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Lifetime Achievement, Perfumer: Harry Frémont

Master Perfumer Harry Frémont is well aware that there is more involved in making fragrances than simply putting a lovely smell in a pretty bottle.

“Fragrance is time and space,” he says. “It takes you back to a time or place where you have been. It’s this emotional connection that people have with fragrance. What makes our job so interesting is touching people’s lives. It’s very powerful.”

Frémont is sitting in his office at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Firmenich, his desk strewn with myriad vials of works-in-progress. It is a chilly April morning and Frémont is good-humored and welcoming. A vast picture window offers a magnificent view of neighboring skyscrapers, and behind Frémont is a large watercolor painting of Cannes and the French Riviera painted by his 93-year-old father (with whom he Skypes twice a day). But this is not surprising for a man whose deep-seated memories of his childhood in the South of France continue to influence his life.

He shares that, as a young boy, he loved to watch his father work — painting, sculpting, and even building his own home. From him he learned that hard work and a love for what we do are what make it possible to create beautiful things.  He continues in a pronounced French accent, “My Dad’s extreme talent with his hands — for building anything — taught me what you can achieve when you work hard; that anything is possible.”

Frémont’s childhood continues to resonate in his work. His kinship with fragrance began at age five with a passion for gardening. He says, “I discovered gardening and the fascination of growing plants and understanding nature, flowers, trees… and today I realize that my eventual career was connected to my earliest love of nature.”

He considered becoming a horticulturalist, but opted to pursue a biology degree instead. Then he learned about ISIPCA, the renowned perfumery school in Versailles. He knew he had found his calling when he had a “eureka” moment, having successfully recreated the smell of lilac, one of his favorite scented flowers. Harry’s discovery of the world of perfumery was enriched and deepened because he met his wife, Sylvie, at ISIPCA, where she also was a student. The two shared their love of fragrance – and of each other! The rest, as they say, is history.

After a stint at Haarman & Reimer in Paris, Frémont joined Firmenich in 1987 based in Geneva. He arrived in New York in 1990 with his wife and three young daughters. (A side note: Fragrance is so intertwined with Frémont’s life that his daughters’ names are derived from market fragrances – Lauren, Joy and Estee.) Thus began a new chapter for Harry and for Firmenich – it was the year the company opened its Creative Center in Manhattan.

Harry’s philosophy about his work changed shortly after. “One day, I was having an intense conversation with [now Chairman] Patrick Firmenich when he told me, ‘You are too stubborn.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not stubborn. I have conviction.’ I remember that I was really upset. But I thought about it and realized that, in order to win  more projects, I had to listen to my clients more – that there is a fine line between having conviction and just being stubborn. That was a defining moment. I began to be more open; to listen better and to integrate what people were telling me – to customize my work to the specific needs of the client and the consumer.”

This led to Frémont’s singular versatility. He successfully works across all channels of distribution: prestige, specialty, mass, direct sell, and niche. “I have a holistic view of the business,” he says. “I am interested in distribution, marketing, packaging, consumer insights. I’m not just looking at the fragrance itself. When you love what you do, you try to understand all aspects of it – and what you do takes on a different color and texture. You can’t work in a vacuum.”

Every surface of his impressive office is covered in a kaleidoscopic array of fragrance bottles from his career – a broad selection of high-fashion elixirs, mass-market brands, and a slew of celebrity namesake scents. The breadth and scope of his oeuvre is remarkable – including Tom Ford’s Grey Vetiver and Tuscan Leather; Ralph Lauren’s Polo Sport and Purple Label;  Juicy Couture; and the recently launched Yves Saint Laurent Mon Paris, to name just a few. It would be difficult not to have some Proustian time-warp connection to something Frémont has created. Some of his projects have actually shifted pop culture – particularly cKOne.

“It was the result of a specific belief we had about Generation X,” he recalls. “We were a few perfumers working on it. It was very difficult because, at the time, citrus was not accepted in the U.S. market. People associated it with functional products like dishwashing liquid. Our client knew that, in order to do something unisex, it had to be fresh, and cKOne is fresh but sensual at the same time. Whenever you win a project there is a lot of joy, but winning this one with Alberto Morillas was a pivotal moment for me and, I think, for Firmenich.”

Frémont is particularly proud of 1998’s Ralph Lauren Romance. “I was always fascinated with the brand. To me he always represented the American dream. I love the way he positions Ralph Lauren; it’s about the good life. When I came to America, of course, I wanted to work for them.”

Frémont’s interest in high-quality natural ingredients has also inspired many of his fragrance creations. His emphasis is often on florals but he never limits his palette. “I’m always fascinated by musk,” he muses. “Musk delivers an authenticity that relates to the way we live today. It’s clean. I’m lucky because (at Firmenich) we have many new musk molecules. The problem with musk is that people have to wear the fragrance to realize its character – to experience how it diffuses and to understand its power – to go beyond the stage of smelling the fragrance just on the blotter. Put it on the skin and really live with it – experience it. Musk is very experiential – for ourselves and for others.”

Today Frémont and his wife Sylvie divide their time between Westchester County, New York, and Sonoma County, California. “In California, you have the most amazing plants growing wild — like bay laurel. The leaves have such a strong scent when it is windy,” he says. “Being able to smell the flowers that I grow every summer inspires me. It’s important to me.” But his garden is also utilitarian. “This past weekend I planted fava beans, snow peas, cabbage and sunflowers,” he shares. “My garden is as messy as my office! But I believe that you just need a few spots of color in a garden to make it look nice. You don’t need to have it all lined up and perfect.”

Harry Fremont is – yes – a Master Perfumer. He is a gardener par excellence. He is a proud father, grandfather (of Elodie, age 20 months), a loving husband and son. He has built a life out of his love for beauty and his connection to the natural world.  About this he says “This is the heart of perfumery: nature, imagination and will.  My supreme goal is to create luminous, optimistic fragrances with quality ingredients that men and women will love to wear; to create fragrances that will make them feel good about themselves and that people around them will enjoy smelling.”

In person, the true “formula” to Harry’s phenomenal success is palpable: he values high quality and warm, genuine relationships; he knows the importance of truly listening and staying open to possibilities; and he appreciates the privilege of having a life’s work that gives him boundless joy.

William Van Meter with Joanne Halev for The Fragrance Foundation

Photos courtesy of Firmenich