Perfume may be art, but it’s also big business—the epicenter of which is in Grasse, France. Nestled on a hill, just off the coast on the French Riviera, Grasse is home to a little more than 50,000 people and one thriving fragrance industry. Perfumery has been a mainstay of the local economy for more than a century, but the city’s perfume history dates back many centuries. Some 60 perfume companies call Grasse home, directly or indirectly employing nearly 15,000 people and generating more than 600 million euros in revenue each year. The city’s rolls read like a “Who’s Who” of perfumery: Not only do many of today’s most successful working perfumers hail from Grasse, but they’re also just the latest progeny in a long line of perfumer ancestors before them. In Grasse, perfume is often a family business.
It’s no surprise, then, that Michel Almairac, the artist behind L’Artisan Parfumeur Voleur de Roses (featured in our April 2013 collection), calls Grasse his home. After more than 40 years in the business, Almairac can claim the title of “master” by nearly any definition. He began studying perfumery in 1972 at the Roure School and, since that time, has generated a jaw-dropping string of commercial hits for big global brands such as Burberry, Gucci, and Escada. From his base in Grasse—where he is now employed by fragrance and flavoring manufacturer Robertet—Almairac has authored more than 70 perfumes over his career.
Among perfumistas, Almairac is best known for the way he demonstrates technical skill with a restrained hand. In Voleur de Roses, for example—principally a rose and patchouli scent—neither the rose nor the patchouli ever fully overtakes the composition. But nor do they exist in simple harmony; instead, Almairac’s creation becomes something entirely distinct from the sum of its parts. Both rose and patchouli take on a different character in one another’s presence.
“The purpose of a fragrance appears when all the raw materials balance each other out,” Almairac told Olfactif. “I work with short formulas in which each material has to exist in the fragrance without suffocating or being suffocated by another material.”
Niche fanatics, whose palates crave the unusual, often cite hidden gems like Paloma Picasso Minotaure and Voleur de Roses as Almairac favorites. But given his reputation for commercial success—think Gucci Rush, Chloé, and yes, even Dior Fahrenheit—is it any surprise that major brands seek out his talent year after year?
In reality, many of the world’s most respected perfumers aren’t independent artists but are, in effect, hired guns. In much the way that a writer might pen a novel while working as a copywriter, most of the biggest names in the perfume world sometimes answer to a boss. In the case of perfume, the boss is typically the brand, making perfumery much like any other kind of client work: a pursuit of excellence in which “excellence” means quality and adherence to someone else’s vision.
“My main source of inspiration comes from my collaboration with the brand,” Almairac says. “I want to respect the atmosphere of the brand in developing and designing a unique fragrance.”
And in fact, a perfumer’s ability to produce within the brand’s vision is as much part of the artistry as is the compositional work. Rather than view these commercial collaborations as less artistic, perhaps one should view them as equally impressive in a different way: Creating art that not only captures the essence of a brand but also enhances that brand—whether in writing or graphic design or perfumery—is the central challenge for most of the world’s creative professionals working today.
“I love projects with a strong identity,” Almairac says. “Recently, I worked on See by Chloé, and it was such a beautiful adventure. We have been able to keep that relationship [since 2008], and to make it evolve, thanks to the trust the brand has placed in us. Being able to keep working with that brand is a very beneficial experience.”
Is it any less romantic than the story behind the independent perfumer who is guided by his vision only? Like most questions related to art, there are no answers, only opinions. And if you’re looking to form your own opinion of Almairac’s impressive body of work, the proof is in the juice. Voleur de Roses is a beautiful place to start.