Interview with Fanny Bal July 9, 2020
A New Generation’s Perspective
A deep dive into the mind of one of the industry’s most promising young perfumers – her relationship with naturals, how she’s using them, and why they should be celebrated.
With over 36 perfumes catalogued in the Fragrantica database, all made within the last four years, young perfumer Fanny Bal is increasingly establishing herself as an efficacious, talented and influential force both within the industry and on retail shelves. Starting her training in chemistry at the Université de Lyon, followed by the Université de Versailles and Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique Alimentaire her big break came at International Flavors and Fragrances through the great aptitude she demonstrated as the apprentice to venerable perfumer Dominique Ropion. Today, she is part of a cohort of elite perfumers tackling projects for both the world’s biggest brands as well as experimental briefs that allow her creative enthusiasm to blossom.
With an olfactory appetite rooted in the love of everyday smells, and a mind set on innovation, this interview meanders through her current thoughts on naturals.
Eddie Bulliqi [EB]: What is your own relationship to natural oils?
Fanny Bal [FB]: They’re a great source of inspiration because of their incredible complexity; each natural essential oil or absolute is a perfume formula in itself, as it contains hundreds of individual ingredients. Because of their complexity, they have as many facets as a perfumer wants to imagine, allowing me to fashion them at will, to emphasise each time a different facet.
EB: What if we didn’t have naturals – what would we lose in culture and in perfumery?
FB: First, a reminder: what we call modern perfumery, which started at the end of the 19th century with the Guerlain, Chanel, and Patou perfumes, was made possible by the combination of contemporary distillation and extraction techniques to obtain natural essences, alongside the development of organic chemistry to synthesise some key molecules – the aldehydes and the coumarin, for instance. If we lost naturals we would lose their magical complexity. It would be impossible to fully replicate the olfactive multi-dimensional profiles of our naturals with synthetics.
EB: Do you think that perfumers who have lived and had most of their formative experiences in cities possess a different angle on naturals than the traditional Grasse-born heritage perfumers? Is the city-dwelling perfumer at an advantage or disadvantage?
FB: I don’t think it’s an advantage no a disadvantage. Each perfumery student comes with their own culture and background, and learns to own each of the ingredients of the perfumery palette through their own sensitivity, memories, and culture. It’s neither a negative nor a positive, it’s just a different point of view.
EB: What are your favourite natural themes and why?
FB: I love flowers, and floral themes. For instance, for one single ingredient like rose we have close to 10 different essences, which each smell different and allow for a different interpretation of the many rose facets, some like fresh rose petals in a rose garden, others more animalic, green, with artichoke-like notes (yes, artichokes!); others again smell more fruity and animalic. All of these different expressions of flowers explain why I love working with them so much; I feel like there’s no end to discovering new olfactive aspects.
EB: For future compositions, which naturals are currently inspiring you and what type of scent structures are you using them in?
FB: Flowers are my constant theme of inspiration. They can be both the easiest ingredients because they’re so familiar, but that’s also what makes them so difficult it’s hard to create florals which haven’t already been imagined by perfumers in the past. My personal challenge would be, for instance, to create a masculine orange flower and uncover new facets of this highly traditional but beautiful ingredient. In Frédéric Malle’s Cologne Indélébile, I focused on orange flower with tons of musks to make it genderless and skin-soft.
EB: What about improving nature? Are there any natural materials that sometimes get in your way and you wish you had this aspect tipped and tucked?
FB: Some frustrating flowers are what we call “mute flowers”: they smell gorgeous but cannot be naturally extracted, like lily of the valley, freesia, gardenia, honeysuckle and many others. To have access to a lily of the valley note, a perfumer must act like an impressionist painter, recreating their own interpretation of the flower. I love the smell of lily of the valley – green, fresh, dewy, floral and crystalline. It would have been amazing if nature had made this flower a little bit more generous to us perfumers, and if it had allowed us to extract it fully!
EB: Do you prefer using naturals with simpler profiles that you can build up like individual music notes, or already orchestral, complex oils that require careful implementation and tempering?
FB: I like both; the expertise of a perfumer is to find in a formula the perfect balance, and the best way to harmonise both simple and complex naturals to make them all stand out for their own beauty, and for each to have their own reason to be there.
EB: The industry push towards artificial intelligence in the past two years is quite remarkable. An awkward question for you – do you think AI is more or less likely to choose natural materials to fulfil brand goals than a human? Can AI be in love with naturals like we are?
FB: I’m not afraid of AI. I believe it can be like Waze (the GPS) for a perfumer. As a driver, are you afraid of Waze? AI can allow perfumers to get guidance from the algorithm, when needed, particularly for very new ingredients, to understand faster how to use them; or to think completely out of the box, with combinations we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.
EB: When selecting your oils, what are the most important factors for you? Ethical sourcing? A surprising odour profile? A best-in-class biochemical skeleton?
FB: My first criteria will be its odour profile, of course. Sustainability is also always at the core of everything we do, selecting oils of ethical sourcing that have a positive impact on the environment and the communities we interact with around the world.
EB: Emotional storytelling with scent has never been more important than it is today – do you believe you can captivate and entrance consumers’ emotions more with naturalistic accords that people are very familiar with from daily life, or do you find that it’s the unusual and never-smelled-before olfactory ideas that excite you and your clients the most?
FB: I love to develop scents out of the familiar realm, to bring new olfactive emotions and sensations. I’m an absolute addict for pastry and spend a big portion of my free time either tasting pastry or baking it. I find pastry to be extremely connected to my job as a perfumer: it requires a similar kind of precision, and perfect command of ingredients, and hundreds of trials to get to the right balance. It’s a constant source of inspiration, both already very familiar but always capable of bringing unexpected flavours, too.
EB: Another enthralling aspect of the naturals story is the people behind them – do you have any anecdotes you’d like to share about the people involved in the naturals industry that you’ve met over your career so far?
FB: Last year, I was lucky to go to Turkey with a customer, during the rose harvest. When I entered our plant in Isparta, I went into the room where they store the freshly cut roses before putting them in the distillation stills. I was blown away by the intensity of the smell. It smelled like fresh rose, a uniquely intoxicating scent which I had only imagined until then. Seeing the pickers in the field, picking each flower as if each was a precious diamond, was a particularly moving moment.
EB: What is your hope for naturals in the future?
FB: I’m looking forward to the future possibilities nature has yet to offer: discovering new botanicals for perfumery, discovering techniques which will allow us to extract lily of the valley.
EB: Lastly, what’s one naturals-based accord you’re currently working on that’s really exciting you?
FB: I’m currently finalising a creative “carte blanche” exercise we conduct every year, called the Speed Smelling, which is sold to consumers in a collectible box with the creations of all Paris perfumers. This year, it’s called Slow Smelling, to entice perfume users to take time to indulge. My Slow Smelling note for this year is an accord around Lentisque, a very green herbaceous resinous note, and vetiver from Haiti, a beautiful quality which has refined the heart of the essence to focus on its fresher grapefruit aspects.