by jeffrey slonim
photography by Laura Moss | November 1, 2011 | People
Kilian Hennessy, Calice Becker, and Elisabeth Noel Jones
Kilian Hennessy evaluates materials at the Givaudan lab
Hennessy tests a new formula in the Night Jewels collection on Elisabeth Noel Jones
Sweet Redemption, the End, and its luxurious black box
Shelves of raw materials at the fragrance lab
Travel bottles from L’OEuvre Noire collection
Years ago I read in an etiquette manual that a British gentleman never wears a scent. True or false, it stuck with me and I have kept a similar perspective on fragrance. But recently I enjoyed an education from the renowned purveyor Kilian Hennessy, a dashing 39-year-old Frenchman who founded the New York-based eco-luxe unisex fragrance line By Kilian. As we spoke, he was about to launch Sweet Redemption, the End, the 10th and final scent in his L’OEuvre Noire (Black Masterpiece) series.
Hennessy spent much of his youth at St. Brice Château, the family seat in Cognac. Later he studied at the Sorbonne and trained with the great noses of France, then developed scents for Georgio Armani, Christian Dior, and Alexander McQueen. When in the US, he lives in Dumbo with his life and business partner, Elisabeth Noel Jones, a raven-haired beauty and former fragrance buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, where she was the buyer who first believed in his fragrance. Their relationship blossomed as he constantly sought her advice. “We would talk on the phone every day,” she said. “Our lives were on the same path. His company was like our baby.” She is now CEO of By Kilian Inc.
A Scent to Be Reckoned With
With a luxuriant, vichyssoise-thick accent, Hennessy explained the genesis of his latest scent with such intelligence that he drew this writer beyond his current scent inhibition and across town to tour the lab where it was created. “It had to be a tad dramatic to underline the finale,” Hennessy noted. With Sweet Redemption, the End, he aspired to cork “absolution from sin” in an engraved bottle nestled on a bed of black satin in a black lacquered wooden box complete with lock and key.
His packaging epiphany for L’OEuvre Noire occurred at the Baccarat House in Paris the night before Hennessy resigned from his job at L’Oréal. “After a dinner I stayed two hours in the tiny museum at their exhibit on a century of Baccarat perfume bottles, and it clicked,” Hennessy said. “My customer was entitled to the luxury of perfumes created a century ago.”
Sweet Redemption was formulated at the Swiss-owned Givaudan lab on 57th Street, an outpost of the world’s largest fragrance manufacturer. Historically the lab produced all Yves Saint Laurent fragrances, and today the majority of those on the top 10 list. Nonetheless, Hennessy whipped up the Sweet Redemption concept at 20,000 feet. “I love to come up with fragrance ideas on planes,” he said. “What came to mind was Goethe’s Faust. He already has a great deal, but he wants more. He accepts the Devil’s deal.”
Likely reclining in business class, Hennessy began translating the allegory to scent. “The Devil attracts you with honey and sugar. Sweet Redemption, the top notes, had to present this battle of good and evil.”
Behind the Fragrance Magic
Hennessy handed his precise notes to French master perfumer Calice Becker, an industry superstar, who has formulated eight of 10 scents in the series since 2006, as well as J’Adore for Christian Dior, Beyond Paradise for Estée Lauder, and Secret Obsession for Calvin Klein. “Sweet Redemption is love without sexual tension,” offered Becker. “I used orange flower with broom flower, like honey and a little bergamot to give it a lift at the beginning.”
Becker, my tour guide at the lab, wore a trim checked coat by Michael Kors. Her desk was covered with small drums of fragrance solutions with the white smelling strips, which she dips and sniffs at arm’s length. She loads a formula into a spreadsheet on her computer. “I write a formula like a kitchen recipe,” said Becker, whose talent as a nose was noted by her parents at a young age. When finished, she presses “send to lab.”
Down a sleek hall with one glass wall, female technicians stood before similar computer monitors. They scanned the labels on drums by infrared for accuracy and used pipettes to drip natural and chemical oils into the bottle on a scale. They formulated a pure oil solution, then put that in alcohol. Behind them thin robotic arms were surrounded by a metropolis of drums containing more common oils. “Some ingredients are quite expensive,” admitted Becker of the absolute orange leaf and opoponax. “But Kilian says, ‘Calice, add what is correct; don’t look at price.’”
Trials can take 18 months. “But I loved it as is,” enthused Hennessy, calling Sweet Redemption’s formula, which required only a month to create, “a gift from God. There wasn’t a single rework.”
ON KILIAN: Tuxedo jacket, Tom Ford; pants, J Brand; made-to-measure shirt, JLR; shoes, Berlutti. ON ELISABETH: Dress, Diane Von Furstenberg; jewelry, Paige Novick; boots, Christian Louboutin