A Conversation with François Demachy: The Dior Perfume Creator on His New Collection Inspired by the Middle East

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François Demachy | Photo: Courtesy of Dior

Inspired by the ancestral Middle Eastern practice of layering scents, this month Parfums Christian Dior releases ‘Les Élixirs Précieux’, a collection of four perfumed oils designed to be superimposed with the iconic fragrances from ‘La Collection Privée Christian Dior’.

The elixirs – ‘Rose’, ‘Ambre’, ‘Musc’, and ‘Oud’ – comprise four major accords conceived by the famed “nose” of Parfums Christian Dior, François Demachy, who was inspired by the ancient Persian and Middle Eastern ritual of layering scents. Our Editor-in-Chief, Haleh Nia, sits down with the perfumer in Dubai to discuss the revolutionary new collection.

Welcome to Dubai, Monsieur Demachy. Is it your first time here?
Yes.

And what did you think of the region before you came? Is it what you expected?
No, because even though I have seen so many photos of Dubai, it’s still mighty impressive. Like all the places to which you travel, it is important to actually be there to get a sense of what the city is like.

I’ve heard you’re a connoisseur of vintage cars. Have you spotted any since you arrived here?
Yes, actually. Just in front of the hotel I’m staying at, there was a Cobra!

I’m sure you’ll spot plenty others during your stay. So tell me about your role as the Director of Olfactory Development at Parfums Christian Dior. What is a typical day for you and what does your job entail?
A large part of my day, we just sit and think about perfumes. That is to say I sit with my team and we think and we write about perfumes, about different perfume notes – which note works with one and not the other. But there really is nothing such as a typical day. We occupy ourselves with everything that needs to be done for the creation of perfumes, but like a good chef, much of my day is spent in purchasing, actually choosing, selecting, and buying the ingredients that a perfume will be composed of.

Photo: Courtesy of Dior

How involved are you in the creation of each parfum?
In principal, it’s myself who comes up with the creations, but it all depends on each particular perfume and the various departments associated with it. The concept will always come from our marketing team but at the end of the day the perfume shouldn’t be very “intellectual”. I always think of perfumes as being more associated with sensuality; it’s something more direct and simple like evoking an emotion. That is where I come in. I take marketing’s concept and translate it, almost like an interpreter, to the scents I believe will evoke that concept. Sometimes I’ll take ideas I’ve already been working on, but sometimes it requires me to come up with something entirely new and novel.

How long does it take to create each parfum?
There are no rules; we’re always studying different materials and are oversaturated with ideas, and it’s really important to continue studying and educating ourselves across different areas so we’re ready at all times. The average time it takes is 18 months from concept to actualization, but it could be more or less. For the collections, however, it’s an entirely different formula, because they comprise the elixirs, and there is no real “debut” of the collection, no beginning or end to the cycle.

You grew up in Grasse, so it was almost inevitable you would end up as a perfumer.
[Laughs] No, it was evitable. I wasn’t even interested in perfumes in the beginning; it wasn’t really a choice.

But your father was a pharmacist, he created eau de cologne…
Yes, but it was more a matter of chance that I ended up doing this. I didn’t imagine it as a vocation for myself. As circumstance would have it, I was actually studying to be a paramedic. But I was quite horrible at it, and so I was destined for the perfume world as luck would have it.

How did growing up in Grasse sculpt you or prepare you for this job?
In Grasse, we learned about natural ingredients. I took an apprenticeship in a plant there where I passed my time learning different talents. We actually had a contact for the manufacturing of natural ingredients; we had a different rapport with them. It was very helpful afterwards because I approached things differently later in my creations. This was very specific to growing up in Grasse.

Photo: Courtesy of Dior

Tell me more about the new ‘Elixirs Precieux’. As an Iranian, it makes me so proud that Dior has created a collection inspired by the ancient Persian ritual of layering scents.
The idea came from marketing as always, but the ritual, which dates back to 3,000 years, has always fascinated me. When you want to do something new, you have to look to the past for inspiration. This was the best inspiration for me. At the laboratory, we have some ancient scents for inspiration, and it’s true that if we come across something old, it will inspire us to create something new. So one day I came across some Iranian roses in the lab, and at the time it wasn’t just to create an eau de rose, but an essence de rose. It was a way for us to pay homage to oud, to this region, to the Middle East, to Iran, to ancient Persia.

C’est genial (it’s brilliant). I just tried the four of them and my favorite in particular is the musk. The rose was beautiful as well. Originally, the rose comes from Persia – am I right?
Originally, of course. But not anymore. Now we have different areas we get it from, for quality purposes. Imagine there is a huge drought somewhere and that is our only source, so we have to depend on different sources to maintain the high quality we are looking for. Now we also depend on Turkey, Bulgaria, and sometimes we use the Moroccan rose.

So you have come up with some suggestions of which elixir to use with which parfum. Can we break the rules?
Of course. At the end of the day, it’s not about my preferences but about the culture here. It is completely up to the end user to decide what she wants to use and mix together. Anything and everything can work.

And will the collection be distributed globally or is this a collection solely for the Middle East?
No, it will be available everywhere, Europe especially.

But personally I believe it will be most successful here because of the culture of layering scents, don’t you think?
Yes, because what is interesting for this market is that this is a big name in perfumes creating a product more cultural for a region. We didn’t invent this; it’s not the first time it’s been done, but it is important that we are catering to the Middle East.

Photo: Courtesy of Dior

You didn’t invent it, but you have given oud a couture twist for the first time. I really think of this level of customization from a big name such as Dior to be the couture of perfumery.
Yes exactly, it’s like couture for the perfume world. We really hope and believe the Middle East will react well to the collection. And that’s why we’ve created four – to test the market and see which they react to best.

And are they unisex like your other perfumes?
Yes. The oud in particular will work very well with men. The musk as well. Sadly there is no availability of natural musk anymore; anything you buy on the market will be synthetic. But we’ve worked on this so that it’s as close to a natural musk as possible.

For what reason is there no more natural musk?
For ethical reasons. Musk, until the 19th century, unfortunately used to come from killing a deer and obtaining its gland, which would emit the most beautiful musk scent. For ethical reasons this was stopped and perfumers had to begin extracting it from plants with similar scents, but even that was stopped and now synthetic musk is used almost exclusively the world over.

And the rest of the elixirs, are they natural or synthetic?
Amber is a vegetal substance; it comes from a plant. But the rest are a mix of natural and synthetic ingredients. To my knowledge, there is no perfume in the world that is 100% natural anymore.

And what can you tell us about what’s coming up at Parfums Christian Dior? Is it too secret or confidential to share?
Always secret and confidential! But I’m always working far in advance – one for homme and one for femme.

What about the industry? What do you predict will happen in the next ten years or so?
There will be an evolution. Perfumes are nothing but a reflection of life, so of course they will change to reflect the times. The cycle is a lot slower than in fashion, but it does change. I think we will arrive slowly at perfumes that are a lot more figurative, that is to say they are more evident, less sophisticated. We will have scents that we can smell and capture more easily.

Does the collection pay homage to Monsieur Christian Dior?
I hope so. On the subject of evolution, because it’s the first time a luxury perfume brand throws itself into an ancient idea, just as he would take inspiration from the past for his dresses. So in a way it’s a beautiful homage to him, I hope.

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