A walk with Sabine Poncet Hernandez

September 11, 2013

When Sabine Poncet Hernandez was growing up in France, she had two dreams: to make perfume and to live in the United States. Today, in Chicago, she does both. These two threads —French and American —have run through her life since childhood, and today it's hard to experience her work and not see both: a modern, adventurous spirit that is grounded in the rich tradition of French perfumery. Her second scent, Pleasant Promenade, from the Olfactif Landscapes collection, is intensely personal but speaks to a universal experience: loving a landscape. Here, Sabine shares with us her path to perfumery and the personal story behind Pleasant Promenade. 

Olfactif: Where did you grow up?

Sabine Poncet Hernandez: I grew up all around France. My father was in the Air Force, so I’m an army brat. My early childhood was spent in Lorraine, which is in the north of France. After that, I moved all over—to Paris, to the south of France, next to Bordeaux... I didn’t really have a French region, per se. I am always calling myself a really French French person.

O: What did your childhood smell like?

SPH: The soothing scent of lavender wherever we moved. I recall my grandma had beautiful roses in her yard and they were extremely fragrant. Honeysuckle—I remember that smell very, very well in the summertime because it grew wild on fences. Also a white rose called hawthorn that grows in the woods. That smell is very imprinted in my mind.

O: So when and how did you first get your interest in perfume?

SPH: My first interest in perfume came pretty young, probably age nine or ten. I remember my aunt had this beautiful dresser with all of these perfume bottles on it, and I was always trying them on whenever I went to visit her. It was an amazement to me—the different smells, the beautiful bottles. I was like a moth attracted by lights. I was mesmerized, and I remember very well that I tried also to extract perfume from flowers in my yard. I didn’t know what to do, but I tried!

O: Cute! How did you try to do that?

SPH: You know how when you are little, you don’t really know how something is made but you just assume? I thought, “Oh, I’m sure it’s made this way,” so I was picking the petals off the flowers and just crushing them into water and trying to make something. It was very funny.

I was also a collector of miniature bottles, so every time there was a new perfume coming out, I would get it. I remember when Angel came out—oh my gosh. It was probably my favorite bottle of all, with that little star? I was so happy I got it. The bottles were little treasures of mine. So of course I knew, when I was starting my studies after high school, what I wanted to do. I wanted to work in the perfume industry.

O: What did you study in school?

SPH: I studied economics and international business. Everybody said, “Oh, you’re very outgoing, you should go into business.” But I’m also very creative, so my vision was to create perfumes. My two dreams were to live in the United States and to be part of the perfume industry. With international business studies, I had the opportunity to study abroad—which was perfect because I wanted to study in the U.S. And throughout my studies, I did internships for either perfume houses or distribution companies in the perfume industry. So even though I studied business, I was always connected to the perfume world.

O: Why did you dream of coming to the U.S.?

SPH: My uncle lived in the U.S. for many years. He had a French restaurant in San Francisco, and I was always promised when I was very young that I would go visit him one day. There was Disney World and all the big buildings here, and when you are a small child, it’s like, “Oh, I need to go there, it sounds awesome!”

Unfortunately, that did not happen because there was the big earthquake in San Francisco, and my uncle lost everything and went back to France. My parents surprised me for my sixteenth birthday with a trip to Florida for three weeks with an American family. We had always traveled on vacations in Europe, by car, and this was my first time on a plane. I was by myself going to America—as a teen, nothing could get better. I remember that I arrived at the airport and I kissed the floor! I was so happy my dream came true. I cried my heart out when I left because I had such a great time with this family.

O: So at what point—as you’re working for perfume companies on the business side—did you decide to start making your own?

SPH: That was always in my mind. I was not trained as a perfumer, but through my career, I learned about the ingredients and how a perfume is structured. And to me, that was fascinating. All the components and what you can achieve by mixing them… My mom is an artist, and she probably feels the same when she paints. It’s exciting. It’s like being in a trance.

O: Speaking of your mom, Pleasant Promenade was inspired, in part, by her art—her painting of the Loire Valley in the fall. Can you tell me what kind of inspiration her artwork has had on you in general?

SPH: I was always so proud of my mom. From a very young age, she was constantly drawing and painting. She truly is a genius. I looked at drawings my grandma kept and I saw what my mom did when she was ten, and it was unbelievable. She was like a little Picasso! My grandma was very strict, so when my mom announced that she wanted to study painting and art, my grandma replied, “No way. Lots of people in the street wanted the same thing, and now they are out begging.”

My mom studied English instead, but she constantly painted and drew and sculpted all of the time. She’s very much an influence on me and my art. I remember when I was very young, possibly seven or eight, she was dragging us to museums. When I say “dragged,” I mean from the time the museum opened at 9 or 10 in the morning until it closed at 5 or 6! She was explaining every detail of each painting to us. She is a living encyclopedia.

O: Tell us about Pleasant Promenade. What was the inspiration for that scent?

SPH: I worked on it in 2011, and the inspiration for it is my mother’s watercolor. Right now, my parents live next to Tours and there is a beautiful oak tree forest right across from the family home. During the fall before I moved to the U.S., my parents liked to pick mushrooms, so we would all go as a family, on a family promenade. I just had this fragrant sense of the forest—the wet moss, the wet leaves, the wet earth, just a slight of scent of hawthorn roses. The neighborhood yards have apple trees and pear trees, and I recall the smell of ripening pear in the fall. The smell is a bit si

milar to when you bite the fruit and its fragrance is in front of your face. It’s very pleasant. And when I saw my mom’s watercolor, everything from those promenades came back in my mind.

So I started to work on the base of the perfume, and then worked with perfumer Fabrice Olivieri. The reason I picked him is because he works with natural essences and has mastered that. I knew I could trust him in picking the exact notes and natural oils I had in mind. We worked on it for almost a year, back and forth, and this is how Pleasant Promenade was born.

O: What strikes me about Pleasant Promenade is not just that it just feels connected to the painting that inspired it, but that it feels like a new take on something very classic.

SPH: It’s a chypre, so you are recognizing the classical chypre structure. The tricky part that we encountered is that we didn’t want it to turn into a home scent,. That was a challenge with all of the woods that we used.

O: What does your mom think of it?

SPH: My mom loves it. And when she saw the box she said, “Oh my goodness, I cannot believe my painting is on the box!” She was humble and very touched.

O: Pleasant Promenade is mixed at a pretty high concentration, too, so it lasts a long time.

SPH: Long lasting but not overwhelming. In the industry, the standard for an eau de parfum is 10% to 17% oil, and the other 83% to 90% is alcohol. I’m at 20% oil. I’m also using mostly natural materials, but I want to make sure that people understand that it’s not 100% natural. First off, if I were using only naturals, it would not have smelled like my forest. And another reason we don’t do 100% natural is for the lasting power of the fragrances.

O: Did you make it unisex?

SPH: Yes, men like the wood notes, while women tend to appreciate the sweetness of pear, patchouli, and honey. What I would like people to try smelling is the earth notes—and I don’t know if you can smell it when you first spray it, you might detect it afterward, but what we used to make the earth is actually beet extract.

O: Beet! Not a common note.

SPH: It’s really daring, but I said, “Fabrice, we need to find something—I really want to smell the earth.” I suggested a molecule that mimics it, and he said, “I’ve got a good idea: I can use beet.” And he was right on, actually.

O: Do you think that it’s easy to do perfumery today, because the niche industry exists? Or is it harder, because now everybody finds it so easy?

SPH: If I had started six years ago, it would have been easier because the niche market was not so cluttered. Unfortunately, now the market is extremely cluttered. Some fragrances are very good, of course, and some others are not so good. You have to be really careful in finding what you are looking for. The large groups now understand that there is a market for it, Most of them are creating “niche” brands.

O: What’s next for you?

SPH: My first goal is to increase awareness so others can experience these perfumes. I am constantly creating, and I will keep sharing my love for perfumes and art. I can share that my next fragrance will be inspired by one of my mother’s pastels and dedicated to my daughter.


Read more about Pleasant Promenade. 

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