What makes a fragrance great? Some may say that it’s a cult following, attention-grabbing marketing, display-worthy packaging, your favourite celebrity putting their face to its campaign — or, maybe, a combination of the above. For Marc Chaya, CEO of French luxury artisanal perfumery brand Maison Francis Kurkdjian, what makes a great fragrance is the genius of creativity.
A self-proclaimed activist driven by the need to correct the wrong of perfumers having been undermined in the past, Chaya speaks with a profound passion for art and creativity, despite his corporate background. He hadn’t initially considered a path in fragrance, but became bored in the business world (he had a successful career in finance and business management at Ernst and Young), which meant that a chance encounter at a dinner party with perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, the mastermind behind iconic fragrances such as Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, resulted in a 20-year partnership and the birth of a luxury perfumery brand steeped in artisanal craftsmanship in a world that can be very commercially driven.
“One day I met Francis and learnt that he was a perfumer. I love the arts, creativity, and perfume. As a Lebanese child I already had a collection of fragrances, many of which Francis had created, and I had had no idea. When we met at a dinner party, he told me he was a perfumer, had created Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male and Green Tea for Elizabeth Arden, and was working with Elie Saab at the time, who is a very famous Lebanese designer. I was like, ‘How come I don’t even know your name?’ From there, a friendship was born and we discovered that we share the same values when it comes to the vision of life, family, and friends, as well as a sense of aesthetics,” says Chaya.
Chaya has known the power and wonder of fragrance from a young age. Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, scent always surrounded him. “Lebanon is a Mediterranean country that is 200km long and 40km wide, but it has mountains and rivers and a seashore of 250km. You have all of these aromatic scents of nature — the pine tree is everywhere. The sea and the smell of the sea and the smell of nature getting scorched by the sun. The smell of jasmine, the smell of orange flower, the smell of my mom cooking — smell was everywhere. What I love is that smell takes us places. It is immediately linked to our memory. I have always loved scents, I have always been very open to scents, and I see beauty through scent.”
Many are aware of the global appeal of Maison Francis Kurkdjian, but not many know about the genius and commitment to craftsmanship that fuel the brand. What makes Maison Francis Kurkdjian different from other brands is that, while it has managed to attain global appeal and status, its primary goal has always centred on fostering the best possible environment for creative vision to thrive.
“What makes our maison unique is that it is a house of creation, it is not a house of marketing. It is a house of craftsmanship — we are artisans. We love the product and we try to create enchantment by letting the genius of creativity unfold in 3D — this is the specificity of the maison,” says Chaya.
Steering away from excessive marketing, paid celebrity endorsements, and limited visions hemmed in by strict budgets and marketing-driven briefs, the brand has allowed the art of perfumery to shine, giving perfumers a platform to create truly inspired work. “If the entire fragrance industry were on a table, we’d be turning the table upside down. This is the activist in me, in an industry that thrives on marketing, where, for many years, we have asked the creative mind to execute a marketing brief. For me, there was a highway of opportunity to let [perfumers] express their creative vision freely. This is where value comes in, this is where you are no longer within a trend but set trends, because creativity is a free world, it is seeing the unseen and creating the unexpected.”
The maison’s brand value of always putting vision first was responsible for Baccarat Rouge 540 — initially a limited edition that turned into a global phenomenon. When Francis created Baccarat Rouge 540, which now sits among the best-selling scents in the world, we did not use celebrities, we did not spend on mass marketing, we did not do media; the perfume was not even meant to be. This perfume was an idea that he had for the 250th anniversary of Baccarat and wanted to express in a scent — the alchemy and the fusion of making crystal.
Crystal, which is simply glass, but glass that is shinier, more beautiful, and really changes the experience of drinking water, for example… Artists in general reflect the era in which they live. They are avant-garde; they seem to see things before we do, but they are simply translating what they feel. They feel the moment that we are in and they are capable, thanks to their genius of creativity, to express it — it is the same in all forms of art. Baccarat Rouge is a new family in the scent world — this family did not exist before — a gourmand that is also airy. A gourmand that is amplified in such a light and beautiful way that it is almost delicate, because usually gourmands are sweet and heavy, and Baccarat Rouge has this light, almost invisible aura that is completely addictive. It is a scent that was not meant to be — it was limited to 250 bottles, but people were crazy about it and I felt that it would be a shame not to give it an opportunity to be appreciated by as many people as possible.”
What makes our Maison unique is that it is a house of creation, it is not a house of marketing. It is a house of craftsmanship
Though the brand has global appeal, notoriety, and iconic fragrances such as Baccarat Rouge 540 and Oud Satin Mood in its stable, its footprint is still quite small in comparison to that of other fragrance brands. It is kept this way to preserve the maison’s artisanal approach to craftsmanship and its philosophy that perfumery is art. Chaya has always believed that “what is made with time is respected by time”, and so scaling the business into a global brand without sacrificing creativity, craftsmanship, quality, luxury, and the ability to spark joy was no small feat.
“The brand has a global momentum and has gained global recognition, yet it is only available in 850 doors [stores]. A regular fragrance brand would be available in up to 60 000 doors. So, on the grand scale of things, we are maybe in 12% of the global network. We have the most beautiful doors globally and it took us 15 years to be in those 850 doors. Some brands can roll out in 3 000 doors overnight. Our strategy has always been step by step, building door by door and making sure that [each one] gives the best experience possible. Building long-standing partnerships with our network globally, making sure that there is a real love of the brand and a real understanding of what the brand stands for — it didn’t happen overnight.”
The artistic DNA of Maison Francis Kurkdjian also allows it to create spaces in which to invent outside of the bottle. With codes similar to that of a community of artists, the maison makes a point of facilitating conversations with artists and institutions such as the Palace of Versailles, bringing scent into everyday spaces to create wonderfully immersive experiences.
“We don’t collaborate, we call them conversations. What’s the difference? When you collaborate, you are starting from a marketing standpoint. You say, ‘Okay, this artist is trendy, people love them, let’s do something with them.’ Collaboration has a commercial ending and interest. A conversation is free and artists have always talked to each other. With Francis, since our very beginning, his dream was to scent the fountains of Versailles — there is no commercial return, it even cost us money, but the beauty of that is to create something that is uplifting. To go into the beautiful gardens of Versailles in 2007 and to see scented bubbles, to see a scented fountain, is something that generates a dream.
“Since we’ve started the maison, we’ve offered Francis a platform of freedom to create outside of the fragrance bottle. Because when you create inside the fragrance bottle, it goes on the skin, it is within a certain pattern; it’s happy, it’s sensual, it is soothing, it is positive. But in art, you can also express the negative. With a painting, you can describe war or death, but when you put the perfume in the bottle you cannot do that.
“When you take perfume outside the bottle, you can do something that Francis did with a Syrian artist — describing the suffering in Syria during the Syrian war with nails in wax that were melting on a hot platform, releasing the smell of jasmine, sand, and blood. These are things you can express through art.
“When we did the collaboration with Versailles, we didn’t expect that it would become so successful globally, it was just an idea. Francis met the chief gardener of Versailles and there was this beautiful land that had been abandoned and they were thinking about how to give it new life and Francis said, ‘You know, Versailles was the capital of perfume at some stage. It was the place where big perfumers created extraordinary scents and it is within the court of Versailles that people started wearing perfume. Marie Antoinette had her own perfumer.’ So we decided to fund it. It is an experience that takes you outside of time, as though you are suspended in time. And this is what we love to do.”
With the introduction of new digital technologies, specifically AI, the way that we create is changing. While most would be threatened by technology’s impact on the traditional approach to fragrances, for Chaya and Maison Francis Kurkdjian it’s just another tool to amplify innovation and create more immersive experiences.
“Art has evolved throughout our history — from primitivism to modernity, art has always expressed the time in which we live. AI is a tool at our service. It is not going to replace a perfumer, but it can give the perfumer more power. For example, Francis uses AI to understand why a scent diffuses or doesn’t diffuse. Sometimes you mix beautiful essential oils together and the smell is extraordinary, but it doesn’t diffuse. So AI can help us analyse different patterns and understand why this happens. AI can help you create new forms of art that are more immersive and can accelerate virtual reality — and maybe accelerate store design.
Since our very beginning, even before starting the maison, [francis’s] dream was to scent the fountains of versailles
Recently, we were with our team, talking about our laundry detergent and our fabric softener, which is under the scent of Aqua Universalis. Francis was talking about this campaign where he wanted to see Paris with a lot of laundry outside the windows, like you see in Portugal or Spain. In Paris, you cannot do that. We told AI that we wanted to see Paris with clothes hanging out of the windows, just to see if this idea could resonate artistically, and it was fabulous. AI is a tool but it’s not going to replace you,” explains Chaya.
So, what makes a fragrance truly great? For Maison Francis Kurkdjian, the answer goes beyond the bottle. At its core, perfumery is artistic expression. It’s the perfumer’s ability to create a high-quality, well-structured scent that transcends time.
“You have a beautiful scent that nests in a beautiful bottle. We’re not selling you a brand that a celebrity is wearing. We’re telling you a story that comes from the guts of a creator in a beautiful store that builds an uplifting experience. All of this together creates an ecosystem. That is what I call luxury — the extraordinary genius of creativity, extraordinary craft, and extraordinary experience.”
• From the 2023/2024 edition of Wanted Watches, Jewellery and Luxury.