What got Marc-Antoine Corticchiato into the world of perfumery is his love for plants. The founder and perfumer of Parfum d’Empire, a chemist by training, lets his intimate knowledge of raw materials shine through his line of 15 fragrances, which magnifies with boldness and excessiveness nature’s most beautiful ingredients. Last September, as he launched Musc Tonkin in its eau de parfum declination, I shared a cup of tea with the fascinating Marc-Antoine Corticchiato to talk about Corsica, Napoleon, supercritical CO2 extraction and much more.
You have a very atypical experience. How did you first become interested in smells?
I loved the smell of plants. I was lucky to grow up in three very rich universes: I was born in Morocco, in Azemmour, on the coast south of Casablanca. A charming city, built by the Portuguese, and today a place of pilgrimage for both Muslims and Jews. My parents had orange groves that went along the wadi down to the ocean. Next, Corsica – my father was born in the region of Ajaccio – where we spent all our holidays. Later on, I lived there. I took on our little family house, in the middle of the maquis, and spending time there allows me to put up with a lot of things. And then my third universe is horses, since I was 8 years old. I almost made it my job. Horses are extraordinary. Be it the horse itself, its sweat, its breath, its skin, the hoofs, the straw, the dung or the hay, it is fabulous. When I enter a stable, it makes my shiver. The horse is a very rich universe to me.
And so what interested me wasn’t perfume but the smell of plants. I love flowers and I have a particular thing for roses, which were my mother’s favorites. My mother who, by the way, hated perfume. She never wore any. For a long time I didn’t dare saying it! My first PR told me I had to come up with something to please the journalists, at least say she wore Chanel N°5 or something! But the truth is, my mother enjoyed reading, walking, and nature. That’s it.
What is it about plants you found so fascinating?
Their smell. I’ll take rose as an example: it may look like nothing but it synthetizes an extraordinary smell – we now know it is made of 400 to 500 different molecules! And this perfume will be different at the break of dawn, during the day, at night, and very different again when the rose turns to dust… Fabulous, isn’t it? For me at least, it was very intriguing. I wanted to understand plants and their fragrances. So I studied chemistry, and for my doctorate I specialized in the analysis of extracts of fragrant plants. Only later did I enroll at the ISIPCA school, where I now make a few interventions.
You also give presentations to the general public, don’t you?
Yes, for an association of company managers. Today, I find it more stimulating to teach to adults, because they are usually very interested. With this association, I need to keep them on tenterhooks for half a day, if not a full day, on the subject of perfume. 9/10th of them are men. From the very beginning I explain that perfume is the third exporting sector in our country, in terms of turnover, and that it comes second when we take in account the economic balance, because we import more cars than we do perfume. So it is a real economic sector, contrary to what a lot of people think. Not just some fun, girly stuff. And I also tell them about the power of smells: what does innovation mean when it comes to smells? Why do we see it so rarely when we talk about it so frequently? And I conclude with the olfactory signature: the custom creation of a perfume for a venue, a brand, a company.
Something you have already done yourself?
Yes, for the Lutetia hotel, and I’m finishing other projects for three major names in luxury. It is a very interesting exercise, which forces brands to define themselves in a few keywords.
Your initial approach of smells is very technical, very scientific. When did you start composing fragrances?
Later on, when I did the ISIPCA. First I created for aromatherapy. At a time when, unfortunately, the general public had no idea what it was. Before Parfum d’Empire, in the 90s, my first project was a 100% natural and organic line of well-being products and perfume, built around a concept of islands. I never found a sponsor, everyone laughed at me, no one knew what organic even meant. Some bankers called me back later on, but that train had passed. I arrived on this market too early. A little later, I created Parfum d’Empire.
That was in 2003. What was your motivation?
I wanted to make perfumes I enjoyed, that’s all. To use the power of raw materials up to excess. I love excess. I love overdose. But overdose is not an easy thing when it comes to perfumery. It doesn’t mean throwing some product in there and say “that’s it, I’m in overdose”. It’s like architecture: you can’t put something that weighs dozens of tons on the top of a building if you don’t have the necessary foundations. What I like is to push amber, leather or Pistacia Lentiscus (lentisque, in French) as I did in Corsica Furiosa. To tell a story with the power of natural raw materials – which doesn’t mean there are no synthetics in my perfumes, obviously. But for me, I repeat it, and that’s just my personal point of view, perfume must be a conquest: conquest of one’s self, conquest of the other, spiritual conquest. If perfume is no conquest… then what’s the point?
Hence the name Parfum d’Empire?
Nothing to do with Napoleon?
Nothing! Although I find the character of young Bonaparte, when he leaves Corsica, extraordinary: he is dashing and even romantic, as his correspondence shows. For me, he represents all these Corsicans who started from scratch – just like my father who was born in a family of peasants and left to build an empire in Morocco, in his own way, with his orange groves, his factories, etc. All this was devastated by nationalization, which killed my father, but let’s not go back to this painful episode. In any case, for all those Corsicans in exile, the most beautiful of all perfumes is that of the Corsican maquis! For me, Eau de Gloire was that: a tribute to Corsicans who built themselves from scratch, who you’ll meet in every corner of the globe, and who hold the smell of the Corsican maquis close to their heart.
Does your very scientific approach of raw materials influence the way you create?
Yes. Because I speak about raw material, that’s what interests me. I know it’s not a trendy thing, but for all perfume brands it’s the same: even if the inspiration comes from a trip or a story or whatever, at the very beginning, there’s the raw material. For example, it is because I discovered a particular extract of lentisque that I could finally make Corsica Furiosa, this green and ardent perfume about Corsica I’d been dreaming about.
Had you been working on it for a long time?
Yes, but I always work on several projects at once. And every time, I throw them in the garbage. If you take every single trial into account, they add up to a lot of time indeed. It’s the same for all my perfumes except – strangely – my two best-sellers, Cuir Ottoman and Ambre Russe. I created those two in one go. I had something very specific in mind, and I went for it all the way.
What is this precise idea you had for Cuir Ottoman?
I’ve loved leather for a long time. My father was very fond of cars, he had two Jaguar with leather seats that smelled very strong. Besides, I was tired of all these perfumes who are only “leather” by name. I thought to myself, “I want a leather accord. I want some beast”. And I didn’t work, as I usually do, on a top/heart/base structure: I only worked on the base, on the leather note. I went right ahead with styrax, which is a resin, and with cist and vanilla. Once I had my base, I couldn’t add heart notes or top notes: everything fell apart. And then I read one day that, in the Ottoman Empire, animal skins were tanned with iris to perfume them and cover their smell. Iris, which is the costliest flower in perfumery… So I went for an iris from Florence and a jasmine from Egypt to make a real perfume.
Are you all by yourself in the creative process?
Yes, except for my laboratory assistants and a few friends who I ask to smell things.
So you do look for exterior opinions on what you are creating?
Yes. For Cuir Ottoman, once I had launched the production in prevision of a launch in September, I went to see the sales reps: they told me it was crazy. But all my perfumes are crazy just the same. And yet, I create them myself and don’t have to pay for a lab, which would mean multiply the production costs by two or three. Still, my production costs are among the most expensive on the market. It is purely crazy, but choosing my raw materials is the only luxury I have left. And so these sales reps told me that Cuir Ottoman was too divisive. Very urban. Masculine. Young. Homosexual. Whereas I make perfumes for no particular target, other than whoever loves them. Men, women, gay, young, less young, who cares!
In fact, you don’t classify your perfumes into masculine/feminine.
No, it’s marketing I hate it. And so after I saw the sales reps, I spent the whole summer feeling down, in my maquis. When I launched the perfume, one September morning at Old England – back in the day they had an interesting perfume space – a bourgeois lady came in and went straight for Cuir Ottoman. But the manager rushes to her and says “no Madam, this is not for you”. She answers that, yes, it is, that the name is beautiful, and she goes home with it. And today still, if there is one of all my perfumes that sells to everyone, it’s that one. If I had listened to all those people, Cuir Ottoman wouldn’t exist.
And what was the story of Ambre Russe?
I wanted amber. For me, it’s the Russa of czars and sumptuous parties before the terrible decline. I discovered that it was Morocco which inspired me that: my father was crazy about parties, my parents threw a lot of them, and the decline was going to be terrible indeed. So there’s an alcoholic start, imperial champagne, popular vodka, then we get into the amber, which is the pillar of the perfume. Natural amber, which comes from the toothed whale – I would like to remind everyone here that, the more toothed whales there are, the more ambergris – was reserved for czars and important people back then. In the base notes, there is a Russian leather, a tea from the samovars, spices, etc. And there again, some time before I launched it, I was having diner with perfumer friends –and not the least of them, but I won’t give names – and I decided to make them smell it. “Oh, no, Marc Antoine, you just can’t do that! It’s much too violent! You have to make perfumes to sell them, otherwise you’re going to die!”.
Yes, too violent. We’re used to it now. But back then, ten years ago, it wasn’t so. And so, like it had happened with Cuir ottoman, it was too late to change anything because the production had already started, so I spent another depressed summer. In September, the press presentation starts, my factory tells me there’s a problem with the cap, anyway, we can’t put the perfumes ont the shelves. In the meantime the articles start running and the press is enthusiastic. It’s a disaster. One day, I get a phone call at the lab: an old lady with a strong Russian accent tells me she heard about the perfume in Le Figaro and she wants to buy some. I explain the situation, but she insists on sending her driver to the lab. We agree to give her a bottle, and she calls two days later to say: “I wanted to thank you. Before I die, I will have found the perfume of Russia again”. It overwhelmed me. I was told it was going to be a commercial flop, but is it only for that phone call, I knew I would have no regrets. And this woman, who lived on the avenue George V, I found out later on she was one of the last descendents of the czars.
Two or three years ago, I went to Russia, and several journalists told me there was something about Ambre Russe that reminded them of the Russian country. I have never set a foot there, it’s pure chance, and olfactory speaking I don’t know what it is that gives them this impression.
Anyway, the lesson I learned from Cuir Ottoman and Ambre Russe is that, if I’d listened to what I was told when I had them smelled – and I’m not even talking about consumer testing like all major brands do – my two best-sellers would have never existed.
Maybe working alone allows you to take stronger stands?
Yes, but it’s complicated, too. You question yourself all the time. When you work for someone else, the customer’s always right, you go where he wants to go, and the day he decides it’s great and he wants to launch, it’s done. But when you work for yourself, only the reverse planning makes you stop. Without that, you could work on a perfume for your entire life. A little more of this, a little less of that… There is an infinity of interactions, which is part of the charm in perfumery.
Lots of perfumers underline the importance to have a partner, an artistic director for example, to give them a fresh look on the creative process.
Yes, but it’s tricky because the whole “I like/I don’t like’ thing depends on one’s own experience, besides there are people who are impregnated with trends and fashions too much, even unconsciously, and that’s not good. What I like is to ask people who have no clue about perfume. And to not tell them where it’s from. To tell them “Oh, I went to Sephora, here, smell”. Because when people know it’s from you, they feel like they have to say something, they are not spontaneous. They don’t dare to say they hate it, or, even if they love it, they will say “yes, but maybe a bit more of this, a bit less of that”. They just have to. So I simply ask them to tell me “like/not like, cheap/chic, masculine/feminine, complex/simple, for the evening/the day… And sometimes, when two or three people tell me the same thing, it means there’s a thing.
That can make you work on the perfume again?
Of course. You take back the formula, ask yourself where those perceptions can come from. After that, in the end, the opinion of other professionals is important. Friends. Sometimes, when they tell me “it’s too much”, well it actually makes me feel better!
You like to go in the extremes!
In perfume… as well as in life. I’m not one to have just one drink! That’s what’s so complicated: I’m always in the excess. But it’s also what’s interesting: if I’m going to make a nice, trendy perfumery, transparent or sweet… I mean, 1450 perfumes were launched last year, there is enough nice and commercial things in the lot! I don’t criticize people who wear them, one can like whatever they want, and I always say that the right fragrance is the one you love, and that’s it, but I will also say that in perfume just as in music, sculpture or painting, the more you’re interested, the more you will become demanding, and you will surprise yourself saying “all these perfumes I have worn in the past, I’m no longer interested in them”. And that’s what’s great. Never judge others: they often like the trendy stuff because they didn’t get a chance to smell other things. That said, the olfactory education is done easily and rapidly.
So how is it that people have such a bad education one?
Come on, where do you want them to get that education? It’s not by visiting the luxury supermarkets that are, or so they say, the department stores! There are thousands of perfumes there, and they’re all about having customers buy one quickly, not about educating them.
What about kids? In France for example, we have the Semaine du Goût (week of taste) in school.
Well it’s high time we had olfactory programs. We train all our other senses! It’s such a shame we don’t educate the nose.
But when you say it would be easy and quick to change that, do you really mean it?
In one time, one time only, you can interest them, open them, encourage them to use their nose. And to those who tell me that there are too many of them, too many brands, too many claims, I tell them I wish there’d be ten times more, and they would be all the same, so that finally, they would begin to trust their nose! Smelling is free and yet it can enrich the everyday. And that doesn’t just mean hitting the perfumery: it means going out, smelling the street, the other, the cake, the stew, the metro, life, everything!
When one has a trained nose and a knowledge of raw materials such as yours, does it impact their everyday life, outside of creation?
No, I’m just like everyone else, with my tastes, my moments, there are things I hate and which I start enjoying eventually. Olfaction is the sense of the essential, and you realize that people who lose it can end up in severe nervous depressions. Which means what it weans: contrarily to what we thought for a long time, olfaction is not a meaningless sense. It has been relegated to something primitive, linked to animality, as if men didn’t need it since they stopped walking on all fours. For centuries, psychologists and psychoanalysts have made it secondary, and yet today psychoanalysis reintegrates smell because it finally reintegrates the body. How could we ever think that smell, in the love relationship for example, had no importance? It is crucial! The smell of the other is the base of relationship. To share someone’s life is, first of all, to love, consciously or not, their smell. Otherwise there’s nothing. So finally, we take that into account, we admit it.
Yes, but it’s not enough to make us talk about it.
Because the other’s smell is the most taboo of all smells. It’s always very hard to talk about the other’s smell. When one of your colleagues smells like sweat, it’s very hard to tell him. Or someone from another culture: the smell of our skins depends heavily on what we eat. Different culture means different food habits, so a smell we’ll notice because it is not like ours or that of people around us. And that’s taboo.
Can you tell me about your new eau de parfum, Musc Tonkin?
There’s something you must know about me is I hate musks.
You mean the synthetic ones?
They all are synthetic today. The Tonkin musk has been forbidden for more than a century: it comes from a little Himalayan goat, who had to be male and in rut and it had to be killed at that precise moment to extract a gland, which smells extremely strong – and nothing like those modern, very clean musks – and which is, to me, the ghost of perfumery. Back then, it was one of the most important raw materials of the perfumer, first because it is a fixative, but also because it conveys an animal, sensual, if not sexual smell, which no other ingredient can give. All the perfumers wanted it, the Asian considered it an aphrodisiac, the Muslims put it in the mortars which they built their mosques with, so that for dozens of years, thanks to the sun, the smell of Tonkin musk would evaporate in the air. A super powerful, irreplaceable product. When it got banned for animal protection purposes, the chemists started synthesizing the molecules in Tonkin musk. A proof that synthetics can participate to ecology. This evolved, and today the perfumer has hundreds of different types of musks, which are usually macro-molecules, meaning base notes. These musks can be found everywhere, including laundry products, because they give it this clean and comfy smell. That’s why so many people will tell you“oh I looooove musks”: it’s the smell of clean laundry. Today, composing a fragrance without musks is practically out of question. Because musk has technical properties: it’s is a fixative, and more than that. It gives diffusion to your formula, help it burst. But the smell of musk disappoints most of the time: it’s a deaf, light smell of clean laundry. For me, all those white musks, when you can perceive them too much in a perfume – as happens in a lot of them – it makes me sick, I think it’s cheap. I love musks for their technical properties but I don’t want them to appear smell-wise, I think it’s just awful.
So I’ve wanted to convey the smell of Tonkin musk, which I’ve had the chance to smell: a very animalistic note, very musky in the literal sense. Because I notice that, for the general public, “musky” means animal, sexual. When in fact, musk today means white, clean, cocooning, the exact opposite. Anyway, I tried to recreate this Tonkin Musk with several ingredients. I used animal ones such as African Stone, which is wonderful and doesn’t hurt little animals.
But what exactly is new about this Musc Tonkin?
It’s 1% less concentrated that the extract, which was launched in 2012. It’s an eau de parfum. You may like it or not like it. There are animalistic notes, floral notes, and I’ve worked on the very sensuous facets of some flowers such as osmanthus, tuberose, rose…
All flowers with very animalistic facets!
Indeed. The raw material is like a diamond: it has several facets. A tuberose has an animalistic facet, an earthy one, a pharmaceutical one, a dirty one… The perfumer’s job is to conceal the facets he’s not interested in and underline the other ones. In Musc Tonkin, I’ve tried to push the sensuous, animalistic facets of flowers.
I enjoy it very much. It kind of reminds me of Opium…
Yes, thank you! I love Opium, so maybe unconsciously it played a role… You are the only one who’s told me this, and yes, the last time I smelled Opium I realized it. They have similar olfactory directions. Another one I like in the Opium family is Youth Dew.
Why did you first come up with an extract?
Because I was limited by some raw materials, such as the African stone which there wasn’t enough of on the market. I had to wait more than two years. With the extract, I treated myself. And it was part of a fragrance/photography exhibition called “Parfum d’Empire: du sacré à la volupté” (Parfum d’Emire, from the sacred to the delightful)
Which is your claim.
In this exhibition, the delight was Musc Tonkin, the sacred was Wazamba, and indeed, in a general way, this is what I claim. I often say I try to go back to the origins, to the primary meaning of perfume, which is erotism and the sacred.
Does this intention shine through all your creations?
Not all of them. But in any case, it’s in the sacred and the spiritual that the most vibrant things are to be found. And in this regard the natural raw material is irreplaceable: it is vibrant. Synthetic materials, no matter how beautiful, are not alive, they don’t vibrate. They are complementary, but they don’t possess this quality.
Is it because they are not facetted like natural ones?
Synthetic raw materials are still facetted. A smell is rarely monolithic. But the natural is often much more complex because it is made of dozens, if not hundreds of molecules – in chemistry, we talk about “complex blends” – and that’s what makes their appeal, their vibration. Today, if you’re willing to look for them, and especially pay for them, you can find extracts of new raw materials, new plants, or extractions of plants that are already known but made thanks to new technologies that produce wonderful things.
Do you use those new technologies a lot?
A little, yes. I’m thinking of supercritical CO2 extraction, which works wonders with spices. Take ginger for example, which usually has this soapy aspect: with this technique, it’s like you’re biting on the ginger’s root, not soapy at all but rather sparkly, peppery, spicy, citrusy. This technique uses no heat, contrarily to the two main extractions techniques, i.e. the steam water distillation, used to produce essential oils and essences, and the solvent extraction. CO2 is very cold, so it allows to extract the plant’s fragrance without altering it. In the lab, I did many things with the headspace technique and you realize that, between the analysis of the living plant’s pure fragrance and the extract you obtain from distillation or solvents, there are fundamental differences: some molecules that don’t exist in the plant will exist in the extract, because there have been transformations due to the heat. So we never get the exact smell of the plant. Whereas, with supercritical CO2, it’s wonderful.
And besides there are other techniques such as fractioning: from a vetiver extract, from example, we’ll work on this global essence to keep only a part of it. We’ll get a vetiver heart. Vetiver has smoky, moldy, earthy facets: we take them all out to keep nothing but the luminous, woody heart of the vetiver.
That’s what you put the lentisque through to compose Corsica Furiosa.
Yes. In Corsica Furiosa, the lentisque essence plays a role in the head, the absolute comes in the heart all the way to the base, and there’s an exclusive extract you can smell from the end of the heart to the base. The essence smells like the steam, the absolute has a green aspect that evolves into hay, which wasn’t what I wanted to convey, whereas this exclusive extract had the green-woody aspect of the lentisque, as you can smell it in the maquis. It was an innovation in terms of extraction.Made possible by supercritical CO2?
No. Something else, but I’m not the one who made it, it’s the raw materials company who offers very high-end products. I don’t know the whole protocole. Making raw materials is another job, which I practiced a little, long time ago, when I teamed up with someone else to create a fragrant plants extraction unit in Madagascar.
You’ve had thousands of lives!
I did work in the scrubland quite a lot, a little in Vietnam and a lot in Madagascar, which is a fantastic place. The raw material is a beautiful job.
The fact that you have approached perfumes from many different angles seems to have given a real coherence to your work.
Everyone claims they use natural raw materials but souring them has become increasingly complicated. Beautiful raw material is getting scarce, we’re going to have a problem. What really upsets me is that producing fragrant plants is a very hard, very demanding job in terms of time, money, and risk-taking. And in the chain, people who do it are those who get paid the less. It would be interesting that some day, the big groups started involving themselves I order to help them because we won’t be able to exploit that indefinitely. Or else it will be the end of the beautiful raw material.
Do you struggle to find your materials?
Of course! On the market today, there’s no more ambrette. I’ve been looking for some for months. And you can call, yell at people, there’s just no more of it. It’s also the advantage of being a small brand and not a big one – there’s got to be some advantages! – we need smaller quantities, so sourcing is easier.
But beautiful natural raw material does not sell. If you want to sell a lot, and to a large audience, you can’t make perfume that are too divisive, as they say. So it’s a luxury, a costly luxury, because everything you earn, you reinject it. So you chose to forget about a life where you build yourself a patrimony, a comfortable retirement plan, and you pray God that you can work until the end. It means a few things that are not just nice, but that’s the only way I see perfumery. It’s a choice of life.