The Fragrance Philosopher: Part two of a conversation with Véronique Gabai
In part two of our interview with renowned fragrance authority Véronique Gabai, we discuss the evolution of perfume, olfactory preferences around the world and sustainability in the fragrance world.
Read part one of our interview with Véronique.
Véronique has devoted her life and career to scent. As she puts it “it’s a big part of who I am...it’s a very big part of my emotional system...of my psyche.” When she speaks about perfume, you get a true education on the subject. She weaves the intellectual, scientific, philosophical and poetic aspects of fragrance so elegantly, it’s hard not to become a devotee.
In your experience, how has fragrance changed over the years? I think back to a time when people might own one fragrance to wear on a special occasion. Now, it’s common to have a well curated perfume collection and to wear a different fragrance every day, for different moods.
VG: There has been an evolution to the way people connect with fragrance. I would say it has to do with the different level of education and consumption of fragrance. If you go to Europe or to the Middle East, people have used fragrances for centuries. As a result, fragrance has been part of their culture, their routine. In France, Italy, Spain, and the Middle East, nobody goes out without wearing perfume. That goes back to centuries ago. Fragrance as we know it, was born between France, Italy and Germany in the 16th century. One lady was responsible for that three party situation and that was Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine de’ Medici was Italian, but she moved into the court of France where she became the queen. She asked a German chemist to create for her the first real eau de Cologne. It’s called eau de Cologne because it was created in Cologne, Germany, on behalf of Catherine de’ Medici. After that, the industry developed in Grasse, France as we now know it. So Europe was always into fragrance. The Middle East also has a long tradition of perfumery, dating back centuries. In the U.S., the pilgrims had escaped Europe because of the persecution of their faith. In the U.S., the pilgrims had escaped Europe because of the persecution of their faith. For them, fragrance was not part of their upbringing. Perfumes would have been viewed as having a kind of seduction that went against their beliefs. So for the longest time, fragrance was never part of the tradition of the U.S. The shift happened when G.I.’s came back from World War II and brought perfumes back from Europe. The evolution of perfume in the U.S. is much younger than in other parts of the world.
You’re someone who has travelled all over the world, have you noticed geographical preferences to fragrance notes?
VG: Yes, there are clear regional preferences. Specifically, it’s a fragrance family resonating more than just one ingredient - because in a fragrance composition, there are so many different elements. Frankly, this is shifting a little bit because people are travelling more and the influence of one region is infusing another. But by and large, we can say that in the U.S., fresh florals are preferred while in France, it’s more the amber/woody notes of oriental scents that are favored. Citrus also remains a beloved scent due to it’s traditional use in Eau de Cologne. Italy has the same type of fragrance trends as France, and Germany has a preference for sweet, ambery scents. Nordic trends lean towards clean, fresh fragrances. The Middle East has it’s own tradition of perfumery, specifically around oud. The trend there is for woody, spicy and amber fragrances. Southeast Asia is close to the Middle East in terms of taste. But as you move towards Northern Asia like Korea or China, we’re back into the fresh floral category. But the lines are much more fluid and there lots of crossover today.
Are there any trends in perfumery that you’re particularly excited about right now?
VG: There is one trend that was picked up very strongly in the U.S., but it also exists across the globe, and to me it’s one of the most seismic shifts in the industry. During the pandemic, more people discovered that fragrance can be just for you. It doesn’t have to be just for a special occasion like a date or an interview. This attitude towards fragrance has existed in Europe and the Middle East for centuries, but has now transcended every country. People wanted to feel good and we suddenly saw a big shift in consumption like I’ve never seen in my entire career. During this time, there was a growth in the fragrance category of about 30%-40%. That’s enormous. You know, as human beings during the pandemic, we felt the need to have that little pick me up, that little moment of joy for ourselves that fragrance can give you. We have seen the growth of perfume everywhere across the globe, but where you see it the most is in the United States.
This is partly why I also wanted for Grace de Monaco to develop home fragrances at the same time as personal perfumes - because of the growth in this category.
There’s a lot of talk right now about sustainability or green chemistry. Can you explain what that means? How does this affect the modern perfume industry?
VG: When we go back to the basics of creating a fragrance, you have in front of you a palette of ingredients. Some are natural ingredients, some are synthetic ingredients. Honestly, in this day and age, you probably want to use both for different reasons.
Natural ingredients are amazing because they connect you to nature. It seems obvious, but it is important. When you smell a natural ingredient, you are transported into nature, which I think from a well-being perspective it’s very, very important. It is also very important in terms of the richness, the facets that natural bring to a composition. They bring sophistication for sure, but natural ingredients bring chemistry to the skin, because they tend to evolve on the skin more than synthetics do. So when you have a lot of ingredients that come from nature, you almost have a guarantee that your fragrance will be very specific to you because it will evolve uniquely on your skin. The cons of natural ingredients is that they come from nature, so you have to be careful how you source them. For me, I always want to source naturals in an ethical and sustainable way. Ethical because you don’t want to exploit people, and sustainable because you do not want to deplete the resources of the planet. Some ingredients are rare, some ingredients could be endangered so you have to make sure that you source your naturals in a careful way. The other reason against using natural ingredients is that in many cases they are more expensive. More expensive than synthetics.
Let’s get into synthetics. There are different types of synthetics. You have synthetics that come from petrochemicals. These are used less and less. More and more, we’re using synthetics that have been issued from different sources. We want to use synthetics coming from “green chemistry”.
We developed the Grace de Monaco fragrances this way. We ensured the products would be issued from green chemistry as much as possible. With synthetics issued from green chemistry, you are guaranteed that you can be fairly sustainable and helping to protect the planet. At the same time, you won’t necessarily have the richness that you have with naturals, but not everything can be taken out of nature. For example, lily of the valley is not something that we can extract from nature, so the scent needs to be reproduced. The same is true for animal extracts. We don’t use them anymore, but we can reproduce them in a lab. Take musk for example. We have musk in our Grace de Monaco scents, but it is synthetic.
About her brand, Véronique says she wants to “...enchant the senses and add beauty to everyday life.” She has found a way to, quite literally, bottle this philosophy and imbue it into our Grace de Monaco fragrances.
Discover our interviews with industry icon Jérome Faillant-Dumas: part one and part two