You can say that Patricia de Nicolaï was born to be a perfumer, since she was born in the Guerlain family. But Patricia has come a long way, and has achieved many important goals during her career (included the nomination as Chevalier in France’s Legion of Honor), to just name one. Together with her husband, she has founded The Nicolaï universe, a space of creativity, innovation and, most of all, open to everyone, both women and men.
Inspired by her path, we asked Patricia about what’s it really like to be a perfumer, her latest scent “Riviera Verbena” inspired by Italy, and finding the right notes to give life to always new and original fragrances. P.s. We didn’t speak of “notes” by chance…
How did your career in the fragrances world begin? Were you influenced by your family somehow or did you decide later on that you wanted to pursue this career?
I really felt that I wanted to be a perfumer during the many internships I did while I was at the ISIPCA (perfume school in Versailles) and especially when I was working in labs. Before that, I did not really know if this was the path I wanted to follow…When I was young, I was of course surrounded by perfumes that unconsciously structured my olfactory taste and my passion for great and harmonious scents. I studied chemistry and then I actually found ISIPCA very randomly in a School center. But really the internships were the signs that gave me the idea that I would be a perfumer and nothing else. After my graduation, I did not feel strong family support…To them, the family destiny had to be in the “nose” of a man!
Therefore I worked as a young perfumer in compositions companies and after 6 years we created with my husband the brand NICOLAÏ.
You are a “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur”, you’ve won many prizes and you’ve covered many important roles in your life, besides having found NICOLAÏ. How’s the journey been so far? What’s the memory you feel the proudest of?
So far the journey has been great for me. I’m indeed very proud of all the distinctions I received and besides NICOLAÏ, I’m proud of my commitment to the perfume world and especially the work I did when I was President of the Osmothèque (the unique international conservatory of fragrances). Under my presidency, the association got more recognition and grew the attention that our work is patrimonial and that it has to be carefully looked after. It’s part of a general trend where all activities look at their past to understand the present. Nowadays in the perfume field, everybody knows the Osmothèque and I was happy to be an active advocate in order to promote this job as an art.
“I studied chemistry and then I actually found ISIPCA very randomly in a School center. But really the internships were the signs that gave me the idea that I would be a perfumer and nothing else. After my graduation, I did not feel strong family support…To them, the family’s destiny had to be in the ‘nose‘ of a man!”
I’ve read that, at the beginning of your career, you faced gender discrimination inside the perfume industry. Has the situation changed over the years? And, speaking about that, what challenges have you experienced and how did you overcome them?
It has clearly improved from my younger years! After my studies, I was looking for a job as a junior perfumer and as a woman, it was not easy…I remember that when I was an intern, I was always offered internships in evaluation/sales but never in creation. This gender discrimination was not fair, but that was the norm back then. However, I have to say that things have now changed. There are a lot of women now in the creation and who have achieved recognition as Perfumers. Actually, 80% of the ISIPCA master candidates are women. Therefore, the creative teams in the modern perfume business are very much feminized. Clearly, discrimination has been shaded off with regard to what I lived.
I actually think that this is a general tendency not only in the Perfume world. If you look at law or medicine schools you get more and more female students. I also think that one of the most important challenges was to conciliate my professional and family life. I got 2 kids when I was working as a young perfumer in the composition companies and when I was pregnant with my third child I actually wanted to have a break…My husband Jean-Louis was completely against it! He thought that if I took a break, it would have been over for my career…And he probably was right…And then he got THE idea to start our own business so that I was able to well balance my professional and family life.
What does it mean to you to be a female “nose”?
To be honest I don’t see a difference…To me, no matter if you are a man or a woman, a perfumer is above all an artist.
What are the main values of NICOLAÏ fragrances?
I would probably say authenticity, independence, refinement, innovation, and Parisian elegance.
Where do you get the majority of your ingredients from?
From the best suppliers of Grasse, the best “Stock Market” of raw materials in the world! It’s in Grasse where you find the best know-how, especially in the treatments of natural ingredients.
Please, tell us about your new fragrance inspired by Italy…
I was clearly inspired by Italy for the name « Riviera Verbena » but the fragrance is more of a tribute to the French Riviera. The French Riviera is indeed a wonderful inspiration for any perfumer who is looking to personify in its creations. At the end of the wintertime, when you have a stroll in the South of France, you are immediately seized by a whirlpool of fantastic scents! Besides, don’t we say that the boundaries of the country of Grasse are flowers? It is this emotion – in this springtime and luxurious atmosphere that exalts senses – that I wanted to recreate with Riviera Verbena.
What’s the NICOLAÏ fragrance you are most proud of and why?
There are so many of them! It’s a hard pick, it’s like choosing which child you prefer…However, if I really had no choice to choose, I would probably say Baikal Leather Intense which is a great leather fragrance with a very nice and attractive yuzu start, but also Cap Néroli because I love orange flower scent, and finally Poudre de Musc Intense which has a wonderful and pleasant lasting trail.
What’s, instead, a fragrance that you would love to create in the future?
Probably music which is my second passion. In my new life, I will be a music composer. Arranging notes, looking for harmonies, evoking emotion…It is actually not very far from my current job!
Your must-have while creating a new fragrance.
A good team with me in the lab in order to discuss and evaluate the evolution of one formula during the fragrance-creating process.
“At the end of the wintertime, when you have a stroll in the South of France, you are immediately seized by a whirlpool of fantastic scents! Besides, don’t we say that the boundaries of the country of Grasse are flowers?”
In what ways, wearing a fragrance makes you feel yourself, and comfortable in your own skin?
The fragrance is the final touch of your daily routine. It’s part of your personality. Choosing a fragrance that suits you is a difficult but important decision. It reflects your soul, it needs to surprise and above all give you confidence.
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Launching NICOLAÏ ! When my husband offered me to launch the brand at the end of the Eighties, it was a complete leap in the dark…It was a time when niche perfume brands were quasi-invisible. Of course, you had brands like Diptyque, L’Artisan Parfumeur, and Annick Goutal, but that’s it, nobody really knew them at that time…It was a brave thing to make it and I’m proud we succeeded and be part of the pioneers of the movement. And proud as well to still remain independent which is not the case for the others anymore!
Who or what inspires you on the job, but also in your everyday life?
Creating a fragrance is a difficult process with ups and downs. You have to follow a daily discipline to go forward in the creations that sometimes lead you to the path of doubts because you are stuck… Therefore, it’s important to have a well-balanced affective life. I like to be close to my family, my friends, and the people I love. Raw materials in my lab can be inspirational, as well as travels or new people.