Carlos Benaim

Master Perfumer, Vice-President, IFF

What is your most memorable fragrance experience?

My grandfather’s snuff tobacco.  He used a variety of tobacco that grows wild in Morocco.  My father perfumed it with a violet scent in his laboratory. Remembering the ritual, the gold engraved snuffbox, the handkerchief soaked with violet, has kept the image of my grandfather very alive in my mind.

What inspires you?

My inspiration can come from many places:  nature, memories, travels, observations, feelings, visuals…

My richest source of inspiration is the ongoing dialogue between nature and my mind.  What I smell at a given moment is inextricable from a lifetime of thoughts, feelings, and memories.   For example, the scent of orange flower infuses my childhood recollections of Tangiers in my native Morocco.  I remember walking through groves of orange trees.  I remember the sprinkling of orange flower water that filled the air when people celebrated in the streets.  I remember savoring the candied orange flower petals we called letuario.

It is a smell I will forever associate with certain thoughts and feelings; an olfactory invocation of an atmosphere.   This unique marriage of immediate sensory information and all that it evokes — that is my palette.

Is creating a perfume like creating a work of art?

Very much so.  The perfumer’s creative processes are those of an artist.

Inspiration begins for me as a gut process that seems to emerge from the realm of daydream or fantasy.   However, this raw material must be filtered through critical thinking for the perfumer to transform his whimsical notion into a formula.

Once inspiration has been found, how does creation begin? 

The first step is to allow the mind to play freely.  I daydream, often straying into an irrational mental realm. What emerges is an olfactory image in my mind.

Picasso said, “D’abord je trouve, puis je cherche“—“first I find, then I seek.”  I work backwards to find the unique blend of ingredients that can express my idea.  In the meantime, new accords emerge by association, enriching the original theme.

Emile Zola says, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”  The process of perfecting and refining the fragrance can and almost always does take months of trial and error and truly hard work to make the dream come true.

Is there a particular scent or aroma you dream of capturing in a perfume?

The smell of my father’s hands after a day of work in the distilleries.  The smell of pennyroyal mint essence on his tobacco stained yellow fingers is more evocative than a portrait.

From a philosophical point of view, how would you describe yourself…nose, perfumer, composer?

I think of myself as a composer of scents: a perfumer.  I do not like to be called a nose because it is so limiting – the nose is only to the perfumer what a camera is to a photographer. As the famous photographer, Nicolas Muller, said, “Photography is an art, if behind the lens is an artist.”