Bertrand Duchaufour for Penhaligon's: Perfumery is like alchemy

French perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, 53, likes to think of himself as an alchemist.

“My job is a blend of science and art,” says the father of one.

He was here in May for the opening of Penhaligon’s new boutique at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

“Perfumery is like alchemy. It is irrational.”

Case in point: While looking for inspiration for Penhaligon’s best-selling Eau de Toilette perfume, Sartorial, in 2010, Mr Duchaufour turned to an unlikely source – a tailor’s shop on Savile Row in London.

“I spent hours soaking in the traditional atmosphere and the smells of the iron steamer,” says Mr Duchaufour, who has a degree in chemistry from the University of Lyon in France. “I sniffed at the sewing machine and its oil, the needles, scissors and chalk.” To capture the smells of the shop, he gave the perfume a metallic note, to which he added a blend of neroli, fresh ginger, black pepper, beeswax, old wood and leather accords.

Throughout his career, Mr Duchaufour has created fragrances regarded as some of the most unique around. They include Comme des Garcons’ Avignon (2002), Harissa & Sequoia (2001) and Incense: Kyoto (2002); and French luxury perfumer L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Timbuktu (2004) and Nuit de Tubereuse (2010). He is also responsible for Dior’s Fahrenheit Fresh (2004).

He was introduced to perfumes by his first girlfriend, whom he met when he was 17 and she, 19. “She was from a wealthy family and talked about fragrances passionately,” he says.

A few years later, he watched a documentary on how perfumes were made and was intrigued. At 25, he moved to Grasse to work as a trainee perfumer at the fragrance manufacturer, Lautier Florasynth. Later, he joined Creations Aromatiques, another perfume company.

After more than two decades in the industry, he opted for the freedom of a freelancer.

“I prefer to work with niche brands and be able to choose from a wider range of inspirations and ingredients,” he says. Some of his favourite effects are white musk and wood. “The combinations are infinite and I am still discovering them.”

For Penhaligon’s, Mr Duchaufour has created three other concoctions besides Sartorial: the rich, opulent floral Amaranthine (2009), Orange Blossom (2010), a heady bouquet of ylang ylang and honeysuckle and Esprit Du Roi (2011), a modernised chypre formula from Penhaligon’s archives.

Bertrand Duchaufour for Penhaligon's: Perfumery is like alchemy

This month, the brand launched another of his creations, Vaara (right). Originally a private commission by the Maharaja Gaj Singh II of India about two years ago to mark the birth of his granddaughter Vaara, it was chosen to become part of Penhaligon’s permanent line-up, with his permission.

To create Vaara, Mr Duchaufour, over the course of a year, visited Indian markets and temples and the Maharaja’s summer palace for ideas.

“He loved the idea of a fragrance inspired by the stories, landscape and palaces of Jodphur being sold everywhere in the world,” shares Mr Duchaufour.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on August 23, 2013. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.