Written by April Long
There aren’t many living noses who can be credited with creating an entirely new olfactive family, but, when Olivier Cresp concocted Thierry Mugler’s Angel in 1992, that’s precisely what he did. Angel’s unmistakable, head-turning whoosh of floral-tinged cotton-candy-and-patchouli voluptuousness ushered in an era of gourmand scents, forever changing the landscape of the fragrance industry.
Yet there also aren’t many perfumers as versatile as Cresp, who, over the course of his 40-plus-year career, has moved nimbly between the airy, lemony zest of Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue to the warm, leather-and-spice embrace of CH Carolina Herrera, continuously and passionately experimenting in search of the next revelatory sniff. A maestro of minimalism, Cresp can make notes dance in ways that are surprising and unique but also eminently wearable; he excels at crystallizing complex, often contradictory ideas so that they become sleek and sophisticated, sometimes even deceptively simple, when sprayed onto skin.
Born into a long line of aroma aficionados, Cresp grew up among the abundant, glorious smells of Grasse, perfumery’s historical and geographical beating heart, experiencing first-hand the raw materials that would come to define his craft. “My father was a broker, specializing in citrus and in flowers,” he says. “When my brother and sister [both of whom also became perfumers] and I were young, he would bring home small bottles of fresh natural ingredients every day. We would dip blotters into them, and line them up on our big Provencal furniture so that we could spend the whole evening smelling the evaporation of violet, rose, and jasmine. It was great to have that chance to smell them in their purest form.”
Cresp joined Firmenich in 1992, was named Master Perfumer in 2006, and was honored with the title Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French Minister of Culture in 2012. Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fragrance Foundation is, he says, “like a dream. It’s something I didn’t expect at all in my career. To start from scratch and have maybe the highest award that one can get is really incredible. I’m very honored.” Then he laughs. “But I am too young, yes?” The best may be yet to come.
Do you remember the first smell that you truly loved?
Olivier Cresp: My father grew jasmine bushes in our garden, and the jasmine in Grasse is some of the best in the world—it’s heavy, a little bit animalic, and simply gorgeous. It was among the first ingredients I ever smelled, and I loved it immediately.
What was the first perfume you created?
I created my first fragrance when I was about eight years old. I was in my room, and I had collected flowers, which I tried to macerate in alcohol that I bought at the pharmacy. It did not smell great. But my first fragrance that became known was Aire by Loewe. It’s very sparkling and fresh, and it’s still one of the top selling fragrances on the Spanish market. I created it in 1985, and it helped me believe I could do something in perfumery, not only because it smelled good, but also because it was a great success.
And now people all over the world are wearing your work. How does it feel to pass someone on the street wearing a scent you created?
When someone is wearing one of my fragrances, whether it’s a man or a woman, it immediately makes me smile. I don’t say anything, but I feel very proud. Sometimes when my wife and I are out in Paris, she’ll introduce me to someone saying, “My husband is a perfumer.” They’ll say, “Oh, you are a nose? What did you create?” But when I tell them, they don’t believe me.
Which fragrances are you particularly proud of?
They’re like children, so it’s hard to choose! Some of them are very well known. Some of them are not known at all. It’s important for me that I’ve done some timeless fragrances, such as Lacoste Pour Femme, and Nina for Nina Ricci. I have several fragrances in different styles, which are still doing well on the market after 15 or 20 years, and I’m glad to have achieved that. I hope they will last forever. Of course, there is Light Blue—and Angel, the blockbuster.
Because of Angel, you are always going to be associated with gourmand notes.
I worked on Angel for two years, and I knew I had a terrific, very outstanding fragrance. When my wife was wearing it, people stopped her on the sidewalk. Once we even had someone knocking at our door in the middle of Paris at 9:00 at night saying, “We followed you home. What is that fragrance? Can we buy it?” We had to tell them it wasn’t on the market yet. That’s why I was very confident working on that idea. I knew deeply in my heart, and my wife as well, that we had in our hands a gold nugget, which would be very successful. But I didn’t predict that I was inventing a new family, the gourmand—although, while staying humble, that was the case.
How would you characterize your style as a perfumer?
OC: I don’t want anything to be too complicated. My style is very minimalist. I write short formulas, because otherwise I get lost. To keep a nice clear vision, I would use no more than 20 to 40 ingredients. I’m also lost when someone asks me to make an abstract fragrance. My style is more figurative. When I smell a flower, say for example a gardenia in Brazil, I immediately write down some ingredients to capture the smell. I then try to make a fragrance wearable, while also bringing diffusion, long-lastingness, and sillage. You can start with a beautiful idea, but then the beautiful idea has to be wearable on skin, which is not easy.
What are the most important qualities a nose can have?
OC: Creativity, and creativity. I can teach someone how to make a fragrance powerful, or how to make it stay on the skin. The technical part is easy. But creativity is something that can’t be taught. I would also say that passion is very important. Sometimes I need to work on a fragrance for four or five years, with thousands of experiments. You need passion for that.
From whom have you learned the most?
OC: I learn from clients and colleagues every day, because it’s a wide, wide industry. I’m always smelling new ingredients and molecules, and trying to incorporate them. I’ve felt more confident since the age of 45. When I started in perfumery, someone told me, “You will need 10 years minimum to feel something.” I was quite upset, because I was 20 years old. I said, “Come on, the world belongs to me! In two years I will be a genius.” But no, he was right. I only really felt like I was getting started at 45. It’s like a good doctor, you need 10 years of learning, and then you have to practice. Now I know exactly where to go without doing too many experiments. I’m not doubting or hesitating.
What is your favorite smell in the world?
OC: I should probably keep this a secret, but I love red wine. My favorite smell would definitely be an old, good, red Bordeaux. It’s woody, slightly spicy, nice and rich. Unfortunately, I cannot drink too much wine every day. Though I’m dreaming about a nice glass right now.