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As the creative ‘nose’ behind Sana Jardin, Carlos Benaïm is one of the world’s most celebrated perfumers. His previous scents include blockbusters such as Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb and Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds (arguably the world’s first ‘celebrity scent’). Fragrance writer Viola Levy spoke to him to find out more about his fragrant career and why working on Sana Jardin was particularly special...
When did your love affair with fragrance begin?
When I was in engineering school as a trainee, I was sent to Grasse to train in a perfume factory as a chemist. When I got there, the chemist had gone off on a sailing trip – no one could find him! So I was left in a room waiting around, with all the perfume ingredients in brown bottles from A-Z arranged in a circle. I started smelling all the ingredients one by one and developed an interest – and it grew out of that. The chemist never showed up except for the last day!
Early on in your career, who were the perfumers you most admired?
When I began working for the fragrance house IFF, the chief perfumer was Ernest Shiftan; he was an extraordinary man. I would sit and listen to him for hours as he would explain all his connections to famous people in perfumery, and would talk about the history of perfume. I ended up going to The States to work with him. Another role model was Edmond Roudnitska who created Dior’s Eau Sauvage. He had a very interesting style; his fragrances were very pure in their design, the only perfumer to be working in that way at the time.
How has the world of perfumery changed in your opinion?
The biggest change of all is the status of the perfumer. Back in the day, you were basically like a ghostwriter – you were unknown. There was a chief perfumer who took all the glory, but even the top brands didn’t really talk about the perfumers who created their really famous scents. All of that has changed radically as perfumers are now recognised as artists and perfume creation has become more collaborative.
As far as ingredients are concerned, naturals are once again becoming an important part of our work (for years perfumers have mainly focused on synthetics and how they can enhance the naturals). Working with Sana Jardin and their founder Amy Christiansen, I had a certain freedom to express the way I saw naturals such as orange flower (Berber Blonde) and jasmine (Savage Jasmine) – that was very liberating.
What are the biggest challenges of creating perfumes?
Trying to understand what people want! You have your own idea of what you would like to do as a creator, but you have to understand where others are coming from. You cannot just create in a vacuum – every perfume is the product of the perfumer, the public and the people who commission it!
On that note, what was it like working with Elizabeth Taylor on White Diamonds?
The team were spending a lot of time trying to understand what she wanted – she did not like anything they were doing! So they decided to send me to her home in Bel Air in LA! It was not your typical luxurious Hollywood home; it was just very nice, with Old Master paintings on the walls! I was a young guy at the time, but she was extremely respectful and polite. So I decided to test her! (That’s not something you do easily with a Hollywood star!) I had taken with me ten little bottles with ten different fragrances to find out what she really liked to smell and whether it matched the descriptions she gave us. And she played along, even though I saw her eyes getting darker and darker! She smelled all the ingredients, and her preferences matched exactly what she had said. She was extremely consistent. When I went back, we developed that fragrance in accordance with the discussion I had with her and she was very happy with the result!
What drew you to working with Sana Jardin?
I was very interested in the connection to Morocco (I was born and brought up in Tangiers until I went to France for my engineering studies) and the elements of sustainability and supporting female communities. It so happened that I had previous been invited there by Les Arômes de Maroc – a company that supplies the natural ingredients from Morocco used in Sana Jardin’s fragrances. I was invited to see the picking of the roses and the distillation process (to get the rose oil). It was near the Sahara Desert in a valley, south of Marrakech. It’s a beautiful area. The man in charge of that company at the time told me about Amy and how she was interested creating a sustainable perfume collection, not only using fragrance ingredients from Morocco but also giving back to the women picking the flowers and helping them repurpose and re-sell the waste product (such as the rose waxes to make candles). I thought it was a worthwhile project that felt very close to my heart as a Moroccan, so that’s how I came to be involved.
How did your vision for the range and that of Amy Christiansen intertwine?
Working alongside Amy, I had to understand what she had in mind – she very much wanted the range to be about purity and sustainability. She also wanted to incorporate scented memories from her travels, such as the markets in Morocco.
I’m so proud of what we’ve created, particularly Berber Blonde as it was the first of the series and it now has quite a cult following!
What aspect of perfumery do you enjoy the most?
The human interaction element is always fascinating. A lot of time you’re meeting very unusual people, whose worlds may be entirely different to yours, it could be Hollywood stars, it could be rappers and singers! People like Amy are extremely interesting to me, with their ideas about philanthropy and creating a social enterprise. Everybody I meet inspires my creativity!
Where do your ideas come from?
I was once working once with a very famous clothing designer in New York. We were sat in Central Park and I asked her the same question. She looked around and there was a pigeon walking around with different coloured feathers on its back. She said, ‘well I could build a whole collection on the back of that pigeon!’ I can take my inspiration from anywhere – from anything that touches me.