georges, Robert, Albert) worked in the company.
3rd generation:
1969: Fred-Henri joined Firmenich and became Chief Executive Officer in 1973, until 1989.
1989: His brother Pierre-Yves succeeded him as the CEO until 2002.
Fred-Henri, Pierre-Yves, Charles, Michel, Bernard, Philip were thus active at Firmenich.
4th generation:
André, Yasmine, Julien, Antoine, Johan and Guillaume, as well as Patrick join the company.
2002 to 2014: Patrick took over as Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors in 2014, then Chairman in 2016.
2014: Gilbert Ghostine took office as the first non-family CEO.

What’s your most beautiful memory?

There are so many after 30 years with the company! My first major victory, CK One, holds a special place in my heart. Launched in 1994 as a unisex fragrance initially intended for the US market, it sold 15 million bottles worldwide in 1996 alone. Our production team couldn’t handle the demand; we were selling the equivalent of several Olympic-size pools of CK One every week! It’s funny to think that today, a quarter of a century later, it’s still a best-seller. It’s truly a testament to the timeless creativity of our two master perfumers, Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont.

How has the company changed since you arrived?

Throughout its 125 years, Firmenich has reinvented itself. The company has remained faithful to its entrepreneurial spirit and to its heritage as a responsible firm by achieving genuine break throughs in the areas of innovation and research. Just to give you an example, when I was CEO, between 2002 and 2014, we set up an ambitious sustainable develop- ment strategy to position our company at the forefront of issues such as health, security and the environment. One of my first decisions was to create a compliance division to supervise efforts aimed at making Firmenich safer, greener, more transparent and more responsible to our stakeholders. I named a head of sustainable development, in charge of building the company’s strategy on these issues, and he produced our first report in 2006, well before many publicly listed companies. We launched the Green Gate process in 2010 to ensure that all our new fragrance molecules would be biodegradable.

The Firmenich Museum in Geneva opened five years ago. What does
it showcase?

We inaugurated it in November 2015 for our 120th anniversary. The museum pays tribute to our company’s tradition of excellence in the fields of science and innovation, which drive our growth. From the 1939 Nobel Prize [in Chemistry, awarded to Leopold Ruzicka] to our original copper stills and a unique collection of antique perfume bottles – including a pearl necklace in which each pearl contains a perfume – everything is exhibited in cabinets and on desks that belonged to my family.

What is your most fervent dream for the 150th anniversary of Firmenich, 25 years from now?

Over the next 25 years, our ambition is to become the indisputable reference regarding social and environmental responsibility, in responding to the climate emergency and to remain the most creative company in our industry. We believe we can reconcile these goals while continuing to satisfy the demands of consumers for ethical, traceable products. Creating positive emotions while respecting society and the planet is part of the very genesis of our firm. These are the values that have enabled us to exist for the past 125 years.

Firmenich in 5 dates

Leopold Ruzicka, who determined the structure of muscone for Firmenich, receives the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on terpenes.
A system of employee stock options is set up.
The company becomes a signatory to the International Chamber of Commerce’s first Business Charter for Sustainable Development, one year before the Rio Summit declares sustainability a major global issue.
Appointment of the first CEO outside the Firmenich family, Gilbert Ghostine.
Firmenich achieves its goal of using 100% renewable electricity and acquires DRT, a world leader in plant-based chemistry.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Leopold Ruzicka
Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Leopold Ruzicka
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