It was a joy to get to meet and hear from Patricia de Nicolaï who is founder of Nicolaï, Créateur de Parfum and president of the Osmothèque (the perfume conservatory and museum in Versailles).
Patricia is a thoroughly lovely lady who is extremely gracious and very quick to laugh. She is also incredibly interesting. Early on in her career she came up against a lot of gender discrimination in the perfume industry, not to mention discouragement from her own family – who just happen to be related to the Guerlain dynasty.
Event Organiser Lila Das Gupta, asked the questions (as did some of those in attendance) and while the following may not be verbatim, it is a pretty good approximation of what was said.
Lila: “What is your first scent memory?”
Patricia: “Can you guess? My mother’s perfume: Shalimar. Every morning, at about 7am, my mother’s perfume would drift into my bedroom and I would think “aah it must be time to get up”. I never needed an alarm clock!”
Lila: “At what point did you decide you wanted to become a perfumer?”
Patricia: “I didn’t grow up wanting to become a perfumer because I didn’t know that was an option for me. My mother was the grand-daughter of Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain but my parents didn’t have any involvement in the perfume business. I wanted to become a doctor and studied chemistry for 2 years after which I decided to change to a different school (university). It was a case of destiny intervening. I went to the library and looked through this huge book which had details of all the different schools. On the very last page was a school of perfumery (ISIPCA) and it had even been founded by Jean-Jacques Guerlain! I decided instantly that this was the where I wanted to study.
Each summer I would take internships in different sectors of the industry, such as marketing and production, but when I worked in the laboratory I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Many people discouraged me from becoming a perfumer. It was the early 80s and at that time it was very rare for a woman to be a perfumer, particularly in the big companies like IFF. It was also a lot of hard work. After finishing school it would still take 3-4 years to become a perfumer and I was told “You may not have the talent for it”. When I got a summer job in evaluation at Firmenich they were impressed with me and said to come back in a year or two when they would give me a job. However when I went back, I was told by the man in charge that they didn’t want a woman on the team. It is very different now though, as it is in all areas of business.
However, I did manage to obtain a position as a perfumer and went to Quest (now Givaudan) in 1984 where I worked for 4 years. All the same, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like the briefs I was given to work on and I didn’t like the competitive environment. There were more than 20 perfumers at Quest and you would be split into teams to compete on a brief. This meant you were competing with perfumers inside the company as well as those outside. This is a hard way to become recognised in perfumery.”
Number One Intense
Patricia: “With my husband’s encouragement, we started the perfume company together in 1989. My first perfume was Number One Intense which won the Société Française des Parfumeurs’ International Prize for Young Perfumers. Number One Intense has the signature of old perfumery. It is a nice accord with high quality raw materials, so it is probably the most expensive to produce. It combines tuberose and jasmine, with a powdery aspect which comes from orris and vanilla. My uncle, Jean-Jacques Guerlain, said it was not very interesting, but he liked it!”
Audience member: “Your family don’t like to give compliments.”
Patricia: “They don’t like women. In the first half of the twentieth century, the women in my family didn’t work. They were very bourgeois. It didn’t matter though; I started the company with my husband. The aim of it was to put the perfumer at the forefront. At that point perfumers weren’t known. You would only know the brand. To me this is a nonsense. My family (Guerlain) created perfumes and passed on their methods down the generations. When you bought a Guerlain perfume, you were buying it from the perfumers. In other areas, such as art and music, you know the creator. Now, 25 years later, things have changed a lot and we are able to talk more about the perfumers.”
Patricia: “This has a citrus note (orange) with a lot of spice – nutmeg, ginger and cumin – on a woody base, including opopanax, oakmoss, vetiver and patchouli.”
Audience member: “A male Shalimar!”
Lila: “Luca Turin gave a glowing review of New York in Perfumes: The Guide”.
“Smelling New York as I write this, eighteen years after its release is like meeting an old high school teacher who had a decisive influence on my life…New York’s exquisite balance between resinous orange, powdery vanilla and salubrious woods, shimmers from moment to moment always comfortable but never dark, always present but never loud. It is one of the greatest masculines ever, and probably the one would save if the house burned down. Reader, I wore it for a decade”.
Audience member: “Do you advertise?”
Patricia: “We don’t advertise at all. That way we manage to keep the perfumes at a reasonable price. People tell me we have a good balance between quality and price. I don’t make anything too original because I need to sell. If you don’t sell the perfumes, they won’t exist.”
Vie de Chateau
Patricia: “This is a very selective perfume. It is the mood of a chateau. It has lots of oakmoss, peach, herbs and dry hay.”
Patricia: “This is very feminine and powdery with florals, vanilla, frankincense, cinnamon and a tangerine top note.”
Lila: “What makes the difference between a good perfume and a great perfume?”
Patricia: “The life of a perfume makes it great. It needs to be worn by people. It should be attractive, recognisable, have good diffusion and be long-lasting.”
Lila: “How do you manage your time between running your own company and being president of the Osmothèque?”
Patricia: “Most days I work on my perfumes in the morning when the nose is fresh. In the afternoons I go to the Osmothèque in Versailles
I am very busy, especially as my perfume company is completely independent. We create and produce our products and sell them in our own shops. This way I have fewer constraints. At one point we had someone else produce our candles, but we weren’t satisfied with them.
At the Osmothèque there is a lot of work. We try to obtain selected new releases each year because today’s new perfume may become tomorrow’s lost classic. Perfumes do not last for a long time but we try to tackle the three enemies of perfume; light, heat and oxygen.”
Patricia: “This is an example of how my perfumes sometimes start as room fragrances. Patchouli started with a candle called Kathmandu. I mixed the patchouli with aldehyde C-12, green note, earthy note and Virginian cedarwood.”
Audience Member: “What will be your next perfume?”
Patricia: “I thought you might ask that, so I have some for you to try.”
We got to try what will become the next Nicolai fragrance, which is yet unnamed. It opened very sweet and fruity, which made it seem very current, but Patricia told us that it was actually based on a tobacco accord.
Lastly, I would just like to mention two fragrances that weren’t available on the evening and that are Weekend à Deauville and Le Temps d’Une Fete, the latter has a fantastic narcissus note and is a spring staple for many avid perfumistas.
Have you tried any perfumes by Patricia de Nicolaï ? If so, what are thoughts? Do you have a favourite?