Dior’s ‘Nose’ on Perfume and Process

The house’s master perfumer describes how tons of flowers grown in the south of France are concentrated into fragrance.

GRASSE, France — Smell is the most powerful of all the senses. Even the merest whiff of a fragrance can conjure childhood memories otherwise long forgotten.

For François Demachy, perfumer for Parfums Christian Dior, there is one smell that transports him to his boyhood in Grasse in the south of France. “The smell of lavender for me is a memory of very clean linens,” he said. “My grandmother would whiten her sheets by putting them out on the grass to dry in the sun.”

Mr. Demachy still works in Grasse today. The medieval town, nestled high in the Provençal hills between sea and mountains, possesses the ideal sun-soaked climate and fertile soil for flowers like lavender, Rose de Mai and jasmine, which have made it the perfume capital of the world.

In an interview during the September jasmine harvest, Mr. Demachy, who won’t disclose his age, explained the neuroscience. “In order to remember a smell, because it’s so abstract, your brain has to remember everything around it: the place, the light, the colors, everything,” he said. “The smell is even in your brain. It’s very precise in your memory, much more so than any image.”

The location of his office also happens to trigger childhood memories. As a 10-year-old, he remembers playing at a friend’s house in the same neighborhood as his father’s pharmacy.

Today that house is called Les Fontaines Parfumées, a magnificent terra-cotta pink 17th century villa that Dior’s parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, bought in 2013 and restored to its former glory. Surrounded by a garden containing more than 350 flowers and plants that provide a sensual source of inspiration, the elegant building is shared by Dior and Louis Vuitton, which recently returned to fragrance after a 70-year hiatus.

An antidote to the business of the global fragrance industry, which according to Euromonitor recorded sales of $46.5 billion in 2016, there is a strong sense of family spirit in the building.

Mr. Demachy’s office is along the corridor from that of Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer. It was Mr. Cavallier Belletrud’s father who was responsible for teaching Mr. Demachy how to make perfume during his 10-year apprenticeship at Charabot, a local fragrance company. “I’ve known Jacques since he was a kid,” Mr. Demachy said.

In November Dior introduced Mr. Demachy’s latest creation, J’Adore L’Or essence de parfum, a highly concentrated perfume priced at $140 for 1.35 ounces. He created J’Adore L’Or in 2010, itself a more intense version of the 1999 J’Adore original.

(While LVMH’s 2016 annual report did not disclose the revenue for Dior perfumes, the global giant’s perfume and cosmetics group realized sales of 4.95 billion euros ($5.9 billion), an increase of 6 percent from the previous year.)

So, given the overwhelming number of raw ingredients (some 2,000) lined up in bottles that glow in the late afternoon sunlight in his top-secret, state-of-the-art laboratory, how does he go about creating a new fragrance?

At the beginning, Mr. Demachy said, it is a solitary process. “First, what I think is very important for a perfume is to have what we call in France a ‘fil rouge,’ a trail to follow,” he said. “You don’t make a perfume just by blending some raw materials. No, you have to think before. You have to have one idea or know where you want to go.”

From there, it is a matter of experimentation and may take several months. Mr. Demachy estimated that in a single day he routinely samples more than 150 ingredients. The more delicate ingredients are in refrigerators, close at hand. The most potent, potentially overpowering ones, like leather, are kept in a specially vented area to prevent contamination.

“There are no rules; it’s pure creation,” he said. “An average perfume will contain 30 ingredients or so. Some have much less, some much more.”

That said, the house he works for informs his approach. “As a perfumer, I am a bit like a sponge. I soak up anything coming from the house,” he said. “Mr. Dior loved flowers like lily of the valley, so I have to keep that.”

In fact, about 13 miles outside Grasse, lies the Château de La Colle Noire, Christian Dior’s countryside retreat and another of LVMH’s recent restoration efforts. After buying the house in 1951, Mr. Dior used its extensive grounds to indulge his passion for gardening, as well as to entertain visitors like the artists Marc Chagall and Bernard Buffet.

For J’Adore L’Or, the floral note is strong. To make a single liter requires more than 10,000 flowers, including rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang and tuberose.

“It has the same frame as J’Adore but with much more absolute, especially from Grasse, and it has an Oriental vanilla note. It’s J’Adore plus something else,” Mr. Demachy said. (Absolute is the term for the highly concentrated aromatic oils obtained from plants for use in perfumes.)

The Rose de Mai and jasmine absolutes are from flowers grown exclusively at Le Domaine de Manon, a fragrance flower farm nearby that is owned by Carole Biancalana, a fourth-generation grower.

The jasmine is particularly tricky to cultivate — it is sensitive to the heat of the sun and must be picked by hand — so it is an expensive flower to use.

A good picker can pick 330 grams (11.6 ounces) of flowers an hour, which is not very much, Mr. Demachy said. “To make one kilo of the absolute that we use in the perfume,” he added, “we need about 750 to 800 kilograms of flowers.” And that single kilogram may cost as much as €70,000.

Dior’s floral notes contrast with those of Mr. Demachy’s previous employer’s fragrances. He worked at Chanel for 28 years, creating perfumes for the couture house as well as for Tiffany & Co. and Emanuel Ungaro. “Chanel didn’t like flowers and that’s why Chanel perfumes are more abstract than floral,” he said.

Bottles of Demachy fragrance created by his father are displayed in his office alongside an 1819 book on liqueurs and distillation by his great-great grandfather, Jacques-François Demachy.

Even though fragrance and the art of distillation are part of his heritage, Mr. Demachy is not sentimental about his own talents as a nose, as perfumers are known in the industry. “Maybe you have 0.0001 percent of people who can smell very well but to become a perfumer, it’s really about training,” he said.

His own apprenticeship was rigorous. After the first two years, which were spent distinguishing among raw ingredients and working in different parts of the Charabot factory, he and his fellow apprentices were set the monthly challenge of recreating a classic perfume such as Arpege, the Lanvin fragrance, or L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci.

“Your challenge was to repeat it just by smelling,” Mr. Demachy said, adding that every 15 days students were required to show their work so the teacher could assess it.

Finally he was allowed to produce fragrances of his own, although his first commission was for something rather less appealing than his work today. Given the task of creating an aroma that would attract cows to eat their hay, he read that cows like the smell of licorice “so I added a lot,” he said with a laugh.

Although today a perfumer’s training can take place at any number of schools and universities, Mr. Demachy feels that it is only in practice that a nose can really learn his craft. “It’s quite impossible to teach the practical side until you’re in front of the problem,” he said.

And while smell was once necessary for distinguishing between family and foe, safety and danger, it is a sense that in evolutionary terms has been weakening with lack of practice.

“The nose is still very good but maybe in another or two hundred years, its capacity will disappear by 50 percent,” Mr. Demachy said.