AN INTERVIEW WITH PERFUMER NISRINE BOUAZZAOUI GRILLIE
In the lead up to Givaudan's atelier at Somerset House, we interview Map of the Heart Perfumer Nisrine Bouazzaoui Grillie to discuss Givaudan, ethical perfume and her personal history with scent.
How did you become a perfumer?
It was something that was in my blood. When I was younger my father and sister really influenced me and my relationship with perfume. They were always talking about fragrances, and smelling and describing them whilst trying to translate them into textures and taste. So, it was natural for me to smell people and start describing what I was smelling. I translated scent into emotions.
When I was a teenager I discovered that it was actually not normal to be like that, but it was still very instinctive for me. When I enter a room I don’t see first, I smell. Maybe it’s because my eyesight is very bad, so I’ve developed a very strong nose. When it came to choosing my degree, I decided to pursue something scientific and oriented my studies around engineering and chemistry. I like everything to be very organised and clear, so I applied this to my approach to studying and thought that if I studied chemistry, then it will be easier to move to fragrance and write fragrances with the techniques I learnt.
I undertook ten years of theatre, and I have always been a musician. I sing and play electric and bass guitar, so I felt that this would help feed my creative ideas and passion, and so I relied on chemistry for the technical ability. I went to an engineering school in France and during my studies, I was looking for an internship as a technician. I didn’t know anybody in fragrance, so I googled trainee technician positions and I found Givaudan. I applied for an entry position and they accepted me. I was very lucky because later I discovered it’s usually not as simple as that. After your studies you can apply and enter the Givaudan perfumery school which is a 4-year course. I immediately knew that I would finish studying, enter Givaudan, and eventually work here. Which is how it exactly worked out for me. I briefly interned at Christian Dior, which proved that I was really passionate about fragrances, and then when I joined Givaudan, I spent time waiting for an opening at the school by working as an evaluator with perfumers in charge of cosmetic briefs. After three years I was accepted into the perfumery school.
What was your experience at the school?
We begun by learning about 500 raw materials and how to make simple accords, such as flowers and fruits. Then we started creating formulas and re-creating famous fragrances (Chanel No.5, Dior Au Savage). I started working on more complex skeletons around the important fragrance families, like orientals or chypres, and then specialise in the analytical part of perfumery and understand how everything is mixed.
We went to the research centre for training in Switzerland where we met professors and doctors working to create new molecules which don’t currently exist. As a chemist, I felt that I was meeting the gods of perfume. In our final year, we presented a project of four fragrances, two fine fragrances and two consumer goods products. My project was about travelling and having a journey with me through fragrance.
In the 4th year, we are considered trainee perfumers, so we work with mentors who are senior perfumers in different categories. I did 6 months in fabric care, developing fragrances for liquid detergents and softeners which is very technical as everything goes through water. You have to find molecules which stick and are less soluble. I also trained in shampoo and shower gels before moving to fine fragrances. I knew that fine fragrances was the one for me as it was a way for me to truly express myself. I’m a very sensitive person and I like how perfumes in alcoholic form can express the emotions I want people to feel. It’s always been apart of my dream so working here still doesn’t feel real yet. I feel that it's the only place where I can express myself through daily work, and I hope it’s going to be like that for the rest of my career.
"I FEEL THAT I'M GOING DEEPER INTO SOMETHING, WHICH AT THE BEGINNING SEEMS SURPRISING, RICH AND INTERESTING. IN THE CENTRE, A SOFT BEAUTIFUL GEM, LIKE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE EARTH."
Do you feel that you have a specific style or personality which shows through all your projects? Do you rely on similar ingredients?
Not through ingredients, but associations. I like breaking the codes, so I make things which aren't so obvious. If I use something cold, I will automatically think of something warm because I like the connection between opposites. I enjoy creating something which disturbs people and makes them question what it is. Maybe it has something to do with my music playing. I would say I’m a rocker girl. But I was very shy as a child, and theatre and music is something which I needed to express myself, and a way to be heard. When I create fragrances, I always think about making the story different as a way to intrigue people. At Givaudan we have 2000 raw materials and and endless possibilities.
Givaudan have a resident atelier at Somerset House for the duration of ‘Perfume’,their current exhibition. You have been invited to host some workshops at the atelier. Can you discuss what this will entail?
Givaudan and Somerset have organised different rooms around fragrances, different ambience, which have each brought something new to the industry. It’ll be quite modern in that aspect. The fragrances will be described through textures, light and pictures within the rooms. I think that they’re doing something totally new so I’m very excited. Visitors will go through each room and at the end they’ll arrive at the Givaudan atelier, where myself and some colleagues will explain how to create fragrances. We have 7 simple formulas with real ingredients to use. We will discuss the differences in natural and synthetic materials and prepare some samples to show them how we compound, and how we smell and compare fragrances. I think the main component will be answering questions. My colleague, who has just returned from her workshop, told me that the visitors are very passionate about fragrance and have plenty of questions. It’s great for people who really love fragrances, not just wear it once a month, because they will find the stories behind the creators, brands and so on.
It’s a very interesting project because there doesn’t seem to be many exhibitions of this nature around.
Exactly. We’ve never done this before, but it’s the moment to do so because the public are so aware of everything and hungry for information. They want to know how we create everything. It in no way means that if you show people a formula then you’re losing your creativity, but we have the opportunity to share our processes.
Like you said, people are so hungry for that information, especially when it comes to ethical processes.
Yes. Givaudan have a very strong and open stand on that. What is also interesting about the atelier is that, in any case, the best part about fragrance is the emotion I feel from smelling something, and that it will always be different from yours. We can’t catch it, we can try to put it into words, but it’s invisible. Everybody has their own vocabulary and no one is wrong. I think that’s magical.
For the development of our latest fragrance, the Pink Heart v.6, you worked with Jacques (Huclier). Could you take us through the processes in developing the fragrance, but also how the Pink Heart makes you feel?
The project already had it’s final direction when I arrived. It was going to revolve around either narcissus, carnation or lily. We discussed between Jacques, Giovanna (Aicardi) and myself that the narcissus was an obvious choice as it had not been seen that much before. People often say that it’s too strong or earthy when you use the absolute alone, so we wanted a super beautiful narcissus. What I liked the most about the brief was knowing that the bottle would be pink, and this helped me create a fragrance with strong character. It’s similar to people who are hard on the outside but soft on the inside. For me, that’s how I interpreted it. I feel that I'm going deeper into something, which at the beginning seems surprising, rich and interesting. In the centre, a soft beautiful gem, like in the middle of the earth - something sparking. I think that’s how people smell it. I like how every part of the facets being you to the magnificent part of the narcissus.
"I ENJOY CREATING SOMETHING WHICH DISTURBS PEOPLE AND MAKES THEM QUESTION WHAT IT IS. MAYBE IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH MY MUSIC PLAYING. I WOULD SAY I’M A ROCKER GIRL."
There is an ongoing debate between natural versus synthetic ingredients? What are you options on the two?
I think that within the cosmetic industry, synthetics are perceived as negative. The main thing which people don’t know is that in naturals, you are entering many more risks for allergies. For example, when you peel an orange you have a huge quantity of allergens which can provoke very hazardous reactions. Same with essential oils. I see a lot of people putting them on their face, but they’re very dangerous.
With synthetics, once they’re approved by industry standards, they are validated as non-allergic, okay for the environment, and biodegradable. Synthetics also bring something new to what we can smell. It’s more realistic to use synthetics. Unfortunately, yes, because of the industry people strongly believe in bio-organic materials, but if you use those products on a baby it can provoke bad allergies. There’s a stigma and phobia around synthetics, but we try to explain and educate our customers that synthetics doesn’t translate to chemicals. Chemicals correlate with pollution and danger, but all the synthetics which are approved and go into our palette are mainly environmentally friendly.
I would say that a mixture of both is very important. I can’t make a fragrance solely with naturals or synthetics, because it will not be noble or qualitative. I have some synthetic materials which I am in love with because they bring something new and appeal to emotions which some naturals can’t do. All perfumers will tell you that we need both. With our research centre, we have a lot of opportunities to use ingredients which don’t exist in nature, and that’s really special. With those materials, they are exclusive to Givaudan and they can’t be found elsewhere, so it adds to the uniqueness of your fragrance.
And Givaudan have their headspace technology.
Yes. For example, if you go into the middle of a forest and find a flower but you don’t want to cut it and you can’t extract through distillation, we put an enclosed glass dome over which catches all the organic molecules and they stick to a non-soluble filter. We then dilute this and put it through a chromatography machine to analyse, which brings us all the molecules in this flower. This technology is used a lot. Also, if you take the flower and try to extract the fragrance, you’ll have nothing because the scent is in the air. It’s the association in the oxygen which brings the molecule to your nose. With headspace, you capture what you actually smell. With essential oils, such as rose, people will often say it doesn’t smell like rose because what you actually experience from a rose is it’s headspace. It’s not the molecules in the petals or leaves. Headspace is the closest accuracy for this.
In terms of technology and the accessibility of capturing other senses, olfaction feels very behind. Where do you think olfaction and technology are heading for the future?
I think that in fragrances, it would be best to bring it into an augmented reality more, not just as something which smells good. Having something which connects with yourself, maybe to make you feel relaxed, happy or in love. I think we still have a lot of work to do around that, but it could start by giving simple accords or chances to our customers to become the future of fragrances. I think a lot of people buy bases and make their own layerings, but the main part still required a lot of complex technology. I’m sure we can study all the vibrations which all fragrances can provoke, and then bring it to people through science by mixing molecules to create something different. An emotion in itself. A feeling. I'm sure research professors work a lot in this field because it's the future of making olfaction accessible. People want to be connected to themselves, and what is wonderful in fragrance is that when you smell something, it’s now, in the present. Today we are so overstimulated by the world, and we are too much dispersed and spread. We need to have a future which brings the outside in, something which helps us connect with ourselves.
Do you think that we will bridge the gap of accessibility and soon be able to go home and download software to make your own fragrance?
It’s very complex to create a fragrance but there needs to be a way to make it more simple for passionate people. Something which the public can touch and use, where you can make it your own and share it with others. It could become another way to express yourself and your personality.
Do you make any fragrances at home for yourself?
Yes I do! Normally I like to wear fragrances which I haven’t created so that way I don’t know how it’s made and I’m not looking for faults or changes. I wear a lot of the fragrances from projects I’m working on, so that I can see how it’s developing. Sometimes I wear stuff that I don’t like, but I have to wear them to understand. I always keep in mind that the goal is not whether I like it or dislike it. It’s about fitting the brief and whether I feel the emotions which we are trying to achieve.
At home I like to create fragrances for my husband because it’s easier to smell on someone else. When I wear them, I’m always focusing on the balance and smelling the formula, not in it’s totality. I know how I wrote the formula, so it’s not objective. During Summer I wear a lot of white flowers, but I’m also trying to make them more masculine. I love wearing fragrances for men because I believe that fragrance is genderless.
Photography by Map of the Heart
Interview by Jodie Hill