Calice Becker, the widely adored 2021 Fragrance Foundation Lifetime Achievement Perfumer Award recipient, has made the world a more beautiful place in countless ways. Her work has a signature grace, but she is also unafraid to be daring, and her singular vision has brought us such masterpieces as Dior J’Adore, Tommy Hilfiger Tommy Girl, and several distinctive By Kilian creations including Back to Black and Woman In Gold. The VP Perfumer is also Director of the Givaudan Perfumery School, where she shares her thoughtful approach and accumulated wisdom with the next generation.
How does it feel to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Perfumer Award?
I have many feelings. First, I think it’s incredible. Second, I’m not sure I deserve it. Third, does it mean that it’s something that is behind me? How about all of the things I still have to do, because I put myself into a lot of new projects. I’m always thinking of what’s next. So, let’s put it this way—I’m not used to this!
What made you want to be a perfumer?
I didn’t want to be a perfumer. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to heal people. And this feeling, I still have it today, because to be compassionate and to bring good things to people, in a way, is what I do with fragrances. I was pushed into math studies because my father is a mathematician. I ended up doing an internship in an engineering company. And I said, oh God, no, never. I would never do this professionally. It was not my type of environment. That’s why my mom suggested that I become a nose. I imagined that I would be like a dog, sniffing the conditions in factories. I had no idea what a nose was. She told me, “No, it’s not about that. It’s about creating fragrances for companies like Chanel.” At the time we didn’t have the internet, so I grabbed the yellow pages. I called Chanel, and they said, “No, that won’t be possible.” I called many places and someone was nice enough to tell me that I should get in touch with one of the fragrance houses. These days, you have Wikipedia, but then you have to be very resourceful. I called the perfumery school in Versailles and they told me I needed a Masters in Chemistry, so I was just about to go buy a lab coat when I got a phone call from Roure asking me to come in for an interview. I guess I made some impression, because they hired me to enter in the perfume school in Grasse. When I started perfumery school, I was like a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t believe that people would be paid to play with smells. I fell in love with the profession the day I began to learn it.
Did you have a mentor?
Yes. You do your studies for four years and then you work with a mentor. I had very well-known people. Dominique Ropion and Francoise Caron, who have both done so many fantastic fragrances. And then I started to fly with my own wings. I always loved what I was doing, so each time I got a promotion or a raise, I was like, “Do you think I need it?” I was already so happy to do it.
How do you describe your style?
Even if I tried to do things that are very meaningful and powerful, I always work very much towards harmony. So, if there is a spike of something, I always try to go from one note to another in a harmonious way. It needs to be nicely put together, it needs to be kind. To me, all of my fragrances are kind. Even when I do darker fragrances, they are velvety and smooth. I don’t do anything harsh.
What accomplishments are you proudest of so far?
I have many accomplishments I’m proud of. Part of my personality is that I’m always very curious, and I’ll always try to find a new solution of any problem. But in terms of fragrances, I’m very proud of Tommy Girl. I’m proud of what J’Adore has done on the market, but I think Tommy Girl was more of a breakthrough fragrance. I’m proud of the fragrances I’ve done for Kilian, because they don’t look like anything else. But there are also things I’m less proud of. I have done some flops, too.
What are the most important lessons you can teach as an educator?
What I’m looking for is people who love the product above everything, above the glamour of being a perfumer. I teach them to train their brain, because their brain will be their worst enemy. It’s very easy to jump to conclusions, to imagine that you have smelled something, to imagine someone told you something. You need to always take a step back. I teach them what’s called metacognition. You have to ask yourself so many questions as you work. We have limits to what we perceive, and we perceive things under a certain context. For instance, if you go in a room that is normally bright but you come from outside in the sun, the room is very dark; but the same room, if you come from the cellar where it was dark, you’ll find it very bright. It’s the same when working with scents; you always have to contextualize what you’re doing. When you smell something, to be true to what it is, you have to think of what you have smelled before, the environment, how do you feel at this time? Did you get coffee beforehand? These things make a huge difference.
What do you find most interesting about perfumery?
I’m learning something every day. I’m not that type of teacher who gives something to students to do that I know the result. I’m learning with them, which I think is fantastic. Right now we’re working on a yellow orris. The smell is amazing, and I’m breaking my teeth, trying to find what’s inside it with them. I think that what drives me is curiosity. I need to learn something new every day to have a fulfilled day.
What scents do you dream of that you have not yet captured?
I’m not the only perfumer saying this, but it’s true that it’s very difficult to capture the beauty of the honeysuckle. It’s a little bit like magnolia. It’s very refined, you have to be very close to smell, but even from afar, you can smell it with the same intensity. It fills the air, it creates a trail, but with something very delicate.
What are some of the inspirations that you draw from when you’re creating?
Everything! First, other artists. I look at how artists work, how they transform something from another media, how they trickle down, how they trickly up, how they think. Looking at artists, creators, authors, musicians, inspires me a lot. For instance, one day I was at The Hermitage looking at the Dutch painters of the 17th century, those black paintings with the flowers that are quite bright. I thought, I can’t have a bouquet like that because none of those flowers grow together in the same season. I understood that they work separately with the flowers, the painters. They don’t draw a bouquet with everything together, they go one by one. With J’Adore, that was the way I worked. I worked on each flower separately and I put them together in a way that they don’t overlap.
How has the fragrance industry changed?
Everything has gotten much more technical, much faster, much more ethical, much more sustainable. There is a huge consciousness of what we are doing, what we are using, and that is totally new. When you use something, you are responsible for its safety. You know where the ingredients are coming from, and you know they’re ethical. That has been a huge shift. And the speed. Now, AI is coming as well. It can be a help or it can be a threat. It can take over many cumbersome tasks, but maybe some people are very comfortable to keep doing those tasks and they don’t want the computer to take over. I think it’s not special to perfumery, it’s something you can see across all industries. Everything changes.