Perfumer’s Portrait: Calice Becker

Calice Becker was born in France to a pre-revolution Russian immigrant family, from whom she received a love of and reverence for fragrance, art, and traditional craftsmanship. Blessed from an early age with a keen sense of smell and the good taste to accompany it, she entered the largest perfumery school in Grasse, the Roure-Bertrand-Dupont (now the Givaudin Perfumery School). Entering Quest International upon graduation, Becker found herself under the tutelage of the famous Francoise Caron, who encouraged Becker to be a pioneer of a new generation of female noses and creators. Becker responded by creating J’Adore Christian Dior, one of the world’s most beloved and bestselling perfumes.

There are so many places to find inspirations, but I constantly find inspiration in observing the artistic process across many genres like music, painting and sculpting.

Never one to limit herself to one world or another, Becker comes onto our radar via her work as the primary nose on most of Kilian Hennessy’s By Kilian line. Though By Kilian features many stunning natural ingredients and rare, expensive distillations, Becker is equally proficient with modern synthetics, as she still creates scents for niche and mass market alike. We would say she doesn’t fit into any mold at all, but we can think of one: master perfumer.

What is your most memorable fragrance experience?

I’ve recollected this story many times, it was when I was 4 years old and my world was all about love, security and discovery. My mother’s warm, protective arms helped me out of an evening bath when I noticed a bottle with a drawing of five orange flowers on its label. I pointed to the bottle of eau de cologne. I can still remember how fresh and delicate the smell was and my immediate love for this indescribable fragrance. I couldn’t understand how this magnificent smell was put into this tiny bottle. My mother simply said, “It’s made of flowers.” I had a vague idea of how the flowers went from the garden onto the label, which was an easy technique: drawing! But how did the flower go into the bottle? I couldn’t see them! The cologne was crystal clear.

Coming up short on an explanation, my mother gave me her final answer, “You’ll understand when you grow up.” Then, as luck would have it, “it” magically happened. I grew up. And years later while starting my studies in perfumery school, I received not just an answer to the flowers, but many answers all together. More than what my emotions and memories could quickly assimilate. I froze at this moment of epiphany. It was not just learning that this smell came from neroli, the water distillation of orange flower, but that I finally got my answer and suddenly recognized this moment of being “grown up.” With such an emotional connection, neroli has forever imprinted my life as a perfumer.

What inspires you?

There are so many places to find inspirations, but I constantly find inspiration in observing the artistic process across many genres like music, painting and sculpting. As a perfumer you can apply the philosophy of these techniques to your own craft.

Take sculpture for instance, when an artistic begins the process, he or she is working with a medium such as marble or wood, removing and carving to uncover a new form. When an artist works with clay, there is this process of adding to the medium, building dimension and shape. In painting, watching an artist transition from darker palettes to add lighter shades, creating shadow and depth. All of these processes are so inspiring to re-evaluate how I approach a structure of a perfume.

Is creating a perfume like creating a work of art?

It depends on how you define art! There are so many different periods.

I believe that perfumers are artists, but not in the way of the modern art we see today. When you look into the different periods, I think that perfumers today reflect the period of antiquity to pre-Romanticism, when artists were working in studios and workshops being commissioned for their creativity, craft and technical skills. After Romanticism, the impressionists, cubists, etc. were creating and experimenting new expressions. Post Romanticism to Modern moves to an even broader definition where the idea is more important than the realization of it. Take the example of modernist painters by using only three colors they were able to speak volumes through this minimal approach.

So, in a long short answer, yes, I do think that creating perfume is like creating a work of art but from an approach of a specific period.

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

Yes, that wonderful smell of living jasmine in bloom. While we do have natural and headspaces available, it’s been a challenge for me to recreate a living jasmine and its bright, clean and beautiful floralcy in the air. Living jasmine gives off a certain amount of indol that we do not have access to as perfumers. Getting this delicate balance and texture of the jasmine flower as it breathes is a mystery.

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

I connect with all three, but inevitably it is more of a question of language depending on whom I’m speaking to and their fragrance experience. A nose to me is about technical skill, aesthetic appreciation, knowledge of the history and of modern fragrance tastes today.

A perfumer in France is someone that has a boutique which sells fragrances. A composer is a broader definition that fits many art forms, like music. I have referenced all three in my career, it’s not easy to define our work as perfumers as sometimes we are even ghost writers for fragrances and not associated with some perfumes we create.

What is your favorite smell?

My immediate reaction is the smell of cooking plums! I love so many smells, but when I think about my favorites they are all the ones that make life’s journey so pleasurable, ones that are offered by nature or moments of happiness. For me it’s the smell of drying hay in the summer, the smell of crushed grass and mint together when you walk in the garden, and when I swim in the mountains the smell of soft water in a cool lake.

The smells of my experiences or a place in time, the smell of a baby, of a honeysuckle, of a chocolate soufflé coming out of the oven, and freshly brewing oolong tea; all these things have a special place in my memory and brings me an immediate joy.

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